Ex-Ferrari engineer launches new karting league to find ‘Lionel Messi’ of F1

Sam Cooper
Rob Smedley

Ex-Ferrari and Williams Rob Smedley has launched his own karting league.

Former Ferrari and Williams team member Rob Smedley has launched a karting league designed to make it easier for young drivers to get time behind the wheel.

Global Karting League (GKL) is a new initiative aimed at increasing participation in underrepresented groups by removing the often multi million pound costs needed to compete.

Smedley believes this approach will unearth the Lionel Messi of Formula 1 with the theory that the sport’s best ever driver may not have even raced a lap yet.

‘Lionel Messi of F1’ has yet to be found says Ferrari engineer

Before you even get to single seaters, the price to compete in motorsport makes it one of the least accessible sports in the world.

Families can be expected to pay tens of thousands of pounds to even allow their child to go karting and the further up the ladder you go, the more expensive it becomes.

Smedley, who worked at Ferrari as a race engineer and at Williams as head of car performance, wants to change that.

“GKL is essentially a way to democratise karting,” he said. “So coming from a position of having been embedded in Formula 1 for the last 30 years, it’s fairly clear that we don’t have a huge amount of participation at the grassroots of our sport and that filters right the way up to the very top.

“My premise is that the fastest driver ever has never actually sat in a racing car. If you take a ball sport like football, or rugby, or any of them, at the grassroots, at the national level or an academy level, if there was £100,000 or €100,000 or $100,000 price tag, we certainly wouldn’t see players like Neymar, Lionel Messi, David Beckham, all of those great players that come through from a fairly diverse and let’s call it a democratised background.

“We want to simplify the grassroots of the sport, we want to make it more equal. We want to open up the participation so that the organic output is that we get more talent coming through from a more diverse cohort.”

The series will start in early 2024 with the Global Karting League: UK Championship and has a range of events for children from age six to 17. They will all race equal electric karts meaning the only differentiator will be the driver.

“It’s important to build a credible pathway,” Smedley said. “The kids have to have the same experience that they would have in what are the accepted routes of karting.

“So we built these fast, nimble racing karts and we’ve used the electric drivetrain because the electric drive train offers parity. We can have much better parity across all of the karts, so the biggest differentiator is the kids’ talent.

“Myself and the guys who work within GKL, I’m not the only ex-Formula 1 engineer. Having keen knowledge of, for example, the MGU-K system on a Formula 1 car means that we can replicate that in a go-kart. “

This parity and open door also brings into focus another area that F1 itself has been trying to boost lately – women in motorsport. Smedley is one who believes there is no reason a woman cannot become F1 World Champion and hopes the GKL will get more young girls into racing.

“I talk about this a lot and we are great advocates for getting females in motorsport. I’m one of those that believes there is absolutely no reason why we can’t have a female Formula 1 World Champion.

“The reason why we don’t is because of participation. Because at the very top end of the statistics, you’ve got around 12% female participation in karting and then as you go up the ladder, that decreases to around 7%.

“There’s great initiatives everywhere that are popping up, we are certainly supporters of all of those initiatives and there won’t be one single thing that solves this.

“But certainly, what we want to do is we want to create an environment, which is, let’s say, slightly less traditional, then we will find a greater participation of females.

“We want to make this everybody’s tribe/ So we want to make this a tribe for females, we want to make this a trial tribe for any underrepresented community that wants to make it their tribe and be part of this.

“How will this work? It will work not in a way that there’s a white middle-aged man who has some relevance to the dads in Formula 1. It will work in a way that we’re already seeing, that females are coming into our series, into the GKL and they’re starting to evangelise about it.

“As they evangelise about it across the channels that they can, speak to their peers, more and more come in, because it becomes more and more their tribe. So this is what we’re trying to create. We’re trying to create something new, we’re trying to be something fresh, something funky, but at the same time trying to do everything else that we’ve talked about in finding talent that eventually gets to Formula 1 and professional motorsports.”

Smedley’s other role as CEO of the Smedley Group, who work with Formula 1 and AWS to provide data graphics during a race, mean it is no surprise to hear that data will also play a big part in the competition.

“We’ve developed an in-house database called Talent ID,” he explained. “So what was really interesting to me was that as we build this to a global scale and a key objective of ours is to find talent, we need to ensure that we have a way of measuring and tracking and logging that talent.

“So what we did is we bought in the types of analysis, the types of data analytic systems that we would use in Formula 1 and we brought that to the karting world.

“As the karts run, we collect data off those karts, pretty much like a Formula 1 car. And as long as we’ve got a unique driver ID, so we know what driver sits in what car on what day in what session, then we can start to build a database of talent and performance metrics for each and every driver that takes part in the global championship.

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“There’s two outputs to that. One is that we can use that to guide and coach the drivers themselves.

“The other output, obviously, is that as long as we’re able to normalise that data across all the various different hubs that we’ve got, imagine it’s 50 hubs or 100 hubs worldwide, as long as we can normalise that data, then we can actually get a ranking so we can run for any indexed performance parameters that you like.

“And if we can build complex enough algorithms then we can pretty much tell you what the best driver in each category is at any place in the world.”

But as many have found out, the higher you go the harder it is to get a chance with just 20 drivers able to race in Formula 1. But Smedley believes his F1 connections can help bridge the gap and revealed some teams are already involved.

“Obviously, I’m in a fairly privileged position. I’m not starting this from the outside coming in. I’ve been in this industry for quite a long time.

“So you can imagine that I’m already in discussions with Formula 1 teams. How are they going to support this and there’s Formula 1 teams now that want to support it from the outset.

“Because they see that the current system is fishing in a really, really small pool. If we start to widen that pool, they’re going to be very happy to fish there. “

The Global Karting League will debut in early 2024 first in the UK with plans to expand across the globe. You can find out more information and how to get involved here.

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