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The best championship you’ve probably never heard of

When you think of locations for top-class motorsport in the month of January, i’m guessing that ‘a warehouse in Milton Keynes’ will probably not be part of your list. But, it absolutely should be.

For this warehouse is the location of Formula Fast Indoor Karting where, on the third weekend of January, 100 drivers from over ten countries came together for the British Rental Kart Championship. The British Rental Kart Championship, or the BRKC as it is known as, is effectively the British indoor karting championship and is the UK qualifier for the Kart World Championship, formerly the Indoor Kart World Championship.

The BRKC started back in 2011 as the brainchild of Bradley Philpot. Philpot, himself a former competitor in the Indoor Kart World Championship and now a regular Peugeot driver in the VLN endurance series, saw a gap in the British market for a professional and competitive series for karters without the budget or time to go racing with their own machinery. For the first three years, the series was a six-round, multi-circuit outdoor championship. Then from 2014 the series changed to a one-weekend-a-year format, and Formula Fast became its permanent home. The change was inspired by Philpot wanting the series to fall in line with other countries’ Kart World Championship qualifiers. Since then the BRKC has gone from strength to strength and attracts some of the very best indoor kart drivers from around the world.

BRKC 2018 was my fourth consecutive year racing in the series and results to date have been fairly good. Out of a sell-out capacity of 100 drivers, my results have been 28th in 2015, 34th in 2016 and a quite amazing 17th last year. Chances of repeating that result this year were quite low due to a combination of a lack of recent racing on my part, but also due to the increasingly impressive quality of entrants the series attracts each year. Long-time BRKC commentator James Auld summed it up beautifully during our Friday afternoon practice day chat. ‘At every circuit in the country there will be that one driver who is several tenths faster than all the others there, that one circuit specialist. Well this series is basically a hundred of those circuit specialists coming together for one weekend of great racing.’ It’s not only the UK contingent that makes the BRKC, but for 2018 there were no fewer than forty drivers making the trip from various parts of Europe to Milton Keynes. This truly international competition is part of what makes the BRKC so captivating. Of my 26 years of kart racing, BRKC 2018 was the toughest competition I have been part of.

Names such as Matthias Grooten, Yoan Medart, Greg Laporte and Thom van Dijk will mean nothing to most motorsport fans, but these are currently some of the best in the relatively niche sport of indoor karting. One driver who can claim to possibly be the best driver to ever sit in an indoor kart is Dutchman Ruben Boutens. Boutens is a four-time BRKC champion (he has won every year at Formula Fast) and is the current Kart World Champion having taken the title last summer in Spain. He has won a host of other national titles around Europe too. As well as being a very approachable young man, he is also a true athlete who regularly runs marathons as a way to keep as fit as possible for his racing. To put the quality of all these guys into context, Stoffel Vandoorne (current McLaren Formula One driver) still regularly takes part in some of the European competitions, as does ex-F1 driver Giorgio Pantano. Boutens and the like regularly beat them.

The format of the BRKC has remained unchanged since moving to Formula Fast. Friday is official practice day where each driver is allowed up to three fifteen minute sessions to familiarise themselves with the track, karts and the pit stop procedure. The racing takes place on both Saturday and Sunday when each driver will take part in four heat races (usually two per day) with ten drivers in each heat. Each heat race is twenty minutes long and drivers must make one strategic pit stop during the race. The starting order for each heat is determined by a one-lap qualifying shoot-out. After all the heats are completed the top thirty points scorers move into one of the three semi-finals. As Auld always says, the semis are not knockout races but ‘a right to continue scoring’. After that the top ten points scorers move into the winner-takes-all final.

The proper build-up to BRKC begins the weekend before the track action gets underway, for there is the small matter of the ‘race draw’. This draw is streamed live on the official series YouTube channel and by the end of the draw each driver knows which heat races they will be in and who they will be racing against. I didn’t watch the race draw live this year; ironically I was getting some much needed indoor practice at a circuit in Nottingham. Later that evening I eagerly perused the draw. Among those I was set to be racing in my heats were Medart, Philpot, Sean Brierley (current KWC team champion as part of Team GB) and, yes, Ruben Boutens! There were also numerous foreign names I didn’t recognise. As they would be taking the time and expense to travel to the UK for the competition, I was guessing they would be quite good.

Host circuit Formula Fast is located in the Bletchley area of Milton Keynes, just a stone’s throw from the MK Dons stadium with the Red Bull Formula One factory just a few minutes down the road.  The company was set up some years ago by Ollie Demetrios Fox and Phil Stanley, and moved into its current location in 2013. From a driver prospective, Formula Fast is as good as they come. The attention to detail of every aspect of the racing experience coupled with the knowledgeable staff makes it a joy to spend time at. Their fleet of Sodi GT5 karts are beautifully well-kept and the parity – extremely important in championships such as the BRKC – is the best I have ever come across. The entire fleet is checked every day during the competition and the tolerance aim between the fastest and slowest kart is just 0.2 seconds per lap. For the BRKC, things get even better. Laser-controlled pit stops are installed. Darren Cook and his Scruffy Bear Pictures production company are bought in to film and stream live to YouTube every piece of the action. James Auld and Richard ‘Spanners’ Ready are added to talk us at the circuit (and those watching at home) through every moment of the weekend. The BRKC truly is a top-class event.

The production room at the BRKC is a hive of activity all weekend long

My weekend on track started on Friday afternoon with the first of three practice sessions. I lowered my 15kg seat insert (each driver must weigh 90kg including any weight which needs to be added) and settled into the seat. Feeling reasonably comfortable, I headed out on track. Fifteen minutes later I returned to the pit lane feeling quite good about the session. Study of the lap times showed I had the second fastest lap of the day so far, just 0.004 seconds slower than Sean Brierley. My second and third sessions were spent trying to get some race consistency and also working on the pit stop procedure. As mentioned before, each BRKC heat race requires every driver to make one pit stop during the twenty minutes. Stops on the first and last laps are not allowed. There is no speed limit in the pit lane, instead speed is automatically controlled by two laser light systems. Essentially karts have to stay within the ‘stop areas’ for a set amount of time. Leaving too early means a penalty. Leaving too late means valuable race time lost. It’s a fine balance but one that would be the downfall of a number of drivers over the course of the weekend.

Racing began on Saturday morning at 8.00am with the first of the forty heat races. As my first race was not until just after midday, I watched the first couple of heats from the comfort of my hotel room via the excellent live YouTube footage. Already the pit stops had caused problems for some drivers. Lee Hackett, two-time BRKC champion in the series’ multi-circuit guise, had thrown away a certain top three position in his first heat with an error in the stops. He had to settle for tenth and last place in his first heat. His shot at making the final had already gone.

I knew both my heats on Saturday would be very tough, and they turned out to be just that. My first heat included Medart, Philpot and Brierley. I qualified fifth with the aforementioned drivers in front of me. The front four pulled slowly away leaving me to fend off Tyler Mays who made an early pit stop to try to get himself out of his lower than expected grid position. Eventually I came in a few seconds ahead of Mays to finish fifth and put six points on the board. My second heat, now on the alternate layout, was a little tougher. Qualifying fourth I soon had local man Kim Enson breathing down my neck. Kim pitted in the hope of passing me in the stops, but my own stop on the very next lap was good enough to come out just in front of him. There started ten minutes of defensive driving under great pressure from Enson who was doing all he could to force a mistake at my end. I held my nerve and finished fourth. Day one completed with a total of 13 points out of a possible 20 on the board.

With a 32-second lap time, the circuit at Formula Fast is quite the norm in terms of length for an indoor track here in the UK. Compared to some others in the country though, this one is fairly narrow. This makes passing very difficult indeed, especially as the drivers in the BRKC are so close in terms of speed and skill level. Overtakes need to be made confidently and assertively, if not things can go wrong fairly quickly. To counteract the difficulty (but not impossibility) of overtaking here, the pit stops are used to allow different race strategies, and this is part of what make BRKC races so interesting with often two or three different strategies being run by different drivers in any one race. To counteract the knowledge of the ‘local’ drivers, the second and third sets of heats are raced on the ‘alternate’ layout – a version of the track which no driver has seen before the competition.

