The game-changing F1 technology that will transform the future of karting

Thomas Maher
Rob Smedley poses with one of GKL's electric karts.

Rob Smedley has outlined how he hopes his new Global Karting League will help identify top racing talents, including female racers.

In an extensive interview with, former Ferrari and Williams engineer Rob Smedley has outlined why finding a top female racing talent is a crucial goal for his Global Karting League.

On the weekend of the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the grassroots-level motorsport league that is the brainchild of renowned F1 engineer Rob Smedley roared into life for the first time. Smedley announced the Global Karting League (GKL) late last year, with the electric karting series now having sprung to life.

Rob Smedley’s Global Karting League becomes a reality

The Global Karting League, which has now rolled out in the UK but is targeting championships around the globe, aims to offer an ‘arrive and drive’ solution for racers to show up and take part in national championships, using three different levels of electric kart for different age categories.

But, aside from the different classes of kart, there’s no differentiating between the machines used by any of the drivers – a key facet of GKL is ensuring parity across the classes.

Open to children and teenagers aged between six and 17, it’s as simple as logging on to the GKL website and applying – as long as the racer can come up with the sum needed for a race event, they’re in, with no need to worry about having their own kart, parts, tyres, or setups.

With famous backing in the form of Idris Elba, the series kicked off in the UK over the weekend, and Smedley, who left F1 in a competitive sense five years ago, spoke at length with about how he’s hopeful his new series will bring down the barriers of entry for talented youth who might not have the resources for the traditional karting route.

A particularly interesting fact ahead of the series’ launch is that GKL’s inaugural championship has secured more than 20 percent female participation – a figure that’s more than double the global average for female motorsport participation. So why has that happened?

“The reason why we’ve been able to secure a figure that’s bigger than the global average, with more female motorsport participation, is because we put effort into making change,” Smedley said.

“So, first and foremost, we ensure that it is a safe and welcoming space for females.

“Everybody is treated equally, the very premise of Global Karting League is equality. The differentiator is not how much money you’ve got to spend, but how talented you are.

“That equality extends to underrepresented communities in motorsport like, for example, females. So we’re very clear in our messaging and our narrative, on the website we make sure that there are lots of relatable images for females, and we make sure that the language is also relatable on the marketing, which is clearly targeted towards females.

“And then we have, within the business as well, especially on the Global Karting League side of the business, we’re very keen to promote the brilliant females that we’ve got working in the Smedley Group into positions of importance, decision-making positions within GKL.

“Because having females front and centre within the administration, or the operational team for GKL is also something that would make females feel comfortable when they come to the event.

“We’re gaining so much traction with that, I think we’re 20 percent, on average, across all of the categories, but we’ve got five racing categories across the various different age groups.

“In some of those categories, we’re well in excess of 30 percent. My target, which I’ve already told the team, is, by the end of the year, I would like to get to 30 percent on average across all categories, we just have to keep pushing on this.

“It’s really, really important, and there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t get to the magic 50/50 at some point. In summary, the reason why we have double the global average of female participation is because we actually put effort in to make that difference.”

GKL's Rob Smedley poses with young karters.
GKL’s Rob Smedley poses with young karters.

GKL offers a level playing field for everyone, including female racers

Once seen as a very male-specific arena of competition, the huge popularity of F1 nowadays means that there are plenty of young girls interested in getting involved in grassroots-level motorsport.

GKL aims to provide the first stepping stones for these racers, by ensuring a completely level playing field – competitors can’t just spend their way to going quicker than the others.

“With GKL, we built a credible and accessible pathway where young drivers can come and get involved and learn their craft in equal racing machinery,” Smedley said.

“From the very outset, the premise of what we do in GKL is about trying to offer the drivers equal machinery and equal opportunity to win.

“It is a great place for females to come and cut their teeth because there are not all of the complexities that perhaps exist elsewhere, and it’s certainly not an arms race – as long as you can afford the fixed cost of a weekend of racing, then you have all the same opportunities as anybody else on the grid.

“That’s really important, it’s really important to me when I set off on this mission because that’s, I think, the only way that you’re going to find talent from more diverse backgrounds.

“GKL does offer a platform where females can come and show their talent. It is extremely important that we start to find prominent or more prominent female role models, which includes drivers as well, we need to find females that can beat the boys.

