Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, December 16, 1994

Go-Karting: A Serious Sport for Serious Drivers, Including Formula One's

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Go-karting may be a pastime for kids on summer holidays, but many of the world's best automobile racers, including a few in retirement, think it's a serious sport for men.

The second annual Elf Master Karting Indoor, to be held this weekend in the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, will involve two days of racing that will separate the men from the boys and pit many of the world's best drivers against one another in karts.

Four-time Formula One world champion Alain Prost, having come out of retirement to defend the title he won in 1993, will be facing 74 other drivers from 15 countries.

Among the 25 drivers from Formula One will be Rubens Barrichello and Christian Fittipaldi of Brazil, Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard of Britain, J.J. Lehto of Finland, David Brabham of Australia, Gianni Morbidelli and Pier-H Luigi Martini of Italy, and Hideki Noda of Japan.

The oldest man on the grid will be France's Philippe Alliot, 40, who has raced in Formula One and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Also from Le Mans are the two-time champion Yannick Dalmas and the 1993 victor Eric Hélary, both of France.

There will be a few Indy car drivers, including the 1994 rookie of the year, Jacques Villeneuve of Canada, whose father Gilles, raced against Prost in Formula One nearly a generation ago.

While last year's high point was the Prost-Ayrton Senna dual, this year Prost will have to defend his title against Michael Schumacher, the reigning Formula One world champion, who is 14 years Prost's junior.

Billed as a battle of the generations, the weekend will put the more established drivers on the track against the 16- to 20-year- old upstarts from the international karting world, such as the 1993 world champion David Terrien of France, and the 1994 International Formula 3000 champion Jean-Christophe "Jules" Boullion of France.

Do the old guys take it seriously?

Prost, 39, who was this week made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, has been spotted in recent months, with Alliot, making surprise visits to tracks around Paris to drive in kart races.

"I want to be up to the level of the younger drivers who practice karting regularly, like Schumacher," said Prost. "And I would hate to go to this for nothing."

Prost might be wary of Schumacher, but Schumacher has his own generational worries. His younger brother, Ralf, a driver in German Formula 3, has been invited to Bercy, too.

Many drivers, including the Schumachers, have an advantage over the others: Their parents all operate public karting tracks and they grew up with the sport.

Karting is the recognized training ground for future champions. In today's Formula One, the number of drivers who did not come up by way of karting are in the minority. Senna had his own track, and 10 karts, at home on his estate in Brazil even while he was at the top of Formula One. Schumacher started driving karts at age 4.

The races take place on a 600-meter track. Unlike Formula One cars, the karts are all equal, each having a 100cc motor that can push it to speeds of about 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour).

One driver who must have decided that Schumacher's advantage would be too great, or who didn't care to categorized as a boy or a man, is Damon Hill.

The runner-up for this year's controversial Formula One title, he had been practicing for months on a kart given to him by Philippe Streiff, the former Formula One driver who conceived and organized the Bercy event. Streiff was paralyzed from the waist down by an accident during practice for the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, but his passion for racing remained.

Hill is one of the few Formula One drivers who did not cut his teeth on karting, and he did not do well at Bercy last year. Furthermore, practice had not made him perfect, so at the last minute Hill pulled out of this weekend's races. That removed one opponent from SchuHL macher's path toward proving that he is really the king of the racers. But Prost, or some upstart, may prove otherwise.

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