The first time Zach Robichon sat in a go-kart he instantly knew he would never be a Formula One driver. And that was perfectly fine with him.
In a racing world where success depends on starting in go-karts almost from infancy, the Ottawa native got behind the wheel for the first time at the ripe old age of 14. He didn’t complete a full race season in go-karts until he was 17.
While the late start may have put a top level open wheel series, such as F1 or IndyCar, out of his reach, it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity for Robichon to make a living driving racing cars.
So, he’s targeting racing teams a bit lower down the food chain, for example those that will be in the post Grand American-American Le Mans merger touring car series which starts next year. He hopes his performances will show them he’s a solid driver with good race craft and ample speed.
“For me, the goal is to make a living in motor racing and I have come to terms with the fact that if I am going to be a professional, it’s about managing what I’ve got,” he said.
“You might not make as much money [racing sports cars] as some of the other guys, but I wouldn’t care because I would be doing what I want to do. I would rather be in what some people perceive is a lower series than go do something else.”
The plan just might be working too. The 21-year-old leads the Toyo Tires F1600 Championship Series after six of 14 rounds and looks to be a favourite to take the 2013 title in his first season of racing cars.
The cars in the F1600 Championship are open wheel racers with little downforce and treaded race tires supplied by title sponsor Toyo. The cars have either a Ford or Honda engine. A race distance is about 50 kilometres with the series running two events per weekend. It is sanctioned by the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs’ Ontario Region.
The transition to these entry-level cars sometimes hasn’t been easy for Robichon. He often finds himself going slower when he tries to push harder because he reverts to his karting style, which means he overdrives the car. Driving his car like a kart finds him sliding it through turns which scrubs off speed and robs the F1600 of drive out of corners, leading to slower lap times.
“For me the biggest change was actually having to almost slow my brain down,” Robichon said.
“You are going faster obviously because the cars are bigger and the engines are bigger, but because the track is also so much bigger (than a karting circuit), what ends up happening is that the corners come up slower. So, you have to slow down your movements and slow down everything and be patient with the car.”
Then again, his over exuberance hasn’t hurt him too much.
In his six starts this year, Robichon has two wins and five podium finishes, enough for 514 points and the F1600 championship lead. His worst result of 2013 is a fourth-place finish.
Robichon is 136 points ahead of second-placed driver Shane Jantzi of Ayr, Ont., who has 378. Jack Mitchell Jr., who is not running a full season, is third on 352 points. Mitchell, who hails from Chicago, races full-time in the Quebec Formula Tour 1600 Championship where he is second overall.
With drivers getting 100 points for a win in the Toyo Tires Series, Robichon’s lead is far from comfortable.
Robichon’s success isn’t surprising, considering that he caught the eye of IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe at his third “ Hinchtown.com Canadian Karting Award” in September 2011. The young driver emerged as the winner among the eight young kart racers selected to battle for a fully paid three-day “Wheel to Wheel” race licensing course at the Bridgestone Racing Academy.
Robichon, who also represented Canada in international karting events, said he likely would have never attempted car racing without Hinchcliffe’s encouragement.
Although happy to be leading the championship just before the half way point of the season, Robichon wasn’t expecting to be so high in the standings as he learned how to race a car.
“I kind of went into this season without really having too many goals because I didn’t want to set super-high expectations and then be disappointed,” he said.
“I went into the season wanting to win rookie of the year, but in the first race there were a few really quick guys who weren’t running the full season and I think I surprised a few people with my speed – I surprised myself for sure.”
In the season opener at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), Robichon kept pace with the leader in the US F2000 Series points, Scott Hargrove, Mitchell, and another young up-and-comer Jessie Lazare, of Pointe Claire, Que., who has a podium in USF2000 and raced the F1600 all last year.
To punctuate his performance, the Ottawa driver put up the fastest lap. He finished third, crossing the line just 0.702 second behind Hargrove, who is from Surrey, B.C. Mitchell was second.
The USF2000 Series is the first step on the designated IndyCar ladder system for young drivers who aspire to climb to that series. Hargrove leads the points after five races, while Lazare is fifth overall.
The next race weekend in the F16000 series goes July 27-28 at CTMP in Bowmanville, Ont. The season also wraps up there on Sept. 28.
When he’s not racing, Robichon is studying economics at the University of Ottawa, something he feels keeps him grounded as he strives to make a living as a driver.
“I understand that this is not a very economical sport to be in,” he said with a laugh.
“But there are some things that you love so much that you have to do it anyway.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone