From a teen go-karter to a 20-year-old Formula driver, Ashwin Sundar has pitch-forked himself into the highly competitive world of racing. Prince Frederick has the details.
One go-kart contestant cornered all the attention. Well short of the minimum height required (4 feet 9 inches) to comfortably drive a racing go-kart, the adolescent was made to recline against a 4-inch pillow placed before the backrest and wear high-heeled shoes. The crowd at Danny's Karting was full of admiration for this pint-sized, 13-year-old driver. Barely into learning the nuances of karting, he was taking on men many years his senior. He pulled off a coup. This sensational victory was followed by a title-grabbing performance at the 2002 MRF National Go-Kart Championships (Under-17). He repeated the feat in 2003. Meet 20-year-old Ashwin Sundar.
Since his spectacular entry into the world of motor racing, he has gone from strength to strength. In seven years, he has traversed the gamut of motor racing. From karting, he quickly graduated to saloon cars and then to Indian Formula cars, switched to bike racing, juggled bikes and cars with results that left the racing fraternity gaping and finally settled down to racing only four-wheelers. Now, he has a foot firmly planted on the international stage. In addition to sponsorship by JK Tyres, Ma-con has taken him under its wing and Volkswagen is projecting him as its face in India.
Despite huge international exposure in recent years, Ashwin still remains a shy, reticent boy.
As the interview unfolds, he displays the same nervousness that engulfed him when Volkswagen opened him up to a blinding glare of media attention last year. It was the launch of the Jetta at Delhi and Mumbai. After fielding questions from over a hundred journalists, Ashwin quipped that facing journalists was more unnerving than facing opponents on the speedway.
As Ashwin discusses the high points of his racing career, an unpretentious modesty shines through his words.
"I had an early initiation into the world of automobiles. As my father has been running buses, lorries and trucks, I grew up around drivers and mechanics. As a kid, I used to sit on drivers' laps and steer the wheel.
I drove a car at eight," begins Ashwin.
The nature of his engagement with automobiles changed dramatically, when his father Sundar moved base from Vellore to Chennai in 2002. A visit to a karting facility in the city was a revelation - the boy showed a natural understanding of a race track. After a couple of seasons in karting, Ashwin broke into the world of big-time racing. At thirteen-and-a-half, he became the youngest to acquire a car racing license. "As the governing authority subsequently stipulated 14 as the minimum age for getting the license, I will hold this record forever." Records have been falling into Ashwin's lap regularly.
In 2004, he became the youngest Formula LGB driver. Competing for Ram's Racing at the 2007 JK Tyres National Road Racing Championships, he became the first to win both Formula Swift and Formula Hyundai titles in a season. But Ashwin considers 2006 his most successful year.
He made TVS Racing proud by winning the 110cc and 160cc classes at the UCAL-Rolon championships - he was declared Champion of Champions. His learning curve went up considerably that year as he got to race in Malaysia, Japan, Thailand and Singapore for the 115cc FIM Road Racing Asian Championships in the Underbone class (under-21) - he stunned observers by finishing second.
Before the year ended, Ashwin proved himself as an all-rounder. He came third in both Formula Hyundai and Formula Swift categories at the JK Tyres nationals. When he bested opponents much older than him, reactions were mixed. At first, the seniors winced from the crushing blow to their egos. But they soon got over their shock and came around to being the boy's constant admirers and supporters.
"Thanks to racing, I don't have many friends who are my age. Most of my friends are older than me."
Following his sterling performances in 2006 and 2007, Ashwin was noticed outside India.
Impressed with the boy's track record, Marian Hamprecht, owner of Ma-Con Motor Sports, got in touch with him. An impressive showing with the Formula Konig car (powered by a Volkswagen engine) at the team's circuit in Berlin opened the doors to a three-year Ma-Con sponsorship - Ashwin was now all set to race in the German Formula Volkswagen ADAC Championship!
While he enjoys the challenge, Ashwin can't help pointing out the vast gulf between racing in India and Europe. He was racing in circuits around Germany and at Brands Hatch, England - and he admits he was out of his depth. "Everything was new to me - the weather, the people, the tyres and the circuits! Out there, you have a 25 to 28 car grid. In India, a grid is only half as big. The difference between the first and the twentieth car is very thin - about half a second!" In the latter part of 2008, Volkswagen invited Ashwin for a race at Brands Hatch - with its super-mini car Polo. In the qualifier, the youngster set the track ablaze and clocked a brilliant timing, which stands as a record in the Polo Cup class.
In early 2009, he was asked to move from Formula racing to Polo Cup - Ashwin complied, despite realising how unsettling the change could be. As this touring car championship calls for a different approach, Ashwin has had to unlearn many of the lessons imbibed during the 2008 ADAC championship. Having to juggle between the JK Tyres Nationals (where he represented Narain Karthikeyan's NK Racing) and Polo Cup was among the things he manfully managed this season.
With one more race to go in the Polo Cup, Ashwin is placed 14 in a fray of 28 - considering he has been pitch-forked into a highly competitive racing atmosphere, this is not bad showing.