|Jordan King knew he would be on a learning curve when he headed into the first two meetings on his 2009 international karting calendar - an arduous double-header featuring some of the best young drivers in the world - and if he admitted afterwards to having been taught a few lessons, he also knew he had given his rivals something to think about with his eye-catching raw pace. |
Having only raced abroad on a handful of occasions to-date during his fledgling career, the Warwickshire star travelled to Italy to begin his first full European campaign at La Conca in Puglia in the south of the country, scene of the opening round on the hotly-contested WSK International Series schedule.
With his tail up from having lapped consistently at the sharp end of proceedings at the same venue in testing the week beforehand, he was clearly a fan of a circuit he described as 'quite technical, but also fast and flowing', and his confidence matched his impressive speed.
"There are a lot more drivers," the recently-turned 15-year-old reflected of his first real experience of European standards at their very best, "and it's just a completely different level to anything I've done before. The competition is much tougher - and all the drivers are good, which makes the racing really hard, even though the driving style is probably less aggressive than in the UK.
"I still didn't really know who any of them were, though, so I didn't feel intimidated at all - I just got out there and tried to do my best. There is a lot of pressure, knowing at the start of the weekend that more than half of the drivers aren't even going to make it through to the finals. If you have just a couple of bad heats it could all be over. You really need to be on it all the time.
"Unfortunately I messed up qualifying - on my fastest lap I overshot one of the corners, which lost me two tenths. Without that I could maybe have been on the front row. It was very frustrating, but at the same time we knew we had the pace."
Indeed, lapping more than two tenths of a second quicker than highly-rated, Red Bull-backed compatriot Alexander Albon, Jordan ended qualifying seventh in his group and ranked 14th outright amongst the 70 entrants in the bumper KF3 field, barely a tenth away from third spot and highest-placed British driver in attendance. It may not quite have been a perfect start, but it was certainly none-too shoddy either.
The four heats that followed would see him lead a race on his WSK bow and yielded a third and a sixth place, a trio of top three fastest laps - twice quicker than the race-winner - but also, crucially, a 19th spot and a failure to finish after he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time...and shoved unceremoniously off the circuit. With just 28 drivers progressing automatically on to the pre-final, 29th in the intermediate rankings put the Harbury-based ace on pole position for the 'second chance', 36-strong repÍchage - from where he would do exactly what he needed to do.
"I was a bit gutted that we didn't make it straight through," he confessed, "but I was still confident of getting through the repÍchage ok. Over the first three laps I pulled out a gap of two seconds over the rest, but then the yellow flags came out. I was just relieved to get through really, given everything that had gone wrong, but I was still a bit annoyed as I knew we could have been starting the finals right up there..."
A relatively straightforward triumph would be followed by a pre-final in which a lot of hard work to haul himself up into 12th spot from 29th at the start was undone in an instant when he was shunted out of contention by fellow Brit Macaulay Walsh. A better fastest lap time than the winner again proved that Jordan had the pace to be fighting at the front - just not the luck to go with it. Stymied by engine issues in the final, an outcome of 20th place was far from what he had been hoping for back at the beginning of the weekend.
"Our aim had been to get into the final and we did that," he related, "but I was disappointed that we couldn't be right up there after the pace we had shown. I definitely feel more confident now, though, and I know more what European racing is like. I'm still learning about everything, but Mark Berryman who runs JRP is a really good guy and I feel really settled in the team and comfortable there now."
From La Conca, the reigning British Mini Max Vice-Champion headed up north to Lonato near Garda for the annual Winter Cup, with nigh-on 100 competitors present this time - again including all of the leading names. It would prove to be just as tough a challenge.
"I had tested there before and we had been fast," Jordan recounted, "and we remained quick throughout practice too, so I was feeling really confident about it all. We put new tyres on for qualifying, though, and they changed the way the kart was handling and made it understeer.
"That meant I could only manage eighth in my group and 19th overall, which was nowhere near as high as I had wanted to be. As the times are always so close in Europe, just half a tenth can mean a difference of ten places, so again there's more pressure, because you have to get it absolutely right."
Indeed, a mere tenth would have vaulted the Repton School pupil all the way up to eighth on the grid, and three tenths would have given him pole, so tight was the competition, but he was nonetheless the second highest-placed British contender, and ahead of both defending WSK KF3 Champion Nyck de Vries and 2008 BRDC Stars of Tomorrow KF3 title-winner Jake Dennis, drivers vastly more experienced in the class. Fourth place in heat one was a good start, but then things began to unravel once again...
"In heat two I came down into the second corner," he explained, "and the guy about three places behind fired practically half the field off. It was complete carnage, and the kart was too difficult to drive after that so I had to retire. That put us under more pressure again because the odds were against us, and we were in the repÍchage for the second meeting in a row - I'd never thought I would be in a repÍchage all year."
From tenth on the grid, a conservative approach earned Jordan the same spot at the chequered flag, having been knocked down as far as 20th at one stage but battling his way back onto the rear of the leading group. Though he could probably have climbed even higher still, he prudently decided that discretion was the better part of valour and elected not to risk any rash moves in a bid to gain further position.
From 27th on the grid for the semi-final, a start-line shunt helped him to run as high as 14th, until engine woes intervened once more and left him a sitting duck, unable to prevent his rivals from simply out-dragging him in a straight line and agonisingly missing out on the grand final by just two places.
"I was losing power," he rued, "and would get halfway down the main straight and people were pulling past me as if I was just standing still. I was really gutted again that we couldn't get a good result to capitalise on the pace we had shown, but it is all a learning experience and we were definitely encouraged by our speed."
Indeed, following a weekend that left Jordan to return home empty-handed and with everything but the result to show for his efforts, he has now turned his attentions towards the second WSK round of 2009, at Sarno close to the Italian capital of Rome - a track where the only other time he has competed, he came away again with the runner's-up trophy in his luggage.
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