Interview with Adriana Dzalbe and Rob Smedley (lees hier de Nederlandse vertaling)

In Februari 2023 I had a conversation with Adriana Dzalbe, Marketing and sales manager at Smedley Group (that includes Total Karting Zero). She told me more about their kart concept by Rob Smedley, who has been active in Formula One for many years. He is well known for being race engineer of Felipe Massa at Ferrari. I got the chance to also ask a specific final question to Rob himself, about how his experience and lessons from Formula One are now part of his new, electric karting concept. Read the interview here!


What is the history and size or structure of the company?

The Smedley Group is technology, motorsports, and academy. Within motorsport we have Total Karting Zero, currently the most known part of the company. It has taken a lot of work and effort to build something like this up. We are about 20 employees. It’s grown a lot since the last 3 years. We all work quite closely to Rob. He is leading the vision and getting us ahead with partners and sponsors and driving the company forward to new challenges. We make everything happen!


Total Karting Zero uses the keywords faster/fairer/cheaper/cleaner. This is an interesting mix of principles for the company. Where did it start?

Rob has two boys. As they started growing up, Rob worked in Formula One and they got an interest in racing. He was taking them karting, but quickly realised that in karting if you want to be among the top runners, you have to spend money to get there. You can’t have a budget friendly kart and win; it’s one or the other. Rob was looking for ways to give back and change that. It all started from an accessibility point of view, how to get more families into it. With that comes the diversity and inclusion. If we make it cheaper, we get a wider range of families in motorsport. Karting paddocks are now predominantly rich white males. We introduce more families from a diverse range of backgrounds. Giving that opportunity to kids to show off their talent. They might have been the next world champion but they don’t have the money to go off and show it. Whilst he was exploring on how do we democratise the sport, he found that electric was the best way to do so. It gave us a powertrain we can have control over. It provides an equal sort of performance across the whole grid. When you come to races, everybody gets the same type of electric kart. Having control over the power train means that whoever wins, was the most skilled on that day or in those conditions. The karts are as equal as they can be. Electric allows us to do that. It’s sustainable and futureproof.


Electric technology is quite new to karts and not widely available yet. To buy or rent these karts is often quite expensive. How does this relate to the cheaper or more accessible vision you have?
We know that karting is more expensive than your everyday hobby, like football or swimming. But when you do want to do go karting, your options are indoor or to buy your own kart and enter championships. If you do go down that option and chase it as a career path, it’s very costly the set up. If you want to be the one in front, in traditional karting it’s not enough just to be the best: you have to have the latest engines, chassis and possibly new tyres every session. We take that cost and effort away and do all of that for you. The drivers arrive with their race kits and pay for one single race or the full championship. The parents now know what to expect they are paying. Each round is average 270 pounds. But a petrol kart may cost like 10,000. You can estimate the total cost of a year in your own kart but you never know exactly.


How big is the championship right now?

Last year we more than doubled our championship, it was a really big year of growth for us. This year we are keeping the size of the grid the same and focus on developing the technology a bit more and establish a bit more in the UK. We do two championships, one in the north of the UK and one in the south. The highest scoring drivers for both championships come together for a national championship. There we have the best drivers coming together and try to become national champion. We have plans to take that internationally in the future. Each weekend we take up to 74 drivers, that’s split most across bambino, cadet and junior groups. Between ages 6 and 16.


Are there plans to extend your focus to a senior class as well?

Do you want to join the championship? At the moment it’s an interest of ours to do a senior kart in the future, but we don’t have a timeline for this yet. We are still doing work to further develop our whole fleet. This includes work on a generation 2 kart at the moment. But in the future, we would like to have a senior kart so we can take that age range up beyond 16. Also the rest of us in the team, we want to have a go!

Do you develop your own karts or is there a partnership with an existing manufacturer?

At the moment it’s built in house. We would take like a BirelART chassis and we’ve developed our electric components that go on top of it, the powertrain and battery. We get our batteries from an external company currently and are working on maximising performance of these.


What are the main challenges for the company?

Our main challenge when we first started was definitely the technology: we did a lot of work on the reliability. We are now in a good position where we are comfortable with that. We have a dedicated reliability engineer who goes to all the events.

Our second challenge is quite different: our mission is to get more families into motorsport, so we will always have the challenge to find the kids. It’s the younger classes we have more difficulty with. Once you get to junior age and you are 16, you’ve probably done something indoor. You may love racing and know that’s what you want to do. Those drivers are easier to find. But the 6 year olds, they are still young and their parents are more cautious as well. Those are more difficult to find and they need more training, so it takes a longer time to get them in. Once they are in, they are usually hooked on it and want to be a racing driver.


How is the situation in the UK with the infrastructure you need at the circuits to host electric racing?

In terms of infrastructure, there isn’t much here in the UK yet. But we’ve set ourselves up that we can go to any circuit a petrol kart can go to. We do have to take a generator with us, but we try to use HVO fuel. We recently worked with Speedy, who supply a generator with HVO fuel for us. That’s the only way we are able to run at the moment, because the circuits are not able to provide as much power as we need to charge a fleet of karts. Hopefully in the next few years we will see circuits more equipped to take on more electric karting. I don’t think we will completely wipe out petrol karting, and it’s not our objective. We are just trying to get more families into it, and at the moment electric is the most sustainable and fairest way to do that.



Central to your karting concept are confidence and resilience, the human aspect of the sport. How do the kids learn this?
You learn the human aspects of karting by doing it, like to win gracefully but also how to handle losing. The really young ones that come in, they think they will come first in their first race. They come in, they might come last and they get really upset. But over the next few races, they get more mature and they deal with that. You see them look into their own self development. That’s what we really want to encourage: kids looking at their own race skill. And in our current winter championship, we take a tutor with us where possible. In the morning we start with a track walk. The tutor will take them around and give them tips about the circuit, things to look out for throughout the day. We have three breaks within in the day in which we charge our karts. We try to fill those with some tuition or with some guest speakers for the kids to look at their self development, and try and guide them how to become better drivers since the karts are all equal in performance.


What kind of lessons or insights has Rob Smedley brought from his own professional career in F1 to the company and karting concept?

Adriana: From what I’ve seen from working with him, there is definitely a really good way in which he manages the team. In pushing us all forward to be better, helping us to keep our sight on the challenge. Because it can be very difficult at times. Doing something completely new, you start and fail, and try again. He has a good way of encouraging the team to get back up. And if a day was perfect, he still wants to know what we can do to make it better tomorrow. He helps us to look forward and keep the motivation going. And make sure we don’t make the same mistake twice.

Rob: There’s a great carry over of methodology and ways of working from Formula 1 that make it the pinnacle of sport and the reason we are able to move so quickly in Total Karting Zero. Precision methods are really key in Formula 1 and it’s the same here, as well as using a data-led approach to decision making that allows us to clearly see developments and calculate change. I have also introduced to the team a culture of ‘fail fast’, in which we make rapid progress by trying, learning and trying again which comes hand-in-hand with encouraging continuous improvement. We learn from our technology every day and that means we make improvements to it. Formula 1 has really instilled in me that there’s always something that can be done better and we live that here at Total Karting Zero.