As I wriggled out of the ill-fitting seat, sweat pouring down my forehead and arms sore after an energy-sapping 30 tours of the small karting track in Kharadi, two things struck me – even at the grass-root karting level, fitness is something you simply can’t ignore and you need tremendous amounts of concentration to last anything more than five laps in even the most basic karts.
But let’s start at the beginning. Six-time karting champion Rayomand Banajee’s team, Rayo Racing, has, since 2006, been grooming young and promising talent in India. His training camps are revered across the country and the talent he has propelled into the top leagues includes Ameya Bafna, the current national karting champion. So, obviously, we jumped at the opportunity to cover and participate in one of Rayo Racing’s training camps.
Getting to grips
I’d be lying if I said I had come prepared for this event. The potent combination of the severe heat, a tight and twisty track and the stinging calidity of the kart’s engine – placed barely a few inches away from where you’re sat – seeping through the thin seat isn’t something I was expecting. But, as we got on with our initial five-lap familiarisation drive, it quickly became apparent that the participants weren’t here to just muck around. There was a line-up of enthusiasm represented by an age group that ranged from five-year-olds to 25-year-olds. The course we had enlisted in was the basic programme; one that would help us get to grips with the foundations of driving a kart. Everything from the correct seating position, the 10-to-two hands-to-steering position and even the absolute necessity to remain hydrated during such an event was covered by Rayomand.
The first test was a slalom course laid out on the start-finish straight with the help of karting tyres. How hard can it be, right? So I jumped in, strapped my helmet on, and went straight for it. As I weaved past each tyre, hard on the accelerator, I had a smug smile on my face as it dawned on me that this was as easy as I thought it would be (in hindsight, rather prematurely I must admit). My jubilation, however, came to an abrupt end as I looked back on my progress. I had misjudged the width of the kart and three of the seven tyres lay strewn across the track, almost as if they were taunting my incompetence. Test one failed, then.
Next was a braking test. A set of tyres were placed in the form of a box, with only the bottom end kept open, into which we were supposed to come to a screeching halt after building up enough speed along the straight. Mindful of my recent failure, I approached this test a touch more cautiously. By now, I was sweating profusely and concentration levels were low as the temperature kept rising. Keen to do a good job though, I pushed on and managed a semi-decent parking into the slot.
However, further adding insult to injury was the fact that I was one of the worst of the lot at this task. Participants more than 10 years younger were much better off than I was. The lunch break was a welcome respite as I got to cool down and discuss what I was doing wrong with Rayomand.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make when they come here is that they try to show off. This is not a programme to prove your skills, it’s to develop them. Ease into the kart, get a feel for how much grip and power it has, put the power down gradually and learn your limits,” Rayomand advised.
With lunch out of the way, Rayomand got to the topic of the ‘racing line’. Simply put, this ‘line’ is the fastest way around a circuit. With the help of strategically-placed cones at all the apexes (the mid-point of a corner where a car reaches the inner-most point of that particular turn) around the track, we were trained to take the fastest way through a corner to set the fastest lap time. This required serious discipline, and by this point, the seat was scalding hot thanks to the heat emanated by the perilously-close engine. Again, this was causing me to wriggle uncomfortably in the seat as I drove past the cones, dropping quite a few of them on the way. The only redeeming factor being that with each successive lap, my lines improved and, subsequently, so did my lap times.
After the hectic first day, Rayomand promised us that the second day would be “centered more around fun”. On the assumption that we had learned our lessons from the previous day well enough, he said that we’d have to string close to 40 laps without a break. This was quite a task for the novices, not so much for the ones who did this day in and day out. Oh, and all our laps would be recorded this time around to see who was fastest over the day. Gulp.
Armed with the pointers I had received the previous day, I set out and hammered in the laps. There was the expected drop-off in concentration as the heat refused to quit and the engine refused to move further away from my seat. Nonetheless, I pushed on and made the most of it. It took quite some practice but the previous day’s brake tests, slalom practice and racing line tactics all played their part in making me a better driver.
It was blatantly evident to even the untrained eye to see that my lines were neater, my mistakes curtailed, and my focus just that little bit sharper, as I wasted less energy by driving with technique rather than with the accuracy of a toddler’s first steps.
What did I learn, then? Technique is important, as is fitness. And while these may be just bottom-rung, four-stroke, 6.8bhp karts, there’s no doubting the value a trained instructor like Rayomand Banajee brings to the table. Now, if only they could do something about those damned ill-fitting seats.