Gary Paffett: No clear path in karting

Gary Paffett is one of the most well-known British drivers, who has been a firm fixture in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) for many years. But this particular racer started out just like a lot of major British talent in a kart, such as WEC star Anthony Davidson and F1 world champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

With over 25 years in racing under his belt, the Suffolk-based driver has been involved at the higher echelons of motorsport for many years, having worked for McLaren whilst they were using Mercedes power, thanks to the help of former Head of Motorsport, Norbert Haug, giving the Brit a welcome chance.

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The 35-year-old took time out of his busy schedule at the Motorsport Festival Lausitzring in the early part of June, to speak to Alex Goldschmidt about his thoughts on when he first went into karts, how karting is now, as well as some tales about his racing career.

Alex Goldschmidt: You were racing in karts from 1991 until 1996, where you were vice champion in both European JICA in 1995 and British JICA in 1996, as well as taking the Junior TKM title in 1995. What was it like for you, as a youngster, to go into racing being inspired by the likes of Ayrton Senna?

Gary Paffett: From my opinion, you really don’t think about it. You start karting when you’re eight or nine years old, and everyone’s different. My father just got me into it, because he loved motorsport and thought that I would enjoy doing it.

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That’s why we started, living in a little village in Devon. I imagine that my dad, at that point, had no idea that I would end up being where I am now, when he started me racing. We got into it relatively quickly and I was good at it. Luckily, we got some help from some sponsors and eventually got better. At that time, you’re watching Formula 1 on television, seeing Ayrton and Alain Prost battle it out.

At the time, I didn’t see myself being there, as I was a motorsport fan. So I loved watching them and racing myself, but it was so far from what I was doing at the time.

I didn’t have a career path to F1, I was just racing and moving through the formulas as I was doing it. I didn’t have a path to where I was going, and we didn’t have the money for what we were going to do.

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We went year by year, and just enjoyed it. If I won, then we could get the budget and manage to get the support to go on for another year. It was only until we got to 1997, where I got to race cars at the end of the year.

1997 was a strange year, being a gap between karting and cars, where I just did a season in Formula A to bridge the gap, because we were waiting to go into car racing.

1998 was actually the first year where we were thinking of where I was actually going to go.

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AG: And then in 1999, you win the Formula Vauxhall Junior title, which earned you a very prestigious accolade, that your DTM team mate, Paul Di Resta has also won, the Mclaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver award.

That must have been a lifeline for you, especially with what you’d been through, even though you were enjoying the racing. It must have been a surefire reward for your efforts?

GP: Even in 1998, I was in Class B, with no real budget to do it properly. The karting company that I was racing with and working for on a day-to-day basis, they decided to buy a car and run it from the workshops. We didn’t go out there and pay for it, we decided to do it ourselves on the best budget we could.

ERDF Masters Kart

ERDF Masters Kart

We won Class B the following year, and had decided to potentially go with a big team, but again didn’t have the money to do that, so remained with the karting team.

It was a case of not expecting to be nominated for the McLaren BRDC award, but when it came to it, it was a great feeling. I probably deserved, but definitely wasn’t expecting it, being up a lot of other good drivers, such as Richard Lyons, Craig Murray and Ryan Dalziel, who were all a lot more experienced than me.

I went in there, and again, drove my socks off and won the award. That night of winning the award was probably the first night where I probably realized that it was a big achievement, and this could really go somewhere.

ERDF Masters Kart

ERDF Masters Kart

Before that, it was still a case of having the budget to go race by race, but getting the award that night, it felt like a case of hopefully being able to go somewhere. From then onwards, we were trying to map out what we were doing.

AG: And briefly going from there, you graduated to British F3, before heading over to German F3. Was it a natural progression to race in that series, under Keke Rosberg’s team, and was it an eye-opener for you to move to continental Europe?

GP: It was totally unplanned, and it was very spur of the moment, very last-minute and very risky. I mean, it sounds like I’m complaining that I had no money, but I’m deadly serious about that.

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In 2000, I did F3 with Fred Goddard Racing, which was mainly paid for by Martin Hines’ ZipKart on a budget, which we won the National Scholarship class easily, winning all bar one of the races that season.

Then the plan was to do British F3 in Class A the following year with a proper team. We got 90 percent of the way there, and then the guy who we were due to run with, was an old rival of Martin Hines. They fell out and that was it, it was over in January or February that year.

