ROK Cup Superfinal: the future is bright
Updated: Oct 19
At the ROK Cup Superfinal in Lonato, one of the biggest karting competitions in the world, we had a glimpse of some of the stars of tomorrow and how female participation is increasing at the base of the pyramid.
Events such as the ROK Cup Superfinals - one the the biggest karting championships hosting its world finals at the Mecca of karting, the South Garda circuit in Lonato, Italy - are great occasions to monitor the state of the art of the many up-and-coming talents that we will learn to know in the next few years. And, among them, the next female protagonists of our sport. Lonato continues to be one of those demanding tracks where every karting driver in the world dreams of racing on: the ROK Superfinals saw 311 drivers among the very best, across 6 classes. 16 of them were female, for a ratio of approximately 1 woman every 20 male drivers. This is particularly relevant when we talk about increasing the base of the pyramid. Motor racing - and karting at this level is certainly no exception - is a very expensive sport and accessibility reimans an issue, but implementing solutions to ensure quality equipment at accessible costs for young female hopefuls would likely extend their chances in moving up the ranks of car racing. Numbers at grassroots level remain the single biggest reason for the current glass ceiling often found at F3 level, with the last female participation at the world's top single seater championship dating back to 1976. If 1 to 20 might look like a bleak figure, though, things have never looked so promising: these numbers would have appeared like science-fiction no more than 10 years ago. Even more so in the past 5 to 3 years, we have seen a variety of programs being launched to inspire the female participation, led by the FIA Women In Motorsport commission: the partnership with Ferrari's Driver Academy and the Rising Star project is a huge step forward for the movement - but it cannot remain an isolated case. W Series has also played an important part in inspiring young girls and showing them they belong in the sport, but we must continue to work to break that glass ceiling. "We have the programs in place. Now to increase the base of the pyramid we need to have more women interested in motorsport" - said Michéle Mouton at the latest FIA conference in Monaco. And indeed it's a matter of quantity. But, what was on display at the 2021 ROK Superfinals was also a matter of quality. The Mini, Senior and Junior categories all had fields spanning from 104 to 64 drivers - and the few female entries were often battling at the top-end of the pack. Although odds were statistically against them, 2 young women ended on the podium during Saturday's finals - meaning a 1 to 9 ratio. Ten of the 16 women in Lonato advanced to the finals and 4 finished in the top-five. These numbers are limited to an event - but nonetheless important to keep track of the trends. And, if we learnt something about last weekend's ROK world finals is that the future is bright.
The Mini category - where youngest drivers move their first steps in international competitions - had the biggest entry list of all classes, with over 100 drivers and two girls, Sonia Crivoiruc, representing Romania, and Martina Rumlenova, representing Czech Republic. Rumlenova was in the top ten in all sessions, starting from seventh in Thursday's practice and fifth in the qualifying group. She finished seventh in the first heat as well, before the highlight of the third place during the second heat on Friday.
The young Czech racer, competing for Skylarks Karting Team, kept momentum and was fourth in the final qualifying heat on Saturday morning - thus targeting a top-five in the final.
Unfortunately, she had a troubled race and, after a few contacts, she dropped to 27th, where she would eventually cross the finish line.
The MINI final turned out to be a thriller, with Canadian Jensen Burnett taking home the victory after a spectacular run from fifth on the grid. The Energy Corse driver gained the lead in the opening stages, before being passed by poleman Dries van Landendonck. Burnett found another gap and made the pass for the win in the final laps, with four drivers crossing the line under the one-second gap. Energy Corse's Alfie Slater made up 10 places to finish fifth.
The Super ROK class was one of the highlights of the weekend from a female perspective: in the 16-driver field qualifying for the final, one-fourth were women.
Gaia Cardinali from Monaco is no stranger to the podium and has won several ROK Cup races this year. Cardinali started off the weekend in Lonato with P4 in free practice, then followed by the fifth fastest lap in qualifying, less than a tenth off pole sitter Alex Machado. In the first heat, she had a contact and retired, which forced Gaia to recover from the back in the second heat: a ninth place on Friday, though, put her back in contention and a sixth place with the fastest lap set the grid for Saturday's final.
Battling with Gaia in Super ROK was also the blistering fast Andreja Vibriantyte. The Lithuanian driver didn't leave the top three throughout the first day, when she set the second fastest lap in practice and qualified in third. Vibriantyte topped the warm up session and seemed to be one of the strongest contenders during the heats, which she finished in fifth place.
Starting from fourth on the grid, Vibriantyte fought for the podium until the latter stages of the final, when she was passed by Gaia Cardinali and Leonardo Cesaretti to finish fifth.
Cardinali went on to take a stunning podium in third, four seconds behind race winner Alex Machado, who secured a controlled victory.
Cardinali was the biggest mover and recovered six places, also scoring the fastest lap of the race. While Vibriantyte was not particularly impressed by her final, having two women in the top-five and battling consistently for the podium positions was a very encouraging sight. The Energy Corse driver from Lithuania might not have maximized her potential in Lonato, but she has shown impressive development over the season.
In the same category, Swiss driver Lynn Neuhaus had a difficult qualifying but continued to move up the field throughout the manches. Saturday started on the right foot for Neuhaus, who was P12 in the warm up and then had good battles in the midfield to finish eleventh in the final, gaining four places in the race.
Gaia Cardinali's teammate Nicole Ameglio, from Italy, had more of a troubled weekend, hampered by DNFs in the first two heats. Ameglio, who had put in solid laps on Thursday, tried to recover from the back in the third heat, but was met with more challenges in the final, which she nevertheless finished in P14.
Five female racers battled on track in one of the most interesting and crowded categories, the Junior ROK: Chiara Bolognini, from Italy, Zoe Florescu Potolea, from Romania, Tina Hausmann and Kiana Naudé from Switzerland and Czech driver Petra Babickova.
Bolognini, Florescu Polotea and Hausmann were around the Top-20 throughout the weekend in their respective groups; the Romanian driver, competing for Real Racing, went on to race in the Levanto Trophy - as well as CRG Holland's Tina Hausmann.
Zoe, 19th in the qualifying heat, made up 11 positions in the Trophy race, finishing P17. 14-year-old Hausmann wasn't as lucky and dropped to the back after contacts, but she also had shown grit and determination in the heats, where she recovered 10 positions and finished 13th in the eliminatory heat on Friday.
Advancing to the world final on Saturday were two of the stars of today's female karting: Kiana Naudé and Petra Babickova.
12-year-old Naudé has been brought under the spotlight also after being shortlisted as one of the FIA Women in Motorsport's Rising Stars candidates of the second edition of the program, which is set to get underway shortly at Circuit Paul Ricard.
"The training before the race (Friday to Sunday) didn’t go as planned, my times weren’t the best, I was 0.4 off the leaders." - she explained after the race weekend.
"On Monday I took a break, and then afterwards training went so much better and I was one of the fastest."
"Thursday was qualifying and it went really well, I’m sure I could have gotten first place but someone slowed me down. Anyway I was really happy with P2." - she recalled.
"Then the first heat and second went well, I finished P6 in both of the heats.
Sadly I got knocked off in the third heat, I got going again and gained 7 places and finished P16. I had a great fourth heat, I finished in P4."
After having qualified in second place, Kiana knew she had good chances of battling at the top-end of the field and she made a stunning recovery in the final, gaining nine places after navigating through the uber competitive field.
"The final I was most proud of" - she continued. "It had a lot of good drivers and I still finished in P6. Honestly I really enjoyed this big competition and it really made me nervous but also really happy."
KGT Motorsport's Kiana Naudé might be one of the most exciting female prospects in the years to come and she will be put under test again at the upcoming Rising Stars assessment tests, where she is among a pool of 14 youngsters aiming for the prestigious Ferrari support.
"I really want to do well and have been training in karting and with exercises. It means a lot to me" - said Naudé, whose results suggest that we will continue to hear more from the young Swiss regardless of her first participation at the FIA selections.
Equally impressive was Petra Babickova, one of the three super fast Babickova sisters. While Tereza and Eliska are competing in the Senior class, Petra is climbing the ranks in the Junior category and at Lonato she aimed for a Top 5.
Babickova (Tepz Racing Team) was constantly in the Top-10 and qualified in fourth place, before finishing the first heat in sixth. She moved up to fifth in the following two eliminatory heats - which granted her a start from eighth in Saturday's final.
Petra battled at the top-end of the 34-kart field, only to slip to eleventh in the hard-fought final laps. After the chequered flag, Babickova was definitely not satisfied with the result, but she undoubtedly remains one of the drivers to watch for the future.
Patra's sister Tereza was also among the protagonists of the Lonato weekend in the Senior Rok category. She was joined on the 64-kart field by fellow female racers Mairu Agustina Herrera Ahuad, Rebecca Guarguaglini and Michalina Sabaj.
The Senior class featured a female driver in the Top-5 in almost every session, as a further proof of the quality of the talent on track.
