FIA International Karting Commission President Felipe Massa looks back on a successful year for the discipline last year, despite the pandemic, and explains why there’s a huge amount to be excited about in 2021.
Can you give us an overview of 2020 and how karting was impacted by the covid-19 pandemic?
It is clear that the 2020 FIA Karting season was disrupted by the pandemic. Two events had to be cancelled, but the other seven were postponed or relocated. The majority of FIA Karting Championships and Trophies were held in good sporting conditions and guaranteed the value of the titles awarded. The number of participants proved to be more than satisfactory in these circumstances. Like many other disciplines, the public was not able to attend the events, but we did our utmost to make up for this deficit with broadcasts on numerous television channels and on the internet, notably via social networks.
How did the protocols put in place help and how satisfying was it to be able to hold the world finals in Portimão?
The rigorous infection-control protocol developed by the FIA and the Medical Commission headed by Professor Saillant was successfully applied to the Karting Competitions. It convinced the authorities of the countries hosting FIA Karting events and ensured the safety of all those present at the circuits. Its efficiency has undeniably proved itself. The personal involvement of all the members of the sporting community has played a decisive role in the smooth running of the season.
We must thank the ASN of Portugal and the Portimão circuit for providing a setting that is equal to the challenges of the FIA Karting World Championships - OK and Junior. This event is one of the most important of the season and it would have been regrettable if it could not have taken place.
Despite the difficulties were you impressed with the standard of competition in 2020 in terms of the number of entries and the quality of the drivers we saw?
On the track, the intensity of the competition was remarkable and was little affected by the health situation. It is true that some of the drivers were not able to attend all the events they had entered. The number of participants fell slightly, by about 15% over the year as a whole. The standard of the competitions and of the drivers present remained very high, and the best drivers were able to showcase their talent and further their careers without too many problems.
Who impressed you most?
I can't just pick one name. I am thinking of course of Britain's Freddie Slater who won the FIA Karting World Championship - Junior in demanding weather conditions at the age of 12 in his first season in OK-Junior. The young Ugo Ugochukwu from USA, crowned FIA Karting European Champion - Junior after many strong results, also stood out for his speed and determination. Italy's Andrea Kimi Antonelli made a strong impression when he entered the OK category. He brilliantly won the FIA Karting European Championship - OK and was crowned FIA Karting Rookie of the Year. Finally, I would like to salute the tenacity of Frenchman Jérémy Iglesias whose talent has finally been rewarded with the title of FIA Karting World Champion - KZ.
Moving to this year – the world finals are moving outside Europe, to Birigui in Brazil. Are you personally pleased that the finals will take place in your home country?
I am of course very happy that the FIA Karting World Championship - OK & Junior is taking place in Brazil, on the American continent. It is desirable to broaden the horizon of high-level karting beyond Europe. This is a major sporting and economic challenge. The efforts made by Brazil and the state of Sao Paulo to facilitate the arrival of competitors to the Birigui circuit are to be welcomed. I am convinced that we are going to experience an exceptional event from which the karting world will benefit fully.
We’re seeing young talent emerging from what you might call non-traditional countries, such as 2020 FIA Karting European Junior Champion Ugo Ugochukwu and 2020 FIA Karting Academy Trophy winner Connor Zilisch coming from the United States. How important is holding finals outside the Karting’s European heartland to discovering future talents such as this?
In recent years, several new countries have been represented at the highest level of international karting. Russia, China, India, as well as other dynamic nations such as Singapore and the Eastern European republics are in a position to shine against the best representatives of European countries that have been involved in karting for a long time. Let's not forget that it was the United States that created karting in the 1950s. Like Brazil, they have a long history in karting competition. It is obvious that the FIA must strive to organise important events on other continents to support the practice of our discipline throughout the world. This is not an easy challenge as the main manufacturers and teams are based in Europe, particularly Italy, and the logistics of exporting competitions are complex. I am convinced that this challenge is a priority for the future of karting.
Brazil is sadly suffering severely with the effects of the covid-19 at the moment. Is there a contingency plan in place should the situation make holding the finals in brazil impossible?
The FIA Karting showed last year its capacity of reacting to exceptional circumstances in agreement with the organising countries and the main players in the discipline. It went well in 2020, there is no reason why it should be any different in 2021. Furthermore, I think we can be reasonably optimistic about the evolution of the pandemic thanks to the vaccination campaigns that are growing in many countries. The beneficial effects of the vaccines could be felt from this summer onwards and have a positive impact on our sport.
Two events on the European Calendar – the rounds in Zuera, Spain and in Adria, Italy – have already been rescheduled for July and August respectively. How tough is it to organise a calendar due to constantly changing local restrictions?
As I have just said, there is a close relationship between all the stakeholders involved in FIA Karting competitions. Alongside the CIK-FIA, the promoter of the FIA Karting Championships, RGMMC Group, is in direct contact with the manufacturers, the major international teams, and the ASNs and the organisers. Decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis in consultation with all the parties concerned. I would like to point out that everyone cooperates in a very positive manner for the good of karting.
Looking further ahead. Can you talk a little bit about the future direction of FIA Karting? What are the areas of most focus at the moment?
As far as the top level is concerned, the FIA Karting Championships have an indisputable reputation. Since 2016, the categories have been highly satisfactory and the field has increased. The quality of the organisation embodies the best of what is being done. This is a great success that we strive to maintain season after season.
There are other objectives that the FIA Karting can pursue. Cost reduction and broadening the competitor base in each country are the main ones. Various options are on the table to encourage the development of talent around the world by limiting the financial impact in a regulatory context. This is a complex task, but one that could lead to significant changes in the near future.
Has electric karting moved any closer on the horizon? We’ve seen the development of businesses such as electroheads run by your friend and former F1 race engineer Rob Smedley with electric karts built by Birel. Is the technology beginning to make sense in terms of weight etc?
We are following the progress of electric propulsion in karting with great interest. This power source is now well established in the leisure sector. Several projects have been launched in the field of pure competition. To date, there is no electric kart that can offer a formula combining sufficient performance, reasonable weight, good autonomy and affordable cost to compete with current combustion engines. Current experiments are not totally conclusive on all these points. I remain convinced that new technologies, particularly those concerning the storage of electricity, could soon appear and solve the terms of the equation.
Finally, what are your hopes and expectations for 2021?
We must remain realistic, 2021 will still be a difficult year for karting competition. The pandemic is still very much present and many precautions must be taken to overcome these difficulties. Nevertheless, I am confident that the season will go well. The FIA's strict protocol has proved its worth in conjunction with the collaboration of every member of the community. We need to stick together and be ready to go back to 100% as soon as the health situation is under control.