“There are lots of great initiatives, which are female only – our choice of concept was to have it mixed and try to get it to 50/50 as well.

“Because I think that’s the way that, when you’ve got the females and the males, and they’re all racing together – it’s an important aspect of developing talent against the very best talent available.

“If you look at the very top of the sport, Formula 1, there’s been a huge influx of new fans over the last five years. But, if you look at the statistics that are published every single year, of the new fans that come in, it’s almost 50/50 female/male split. And that’s incredible.

“That’s great that we’ve been able to attract females in large numbers. What was once an underrepresented demographic is now much better represented. But we also now have to do things to keep them here, we have to keep them interested in the sport.

“Trying to create role models as GKL is doing, as F1 Academy is doing, as More Than Equal, as W Series tried to do before that, all these great initiatives, these are the things that the young females who are coming in as fans of the sport will have role models that they can relate to. That’s what will keep the fan base as strong and diverse as it is now.”

GKL's Rob Smedley and Idris Elba pose with some young karters.
GKL’s Rob Smedley and Idris Elba pose with some young karters.

How can drivers get involved in the Global Karting League

While there are still, obviously, costs involved in setting about a racing calendar in the GKL, the pricing is considerably lower than attempting a traditional championship entry – the pricing varies depending on the category and the number of outings a driver wants to take part in.

But, otherwise, there are no barriers to entry – it’s simply a case of applying on the GKL website and coming up with the small entry fees. Making entry as straightforward as possible was also something Smedley took extremely seriously when planning out his championship model.

“When I started to look at this a few years back and thought ‘Well, why aren’t more kids involved in this? Why aren’t more doing karting?'” he said.

“We set about a fair amount of academic research, probably more than ever done before in this field, to try and understand it. The two conclusions that we quietly understood were that there are huge barriers to entry, even at grassroots levels in motorsport, and they are basically twofold.

“One of them is cost because, if you can’t get the cost down, then you’re not going to get the numbers in en masse. You’re not going to find those hidden gems of talent, or just allow kids to come and enjoy themselves doing it.

“And also the complexities as well. There are lots of different championships and lots of different engine classes… when you get to the circuit, you’re never sure whether you’ve got the right engine tuner, the right chassis, or whether or not somebody’s got better tyres or a slightly better setup than you.

“It shouldn’t be about that, it should just be about the kids going and having fun. Our concept with GKL was to take all of the complexity out of it, and reduce the cost absolutely as much as we can – to give the consumer just something that is so much more simplified and so much more straightforward to come and get involved.”

How F1 software will help GKL identify top-level talents

A particularly striking nugget of information about the GKL is that Smedley and his partners have called upon their F1 experience, and AWS, to roll out a ‘Talent ID’ analytical software that will learn how to spot particularly talented drivers.

While results will obviously count quite a bit towards finding special drivers, the software will allow for spotting drivers who are maybe performing unbelievable feats on track but perhaps haven’t honed their skills enough to bring home strong results.

An example could be a driver finishing way down the field, but the software could spot that they had managed to take a tricky corner 10km/h faster than anyone else – how can that potential be refined further?

“One of the key tenets of GKL is the software analytical system that we built, called Talent ID. Basically, it’s the stuff that we learned from Formula 1, it’s the analytic and simulation methods that we learned from F1. We deployed them in F1 to either design a faster car, or to optimise the car,” Smedley explained.

“What we’re now trying to do is use that same type of methodology and apply it to young drivers. So we’re constantly ingesting… every time a young driver gets in a kart in GKL, we are ingesting data.

“Then we are processing that data with a simulation layer in order to understand the talent level of the kid. So as well as trying to spot out-and-out results, we are refining the algorithms within the Talent ID platform to try to spot potential as well, because it’s important that we don’t let potential go by the wayside.

“With some of that talent, and/or, even more importantly, potential, we’re trying to support that as well – it’s quite a holistic concept that we are building here.

“But there must be some objective way, you have to kind of move past this old-fashioned notion of how you spot a talented kid when you go to your local kart track, standing on the side of the fence and watch them go around, and that type of thing.

“Technology has moved on light years since that. We’re just trying to use technology to try and help with that. It’s data, analytics, and simulation, is agnostic to whether or not you’re male or female, colour or creed, it’s just totally unimportant. We’re just trying to spot talent.”

