Motorsport in Germany has entered a deep malaise in the past few years. Having gone from regularly producing world-class talents, with the country fielding a total of seven drivers in Formula One just a decade ago, there’s now just a scarce number of talents on the road to F1. But hope isn’t lost, as 14-year-old karting star Valentin Kluss will make his first strides in single-seaters this year and race in the ADAC Formula 4 Championship with PHM Racing. F1 Feeder Series caught up with him to talk about his career and the problems facing German motorsport.
By Alexander Studenkov
Born in the south of Germany, in the town of Bad Mergentheim to be exact, Kluss was inspired to take up racing at the age of six as a result of his father driving rental karts in his spare time. After he had fulfilled his father’s challenge of beating the best time at his local track by more than one second, Kluss senior bought him a kart and young Valentin started racing in local club competitions.
“I enjoyed racing pretty much from the get-go,” Kluss says about his start in motorsport. After racing for just a few months, he was certain that he had found his passion: ”I realised quickly that motorsport is something that I could do for a long time.”
However, as his results encouraged him to move into more competitive championships, the family soon realised that he would need major financial backing to even just have a chance of reaching his goal of becoming a Formula One driver. ”The difficulty of funding was very big, and my parents were barely able to finance my career,” he says.
Despite all of these struggles, Kluss was able to fund his final two years of karting thanks in large part to a major investment by a single sponsor: ”They were the reason that we were able to continue.”
However, not every driver is as fortunate as Kluss was: just last year, multiple German drivers, even those in higher categories, were forced to let go of their F1 dreams due to a lack of budget. For example, both Lirim Zendeli and David Beckmann had to end their Formula 2 campaigns early for exactly those reasons.
Asked by F1 Feeder Series whether German motorsport is currently facing a crisis, Kluss argued that despite the heavily publicised introduction of the new F4 chassis, the problems are not gone just yet. ”The DMSB (German Motorsport Federation) isn’t doing enough to ensure that motorsport stays reasonably popular. I mean, in comparison with countries like Italy, motorsport doesn’t interest many here,” Kluss believes.
Another cause for the problem is the rich-kid-club image the sport has garnered. ”Everyone just thinks that [motorsport] is “pay-to-win”’, Kluss says. ””If the DMSB were able to shake off that image more people would grow an interest in the sport.”
The central reason from Kluss’ perspective, given his own experiences, are the prohibitively expensive costs to go racing at a competitive level. “It’s clear that it costs some money, but the costs are already really excessive.”
As an example, Kluss says that his final year of karting cost him a total sum of around EUR 120,000, with one single weekend, the CIK-FIA World Championships, adding up to a not insignificant EUR 15,000.
Talent beats money
Nevertheless, the gamble by his sponsor paid off and Kluss won the national Rotax Max Challenge in 2020 and, in his mind even more importantly, the ADAC Kart Masters with KSM Racing last year.
His success on the karting scene attracted the attention of a myriad of Formula 4 teams, most notably Teo Martín Motorsport, with whom he tested at Aragón, and Mücke Motorsport. That gave Kluss the chance to gain his first experiences at a German track, in this case Hockenheim. “Those tests have definitely helped me to get to F4 with PHM Racing,” Kluss says. That opportunity came about in part due to personnel from both squads, such as Mücke’s team manager, switching to the PHM team in the winter of 2021.
Asked why he picked PHM for his debut year in car racing, Kluss says that the main reason is “the fact that PHM is a non-profit team”, with an owner who hasn’t set the operation up to make a profit, but rather “to help drivers to get to Formula One”.
Kluss also sees a positive future outlook for the team, proven by the fact it has already taken its first two race wins with Taylor Barnard and Nikita Bedrin in F4 UAE, and the fact that it is based in Germany, making it easier for Kluss to adapt to the professional racing environment.
He hasn’t set specific goals for this season, as he will only make his debut in the third round of ADAC F4 at Zandvoort when he is old enough, but he hopes to remain with PHM for the 2023 season. “I will try to win at least ADAC F4 next year,” Kluss reveals. He has also pictured a vague roadmap of his route to the top, but says: “For now I prefer to concentrate on the F4 years, as it’s still a long way to F1.”
Kluss will make his Formula 4 debut on the weekend of June 24-26 at the Zandvoort Circuit. He is expected to do several rounds in Italian F4 also.
Header photo credit: Björn Niemann