until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Smedley’s project to democratise grassroots racing

by Sam Smith
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Imagine for a moment that as a kid, just as easily as you took a football or a tennis racket down to the local park for a kickabout with your mates, you could turn up at a kart track and enjoy an hour of dreaming you are Max Verstappen on the road to Formula 1 glory.

While not quite as simplistic as this, that style of easy accessibility is part of a philosophy that well-known F1 engineer and now Formula One Group consultant Rob Smedley is working on to make careers in motorsport more achievable.

One of the most common (or infuriating – you are free to choose) adjectives used in modern language trends is ‘journey’, specifically in relation to a career or life in one particular sphere.

Rob Smedley 2012

Smedley thankfully doesn’t use it to describe his own motorsport rise from Pilbeam to Ferrari, which all took place over a mere six years.

But his new initiative called ‘Electroheads’, an electric karting philosophy aimed at breaking down pre-existing social and financial elitism in the sport, is not about him at all, far from it.

To achieve his goal Smedley has helped to develop high-performance, electric go-karts that are ‘faster, lighter and, vitally, cheaper than their old-school equivalents’.

Electroheads cadet kartimg1 Scaled E1595785633517

The initiative also involves a talent academy that has already embraced highly rated 2017 BirelART UK Series Cadet and 2018 LGM Privateer champion Ella Stevens.

The vision Smedley has is to “help democratise grassroots motorsport”.

To participate even in karting at a competitive level is cost prohibitive for most, and “most families just can’t get involved in it,” Smedley says passionately.

“This is a real plan to get kids involved in motorsports. And gaining all of the brilliant things that motorport can educate kids in” :: Rob Smedley

“I think what the high cost barriers have led to is that we’ve got a shrunken market, so there’s a tiny participation community, which is mainly involved in internal combustion engine karting and that is all we have.”

That tiny market has little diversity within it. Motorsport has been the domain of the white middle class man for decades and it is clear that somebody, or something, has to try to widen the reach.

Rob Smedley

The nub of what Smedley is addressing here is about attracting more socio-economic diversity, families from less wealthy backgrounds, a more balanced gender share and richer ethnic diversity. And this isn’t hot air or a scattered ‘woke’ socialism strategy. The Electroheads ethos has tangible benefits for business, future partnerships and indeed furthering the motorsport industry’s outlook.

“This is not a Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] exercise,” says Smedley.

“This is a real plan to get kids involved in motorsports. And gaining all of the brilliant things that motorport can educate kids in.

“This will then broaden the market participation numbers, so that more diversity across the board almost becomes an organic output of the system, rather than something that’s contrived or overtly manufactured.”

The sheer numbers now needed for drivers to even pick up crumbs from the F1 table are frightening. Frankly, without being a Red Bull junior, Ferrari Academy driver or having enormous family wealth it is almost impossible to make it to the pinnacle.

Formula 3 2020

“You are talking in a lot of cases of spending more than a million quid just to get to the point of stepping into a Formula 4 car now,” says Smedley.

“There’s not many families that have a million quid after tax, after paying in mortgages, and after paying all the household bills and everything else, it just doesn’t happen.

“Then you’ve got about another £5million to spend before you can even knock on somebody’s door in Formula 1 after a few seasons in F3 and F2, and at that point you are probably almost doubling the numbers to get on the F1 grid.”

Motorsport at a junior level has had many ills over the years, more than is reported and more than the positive experiences of the likes of Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc or Verstappen that always grab the headlines.

George Russell Charles Leclerc F3 2015

Grassroots sport, and karting in particular, has sometimes involved kids being taken away from their education.

Shouldn’t it actually be the case that karting can be a stimulating platform to teach kids STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and rather than reducing their learning, increasing it?

“In my dream if I’ve got 100,000 kids coming through this [Electroheads], and all participating in grassroots motorsport, not all of them are going to become Formula 1 drivers or get paid careers in professional motorsport as drivers or top engineers,” says Smedley.

“Let’s be really clear about this, that’s isn’t going to happen.

“But what we have to do is we have to use it as a platform to teach kids about career paths and about STEM education.

“Until somebody actually starts doing it, and starts to move the needle, it’s never going to happen” :: Rob Smedley

“We need to get a message across that becoming engineers is cool, that using science, technology, engineering maths is cool stuff.”

The business side of Smedley’s plan is simple.

“To be honest, the bigger the series is, and the more people we get involved, the more you drive the price down. It’s a fairly simple equation,” says Smedley.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for companies to get involved with us as well, to come and support.

“I’m talking to some companies at the minute to invest a certain amount of funding, and that will help me to go out into inner city areas, or disadvantaged parts of the country and bring more kids into this.”


While not having an overtly altruistic approach, Electroheads is nevertheless genuinely putting Smedley’s money where his mouth is.

This is a very simple and very determined way of putting something back into the sport for the greater good of future generations and the industry as a whole.

“I was one of those people that say, yeah, there’s a problem in this sport and it’s ridiculous, blah, blah, blah,” he concludes.

“But until somebody actually starts doing it, and starts to move the needle, it’s never going to happen and that would be a real shame.”

The first Electroheads Thunderbolt championship meeting takes place this weekend at the Mansell Raceway in Devon.

To find out more on Electroheads click here.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks