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On the fast track

He has been collecting model cars since he was two years old and today he is the fastest teenager behind the wheel. Meet Karun Chandhok, motor sport prodigy.

HE'S BEEN described as `India's fastest teenager' and `a motor sport prodigy' but for him, "all the media hype is not as important as winning races". Karun Chandhok is 19 years old and has just won the British Formula 3 Championship (Scholarship Class) at the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, managing to record the fastest lap of the race in the process. "Don't get me wrong," he continues, "it feels really good when people write about me but at the end of the day, I'm more interested in doing a good job on the track."

Karun was in Chennai for the past two weeks spending time with his family in Kotturpuram. The racer, who made his debut on the international circuit in the 2001 Asian Formula 200 series, has been consistently doing his bit to prove that Indians can do more than just cheer for cricketers. Excerpts from an interview...

Tell us about your latest win.

It was relief more than anything else because we didn't have a very good weekend before that and I badly needed a win. To get two pole positions and two wins was very satisfying not just for me but the whole team as well.

Were you always crazy about racing? Collect cars, have mock races at home...

Absolutely! I've been collecting model cars since I was two. I remember lining them up and racing them around the carpet in my bedroom. Later when I got into Lego I used to build tracks and little racing cars and race them around for hours!

Racing has been my whole life since I was a kid. I've been obsessed with the sport and have grown up in a motor sport environment (my grandfather raced in the 50s and founded the Federation of Motor sports Clubs of India and my dad has been racing since 1972). It was a natural progression for me to get involved in the sport. There was never any pressure from anyone but myself to get started.

Did your school encourage you and how did you balance school and racing?

I went to Sishya in Madras. There were some teachers who weren't happy about me racing and said it's not a sport for children. But most of them were very supportive and still call me to say that they've been following my career in the papers. It'sdifficult to balance studies and a career. In fact, when I was racing in the JK Tyre National Racing Championship, my parents were worried that my studies would suffer. Just to prove everyone wrong, I worked very hard and got 91 per cent average in Class 12.

Do you think you're missing out on the normal teenage lifestyle...

To some extent yes. I can't tell you the number of times my friends have called me to go out for a movie or something and I've said no because I'm at the gym or testing. Even now, I was in India for two weeks but only got to see my friends twice. But this is a sacrifice I'm willing to make because you just cannot lose focus in this sport.

Racing is considered a dangerous and expensive sport, mostly for "spoilt brats"...

First of all, I'd like to say that the sport is not as dangerous and risky as people make it out to be. The cars are very safe and strong. I feel more terrified when driving on the highways back home! Motor sport is the most expensive sport in the world. But you don't need to be a "rich spoilt brat" to go racing. If you're good enough, there will be companies who will want to be associated with you and sponsor your racing. Yes, to get started you will need financial support from your family, but they also have to pay college fee if you were studying so... .

How does someone who wants to become a racer get started? Do you have advice for aspiring racers?

Start buying lottery tickets! No, seriously, the best way to start is to get into karting. Before you get started you must decide whether you want to become a racing driver full time or just treat it as a hobby, because if you want to make it your career, it requires huge effort and sacrifices not only from yourself but also from everyone around you.

What was your first race like?

I started karting at the age of six and moved on to the then newly built MMSC (Madras Motor Sports Club) racetrack. I went to the prestigious Bill Sisley Karting School at Buckmore Park in the U.K. at the age of nine and made my karting race debut at the new Daytona raceway in the U.K. in January 2000, where I had my first professional win. My first proper car race was in the National Racing Championship of 2000. I was a bit nervous but not too bad because I was fastest in all the practice and qualifying sessions, so I was fairly confident I could do the job.

What do you consider a turning point in your career?

I can't think of a single turning point but winning the Formula Asia Championship in 2001 was really good and I hope Silverstone this year will be another turning point.

What's the best and worst part of your job? The best part for me is qualifying. That's when you've got low fuel, new tyres and you push like mad just for that one lap to get a time — Fantastic! The worst part is when you have to deal with raising money. When you're struggling for sponsorship, it's always at the back of your mind.

I think the first race at Silverstone was one of my best. I started from pole, led from start to finish and got the fastest lap. I won by over six seconds, which is huge in Formula 3. My all-time worst was last year at Snetterton, when I was leading the race in the last lap and got hit from behind by another driver — it cost me what could've been my first F3 win.

Chennai has quite a few karting tracks now. Is that positive for the development of the sport?

For sure. The place to start is karting and today there are over 140 karting tracks across the country. Sponsorship is hard to come by and with the sport being so expensive, being a racing driver is not easy. But Madras does have the only international racetrack in the country, which has hosted Formula Asia and Formula 3 races in the past.

Do you think racing is being recognised in India and has people's interest in F1 helped?

Motor sport is the most expensive sport in the world and unfortunately, despite its tremendous popularity in the country, there are select companies focussing on it. Surprisingly, unlike anywhere else in the world, automobile manufacturers have not come forward to promote it.

This year, my budget is Rs. 2.4 crores of which my sponsors JK Tyres, Kingfisher, Amaron, Ucal Mikuni, Rolon and Parx have been able to fund about 70 per cent. We are still short of a full budget to complete this season. Next year, the plan is to graduate to the Championship Class in the British Formula 3 Championship and my budget is Rs. 3.5 crores.

If only a fraction of the money involved in cricket is diverted towards motor sport, it will grow by leaps and bounds. Today, everyone knows who Schumacher is and according to reports motor sport is the second highest viewed sport by Indian audiences after cricket. Now with Formula 1, world rallying and Formula 3000 all being telecast on terrestrial television (i.e. Doordarshan) it means more people will get to watch it.

What qualities do you need to be a racer?

Obviously you need to have some talent and ability. But it's a whole package of being able to work under tremendous pressure, deal with the media, work with and motivate the people in the team - engineers, mechanics, - and also very importantly, be able to market yourself to sponsors.

Do you have time for hobbies? What are they?

I don't really have much time these days for hobbies but like any other normal 19-year-old, I watch TV and movies, surf the net, read books — only Motor sport ones — and go out with friends whenever I can. Most of my time though, when I'm not testing or racing, is spent at the gym or out mountain biking.

What are your future plans?

At the moment I'm concentrating on doing the best job I can in this year's Formula 3 championship. Of course, eventually I want to be a Formula 1 driver but there are a thousand others who also want the same thing. Only time will tell what's going to happen.


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