Sunday brought the remainder of the heat races. For me a fourth place in my first heat of the day left me reasonably satisfied. From a fifth place qualifying I made a successful dive down the inside of Dan Truman at the hairpin after the main straight. From there I kept the gap behind me to Belgian driver Andy Meulemeester to the end of the race. My final heat was a little disappointing. Another fifth in qualifying in a kart I wasn’t confident in was not too bad. However a slow pit stop meant I was passed by Polish driver Slawek Piskorz as I left the pits, dropping me to sixth where I stayed until the end.  All my heat races were now over, with 24 points out of a possible 40.

Mat Bartsch on his way to a heat win on the Sunday morning

By late Sunday afternoon all the heats were finished and the top 30 drivers progressing through to the semi-finals were announced. Unfortunately this year I was not one of them. At 41st my position was my worst so far in the BRKC, but with the increased quality of the field I was ok with that. A look at the scoreboard showed I finished one place higher than former women’s champion Annalien Boutens and 17 places higher than former Formula Two racer Ramon Pinero. I can’t complain too much about that.

Of the thirty drivers in the semi-finals, 15 were from the UK and 15 from Europe. Indoor karting is a big thing on the European mainland so it’s no wonder that the drivers who make the trip over the channel each year do so well in the BRKC. The quality of karts and circuits available to the European drivers is very high, with tracks such as Eupen in Belgium and Racehall in Denmark being two of the very best. There the lengths of circuits regularly make for lap times of over a minute, with many incorporating outdoor sections of track with their normal indoor layouts. Belgium is the home to what has become the best indoor karting team in Europe – Blue Star Racing – of which a small number were competing at BRKC 2018. It was no surprise when they took home the title of Teams Champions at the end of the weekend.

On completion of the semi finals there was a small delay whilst the organisers made sure all their points calculations were correct, before revealing the ten drivers through to the final. Those drivers were revealed as Bjorn Vermuelen, Mat Bartsch, Sam Spinnael, Yoan Medart, Thom Van Dijk and Ruben Boutens along with Brits Chris Daines, Ed White, Jonny Elliott and local man Lewis Manly. Qualifying for the final has a slightly different format in that the one-lap shootout takes place in the same kart to make it as fair as possible. With the pressure on, the ten drivers performed remarkably well and were all separated by just three-tenths of a second. Medart put in the best lap to go pole from Boutens by just 0.003 seconds!

The final of the BRKC is something I will probably never get to experience from a driving point of view. That said, the spectator experience is probably just as good. Of all the motorsport I will watch this year I can bet that this was one of the best of them all. Increased to thirty minutes and containing two mandatory pit stops for each driver, coupled with a prize pot of £1,000 for the winner and free entries to the Kart World Championship for the top three, there is a lot at stake. The train of karts coming out of the last corner to take the green flag start is a sight to behold from the thronged spectator area above the pits. Medart led away with Boutens on his tracks. After a few tours Boutens made his signature lunge at the end of the back straight to put a move on his Blue Star team mate. The move was hard but deemed fair and, with no complaints from Medart, Boutens slowly pulled away at the front of the pack. Various strategies played out with the drivers further down the field and the moves on track were hard fought. One of the final pit stops to be made was by youngster Thom Van Dijk who had been running largely on his own for most of the race. He emerged from the pits between Boutens and Medart and started to close down the four seconds to the leader. With just a few minutes left though there was not enough time, leaving Ruben Boutens to claim his fifth straight BRKC crown, with Van Dijk in second and Medart rounding out the podium. The honour of top British driver was taken by Ed White in fourth.

Rubens Boutens celebrates his fifth consecutive BRKC title

So there we have it. The British Rental Kart Championship is over for another year. It will return in 2019 bigger and better again. For those who think that indoor karting is just for stag do’s and racing your workmates, you couldn’t be more wrong. This warehouse in Milton Keynes has just seen some of the most skilled drivers in the world. As my fellow competitor Alex Vangeen said just after the final race, ‘That was pure world-class sport.’ It certainly was.

 

Feature Image Credit – Tim Andrew Photography

Other Images – Tim Andrew Photography

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