Representing Argentina, Mairu Herrera Ahuad was often in the midfield in the practice and qualifying sessions, and had an impressive OMP Trophy race finishing seventh from eleventh on the grid.
Italian Rebecca Guarguaglini was not far behind in 14th place, after frequently finishing in the top-half of the timing screens throughout the weekend. Saturday started off well for the women of Senior ROK, as Guarguaglini and Babickova both topped the two warm up sessions that preceded the finals.
Babickova was clearly one of the main contenders for the big prize, but had some fierce competitions from Andrea Ladina, Petro Lagone, Liu Ruiqui, Karol Czepiel and, among the others, Polish Michalina Sabaj.
Sabaj, who has already started to test F4 machinery and targets a move into single-seaters, was third fastest in qualifying and went on to complete the heats in fourth and sixth place.
"I started the preparations with just a few training days, then I took a very good 5th position in practice and I was consistent in each of the qualifying races, taking third place to start in the final" - said Sabaj.
Tereza Babickova had a similar progression, starting from third place in practice and second in qualifying - before a difficult first heat on Thursday ended in P23 after contact despite setting the fastest lap. But Babickova fought back in the second race, as she stormed to victory over Pietro Ragone and Alon Gabbay.
From there, Tereza never left the top three ahead of the final: she finished second in the final heat and topped the warm up. Starting from P11, she made her way up the order and took the lead of the final, ahead of Sabaj - only to drop back to fourth with a few laps to go.
Babickova ultimately made the pass for third place on the final laps and took home a third place behind the recovering Karol Czepiel and Andrea Ladina, who also had a remarkable race. Sabaj was fourth, in another strong performance for the Polish lady which resulted in two women in the Top-5.
Last but not least, the spectacular Shifter ROK categories featured one very interesting female racer: Taegen Poles.
Poles will be a familiar name to those who followed the inaugural W Series selections, as the 23-year-old Canadian was among the candidates for the first ever all-female series in 2019.
Taegen has been racing at a high level in karting on home soil, as well as moved her first steps in car racing before continuing her karting career - started at 7 and with no family history in the sport. Having looked up to role models such as Katherine Legge in Indycar, Poles asked suggestions on how to get involved in motorsport to her idol and was quickly hooked - in one of the best examples of why representation does matter at elite levels of motor racing.
But Taegen's involvement in motorsport does not stop behind the wheel: having graduated in mechanical and materials engineering, she is a true testimonial for women in STEM and is currently continuing her studies in Applied Science in Materials and Nuclear Engineering.
There is no doubt that her engineering background provides her with some extra help in the understanding of the vehicle.
At her first international karting race outside Canada, Poles was really excited to join such a competitive field despite having sat out the entire 2020 season due to the pandemic and having resumed on-track activities mid-way through 2021 - leaving little time to prepare for such a big event.
Taegen, though, was not afraid of the challenge and said she wanted to "enjoy the moment" and make the most out of it - which she indeed managed to do.
In a very competitive grid that included, among the others, also Formula 2 driver Roy Nissany, Poles kicked off the weekend with an eleventh place in practice, before qualifying in P22. From there, she was always able to move up and improve in every heat, finishing P18, P15 and P17.
The Energy Corse squad helped her throughout the process and, in a tightly fought final on Saturday, she was able to navigate through the field in the first half of the race. In the hectic battles of the midfield, she had to avoid a few contacts and dropped some places, yet kept it clean and took the chequered flag in 19th position. "For my first weekend racing in Italy in karting it was absolutely fantastic." - she told us after the race. "I couldn't have asked for a better team - Energy Corse took care of me the whole weekend and gave me top-tier mechanics, top-tier engines and everything." "Getting up to speed was a process, but by the end of the final we were running quick times", Taegen added. "It was a good scrap out there - I kept it relatively clean and came home in the Top-20, which I am happy with, considering where we were at the start of this weekend and for a first international race." "The first few laps were definitely some of the best racing I've done in a while. There was a lot happening in front of me and navigating that was definitely tricky at times. There were karts all over the place, but I was able to find a spot for the kart to go each time." "Next time it will be better, but for a first time it was so much fun and I loved every minute of it." Even though her main target would be returning to race cars, Poles' appearances at the top of international karting cannot but increase her status and, hopefully, provide her with more opportunities within motorsport. While we are surely still far away from a numerical parity in motor racing, the improvements made over the past few years are starting to bear fruits. And events such as the 2021 ROK Superfinal are tangible proof that we must continue to push on the gas pedal.