So, at that time, we didn’t know what we were going to do, as we had nothing. We didn’t know Keke, and I don’t even know where the link to him came from.

Let`s Go Karting Vodafone McLaren Mercedes test driver Gary Paffett

Rosberg hadn’t been running F3 cars, as they were new to it, so it wasn’t that we were moving to Germany to race with an established team. We were going there with a team that had never raced in F3 before, so the good thing was that they were ambitious.

They saw that I was talented and they helped us out, as they saw it as a way to help them improve and move forwards. So I went to race out there with them in 2001, which is the scariest thing that I’ve every done.

I’d raced outside of the UK before in just two races in my career up until that point, and I was coming over to Germany, where people spoke a funny language and did funny things.

James Calado

It was really, really tough, but this spur-of-the-moment, crazy decision, ended up being the best move of my life, really. I won the F3 championship here in Germany in my second season, and then got a test in a DTM car, so it was great that the argument over British F3 actually happened, so I ended up here.

AG: And that ended up with you winning the 2005 DTM drivers’ title with Mercedes, a long association with McLaren within the world of Formula One, as now you’re the simulator driver for Williams Martini Racing alongside Paul, who is helps with development.

It must be a pretty satisfying feeling, knowing that you’ve accomplished so much, now that you’ve been in the DTM for over a decade?

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GP: Yes, it is, as I’m now in my thirteenth season with Mercedes, and still enjoying it.

AG: One of the more recent fallouts within the world of karting is that of Formula Kart Stars, which went into administration this year, with families being out of pocket, as a result, to the tune of approximately tens of thousands of pounds.

I wanted to ask your opinion on this, considering you were part of the judging panel for the 2015 Autosport Show, at short notice, I might add. What are your thoughts on karting at the present moment, in terms of championships that are out there nationally and internationally?

We’re seeing talented drivers come through, but again, budget struggles are still a major factor in seeing them not progress forward.

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GP: It’s far too expensive, and I don’t really see any clear path. I’m not directly in touch with what is happening in karting, but I know some of the figures involved, and it costs far too much.

For eight-nine year old kids to spend what they are having to spend is crazy, and it is something that is becoming ridiculous. If I started karting right now, I wouldn’t even make it to the end of one season.

That’s really disappointing, as it has really turned into a rich kids’ sport, and that’s what I don’t like about it. When I did it, it was a defined career path, so you went into cadets until you were between 10 and 12, and when progressing onto, when I did it, a choice between Junior TKM and Yamaha before JICA, and that was your junior career.

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Afterwards, it was moving up to one of two or three senior classes, depending on what level you were, making it really clear what you did, but now, there’s no real clarity with all the classes.

The theory behind FKS was good, and it was something that was trying to create a series that was cost-effective, as well as a level playing field. So the theory behind it was good, but it didn’t work. But I really feel passionate about the fact that the cost behind karting is just too high, because as a sport, motorsport is becoming more and more exclusive to the rich.

AG: One final question, Gary: What advice would you give to an aspiring young hopeful, who wants to be the next Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton, and dreams of being in Formula One, apart from having very deep pockets (laughs)?

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GP: A pot of gold, yeah. (Laughs) First of all, it doesn’t matter how much money that somebody has, but you’ve got to want to do it, as well as the desire to win. The one thing that has kept me in good stead during my career, and I know that Lewis is the same, is that I feel that no one is better than I am.

I know that on day-to-day, some people do a better job than me, but I come out of a session and look at what someone else has done, look at the data and go: “That’s what I’ve got to do.” And I can go and do it. I think you’ve got to be determined and have faith in your own ability. You won’t do the best job every day, but there is no reason why you can’t do as well as someone else is doing.

Karting Magazine would like to thank Gary for his time, as well as the assistance of Mercedes-AMG DTM’s Communications Manager, Oliver Kapffenstein, for arranging the interview itself.

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5 words to describe yourself

Determined, fast, consistent, racer, respectful.

4 of your favourite tracks

Zandvoort, Spa, Donington Park, Hockenheim.

3 drivers that have inspired you

Ayrton Senna, Bernd Schneider, Michael Schumacher.

2 memorable moments in your career

Winning the DTM title in 2005 is the most memorable moment in my career, and winning the DTM race at Brands Hatch in 2012, which was my most special win ever.

1 goal for the future

To win more championships

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Written by Alex Goldschmidt

Images courtesy of Daimler Global Media & Chris Walker, Kartpix