Even more encouragingly, the software will learn more as it is fed with data, meaning the genuine talents that come through the doors of GKL won’t fall through the cracks – their talents behind the wheel will be spotted.

“What we’re bringing here is a completely modern take on the grassroots of the sport, it’s more than ripe for this type of intervention,” he continued.

“It’s also bringing that F1 way of thinking and methodology, we now are trying to find the next generation of talent, but we need to be able to spot the potential.

“So that’s refining the models, the algorithms, the analytical system, and stuff like that. This thing will only get better and better and better. So you can imagine when it matures, when it’s got like a two-year maturity to it and we’ve actually been able to spot talent and correlate that – the talent back to what the models were telling us originally.

“Then you refine the models – it’s exactly the same as designing a Formula 1 car, you’ve got that correlation loop.”

One of GKL's young karting talents, Amelia, hopes to make waves in 2024.
One of GKL’s young karting talents, Amelia, hopes to make waves in 2024.

Why segregated female racing continues to have its place

In the past couple of years, starting with the now-defunct W Series, there have been efforts to bolster female racing endeavours by setting up female-only racing championships. Now officially part of the F1 ladder, the F1 Academy is the leading example of this – the series collaborates closely with each of the F1 teams.

While Smedley’s GKL has opted against segregated racing, the engineer believes series that choose to segregate still have their place.

“I think the reason why it has its place is because motorsport generally hasn’t done a great job of making females feel safe and welcomed into the more open environment,” he said.

“I’ve got some firsthand stories of some of the young females that race with us, I try to catch up with the young drivers and chat with them when I get to GKL events. Some of the stories that young females tell us about how they feel being in that environment… we’ve got horrendous stories of females being told that they’ll never be good enough, that this is a male sport, and stuff like ‘Why are you here?’

“It just baffles me beyond words, I don’t have the vocabulary to say how wrong that is. Or at least I don’t have the polite vocabulary!

“But, because of that, it’s been a necessity to have segregated female-only racing series because, perhaps, females haven’t felt that they’ve got a strong enough voice because they’re running up against that kind of events and incidents.

“But I would hope that what these series become, especially the Formula 1 Academy as it’s part of the Formula 1 family now, they should become a beacon of light to get more young females coming into the sport. Once we find really talented females, they will go on that springboard from that platform of F1 Academy.

“But what that means is that, if we’re shining a light on female drivers in motorsport, we have to have something down at the grassroots as well. So when they do come in as an influx, there’s somewhere where they can come in and get involved. That’s why there need to be offerings like GKL and other offerings that also welcome females, so there is something where females are happy to get involved and feel comfortable and safe in that environment.”

The roll-out of F1 Academy over the last 12 months, and its increasing visibility, has meant that each F1 team now has signed female driving talent – examples include McLaren’s Bianca Bustamante, Mercedes’ Doriane Pin, Ferrari’s Maya Weug, and Hamda and Amna Al Qubaisi at the two Red Bull team entries.

But is Smedley in any way concerned that teams could be simply signing talents based on an attempt to showcase their diversity credentials, rather than being purely talent-based signings?

“I would hope that is not happening because that would be so disingenuous for the teams to be doing that,” he said.

“What we’ve got to bear in mind – and this is the same whether it’s for drivers, engineers, mechanics, marketing, whatever it is – Formula 1 is a meritocracy. That’s part of its DNA.

“You have to be the best of the best, whether you’re working on a team, or on the periphery of the sport, you are unbelievably privileged to work there. But the reason why you can get that privilege is usually because you are at the absolute top of your game, regardless of what field it is.

“So it would be really disappointing if the Formula 1 teams weren’t embracing what is definitely part of today’s culture – Corporate Social Responsibility is all well and good but, for CSR to really work, it has to be within the fabric of what you do.

“You can’t do environmentally friendly stuff from three to five on a Friday and then burn diesel for the rest of the week. It’s the same with any kind of corporate social responsibility and I think Formula 1 teams have a responsibility to do that – the FIA have a responsibility.

“F1 itself has a responsibility, you have to look at how you make all of these things part of the fabric of your sport and not just an afterthought. We’ve all got a responsibility to solve this problem.”

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