Annoyed by slowcoaches on the road, secretly pretending to be an F1 racer and somehow always having trouble to keep that needle below 50km/h? Chances are you have a serious need for speed (the other possibility is that you just drive like a twat). Anyway, Enjoy the Algarve is keen to step on the gas and tries karting near Portimão.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2017
“It’s a Corsa, not a go-kart.” That’s what my boyfriend more often than not tells me when I’m the one driving along the winding Algarvian roads. A few curves, some near head bumps and poor Gustave the dog sliding from left to right on the back seat later, followed by: “And this is the N2, not a race track.” These somewhat strangely worded compliments about my sporty driving style must mean I’m a pretty talented F1 racer. Time to put it to the test at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, which is located near Portimão.
Well, at the Kartódromo Internacional do Algarve to be precise. If I’d accidentally crash one of the Autódromo’s Porsches or Ferraris I’d be paying for it until 2086, so better play it safe. And it isn’t if karting is less impressive. Some of the world’s fastest racers have started their career on a go-kart track; the Belgian-Dutch Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen for example. Back in 2011 he won a world championship on the Algarvian circuit. “Many of the best F1 drivers start on a kart as it allows you to really get a feel for the vehicle. If you’d start directly with GT, your understanding of the car would be completely different,” says also marshal João Viana (29), who has seen a lot of talented drivers, or ‘pilots’ as he calls them, in the seven years he’s been working on the track.
João leads us to a garage with karts that look scarily fierce. That’s because they belong to private owners and are worth a small fortune, featuring hyper powerful Modena engines and six gears. On arriving at the race track, the rental karts do seem somewhat small in comparison… That’s because they’re minis, another marshal tells me. Apparently kids, who can race on the family-friendly track as long as they’re over 6 years of age, get smaller vehicles that won’t go faster than 40km/h. There are lots of bigger karts for adults lined up as well, about 30 pieces, all with plastic bumpers around the sides. The nicest looking karts are the racing ones, pretty in red and white with go-faster stripes. No, I can’t try them out on the track. They’re for people who know what they’re doing. (I briefly contemplate telling about my experience on the streets of the Serra do Caldeirão but decide against it, fearing it’ll get me banned from the premises instead).
I am, however, allowed to sit in one of the racing karts (see intro picture), which is a process in itself. First putting my shoes on the seat, then slowly extending my legs while holding on to the steering wheel for balance, taking care not to wreck one of the many cables or other bits and bobs of the €6,000 vehicle. Sitting on the chair I notice it’s too small. Or, also possible, my arse is too big. João convinces me that because these karts go very fast, bumping around in the seat during the ride isn’t that comfortable and therefore it has to fit extremely tight to one’s backside. Well, actually his words are: “and therefore the seat has to be a just fit.” I get out before I develop body issues and head for the normal rental karts and the track.
Safety first though. A helmet is compulsory, as is following the briefing which deals with an explanation of the flags that are used on the track and the rules. Most important ones are n.7 (no bumping allowed) and n. 4: keep all four tyres on the pavement. I wonder out loud how one could do a wheelie as the centre of gravity of the karts is so close to the ground. João patiently explains that ‘keep all tyres on the tarmac’ doesn’t refer to not doing a wheelie, but instead to not going off the side into the grass. As I check which pedal is gas and which one the brake (easy, just like a real car!), João smiles and gives the advice to go slow first in order to get to know the circuit. Driving off I notice there is no seatbelt in this vehicle. Uhm. Help, is there something missing?
Turns out there isn’t. As I gently cruise along seatbelt-less, the sun is shining and I’m quickly getting to grip with things; karting isn’t rocket science, especially not if you know how to drive a car – it isn’t even necessary to change gears. On the first straight bit, I get overtaken by a bird. No, not a falcon in stoop, more like a little sparrow. I step on the gas and try my best on the 827m long track B. There’s also an A track and these two can be combined for official races on which is apparently one of the best go-kart tracks in Europe. Why? “There’s a lot of space here and the asphalt has a really good grip because of the way it’s made and the amount of rubber in it,” answers João, who adds that teams from all over the world come to the Algarve to train here.
While I’m training myself to brake before the corners instead of halfway through them, I’m having great fun. The fact there is no speed limit means you don’t have to keep an eye out for an overzealous policeman – like if you’re doing 53 (give or take a few kilometres) somewhere only 50 is allowed. Also nice is that there’s no road rage. On the N2, every weekend there are Sunday drivers (doing 45 where 90 is allowed) and groups of cyclists (cycling in a cluster of eight so they take up two thirds of the road width) which cause yours truly to swear like a sailor. Here: nothing. And even if there were, overtaking is allowed everywhere and from either side.
I get overtaken by some English guys with a bit more karting experience, which is good as it teaches me the best lines to get around the circuit. My competitive streak sets in and I stop driving like a little pussy, and start driving like a massive cheetah. (Or at least a tiger). A few laps more and I can take some of the corners without braking. But when going even faster, I feel my kart trying to escape. Enter a slight state of panic as braking too hard will cause the vehicle to spin, as one of the guys experiences first-hand – he ends up backwards but manages to stay on the track. To me, the wall of rubber tyres looks pretty hard from up close (if I’m honest, it scares me). I’m annoyed by myself – I bet Max Verstappen wouldn’t be afraid of a possible crash.
When the sign for the last round comes up, even though I want to set some kind of speed record, my sensibility takes over before each turn and I know I haven’t got the skills or the balls to become an F1 driver. João says I did OK though, reaching perhaps 70km/h on the fastest bit. My lap time? 51 seconds; only 4 seconds more than the fastest of the guys who were on the track today. It doesn’t compare to real go-kart experts, who need less than a minute for both tracks A and B combined. Part of me is a bit sad I didn’t dare going faster in the turns. Still, it’s probably a good thing. If I’d have ended up in the tyre wall, there’d be no way my boyfriend would ever sit next to me in the car again…
When to go?
Whenever you want, the Kartódromo Internacional do Algarve is open all year round. Outside the high season is best though: in winter, the track can be empty at times, but in summer it gets crazy busy with over 400 people karting per day.
There’s no need to have any previous experience in anything and all material is included. Make sure to wear normal shoes as driving in flip flops and high heels is forbidden.
Want to go? Best to reserve beforehand, especially in high season. All contact info can be found on the website: www.autodromodoalgarve.com
Speed freaks. Anyone who ever felt like there were too many slowcoaches on normal roads will love to step on the gas in a go-kart on a racing circuit.
There are no height or weight restrictions. Children can use the mini karts as long as they’re at least 6 years old. Planning on coming with a larger group? Races can be organised for 10 people or more, but need to be reserved on forehand.
The marshals speak English and Portuguese. Although karting is an outdoor activity, it can also be done if it rains.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2017