INTERVIEW | Motorsport

If you don’t become one with the car, you can never win, says Gaurav Gill

Gaurav Gill.  

Simple and calm off the track, he is simply in a class of his own on it. That’s rally star Gaurav Gill for you. The three-time Asia Pacific Rally champion received the Arjuna Award this week, becoming the first Indian motorsport athlete to earn the honour. After 19 years in the sport, Gill, 37, says he is not ready to hang up his helmet just yet, in this chat with The Hindu. Excerpts

Can you take us through your early years? How did it all start?

I was not racing or rallying but playing tennis because my mother liked the sport. I played pretty well and almost made it to the AITA level but quite soon I shifted to racing and later to rallying. My uncle [Dicky] was rallying with the top teams and was an MRF driver for several years. So, I saw rally cars, super bikes at home and it all started from there.

I took part in an autocross event in Delhi where I borrowed my uncle’s friend’s car.

I was only 16 then but went on to win the race against the likes of Nikhil Taneja [the national champion then] and a few others. Incidentally, I had a small penalty but it was a massive achievement for me. That race, which was co-sponsored by JK Tyre and Maruti, changed my life as Hardy [Sanjay Sharma, the head of motorsports, JK Tyre] said that day that this boy is going to be my rallying prodigy.

If you don’t become one with the car, you can never win, says Gaurav Gill

After a brief stint in bikes, when did you switch to cars?

As soon as I turned 18, Hardy told me it’s time to get into the car and I was soon rallying in cars. In March 2000, I took part in the South India Rally at Chennai and won the Group N outright and came third overall. It was my biggest achievement and I was the youngest ever winner of that category. I rallied for two more years and did the Raid de Himalaya which turned out to be a big disaster. I crashed my car and it overturned a few times. I was so young and full of aggression that I wanted to continue and win it. But the car was so badly destroyed that the stewards said no. I cried and fought with them and told them that I would wear the goggles and drive as there was no windscreen. But they refused due to safety reasons.

How did you get into car racing?

When JK Tyre stopped rallying, I started racing in 2002. I was the only North Indian to race at the Sriperumbudur circuit in Chennai then. I was on a Formula Maruti and I still remember a few guys made fun of me. They told me it is not a rally track and where you can go round and round or slide you car. You need technical knowledge and not rawness to race. But I proved them all wrong and showed them that I could change the way I drive and went on to win several championships. I started with Saloon cars and then the Formula Maruti and in 2005-06 drove the Formula Rolon.

Gaurav Gill (left) and Musa Sherif

Gaurav Gill (left) and Musa Sherif   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Did you bid goodbye to rallying from there?

Not really. In 2006, JK Tyre asked me to rally again. V.R. Naren Kumar and Vikram Mathias were the drivers, and Mathias had crashed the previous rally and broken his arm. So, I was asked to rally, but I had a race in Chennai as well. I won the race and went straight to Hyderabad to rally there. I hadn’t driven a rally car for five years but I sat in the car and did a Super Special Stage and returned tenth fastest. The next day, I went into the stage and took everybody by surprise by beating Naren. It was a great comeback and I had smashed the best field. Even I did not expect that.

How did your exposure at the international level affect you?

My international experience actually changed me as a person. It’s a different world altogether. The guys of today think they are good and fast but when you go outside the country nobody cares unless you are right up there. It’s either be up there or go home. That changed me the most. In 2006, I pretty much won all the races outright in the Formula Rolon and I won the rallies as well. I was winning every other weekend. It was a phenomenal year for me. From there, I changed colours from the yellows to the Red (MRF). The offer was for me to go to the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC), which I would not refuse for anything.

Can you talk about your APRC experience?

In 2007, I did not win there. I did my testing and drove well but those cars and the speeds were a shocker to me. From a Baleno straight into an Evo9 was like going from a regular to a rocket-propelled car. Those cars were seriously fast. I actually came second fastest in Super Special stages. I was high on confidence or rather over-confident that on the first day, I crashed. It was the worst crash of my life. It changed me a lot to what I am today.

That must have hurt you…

It changed my outlook towards everything, such as respecting the sport, the people and the machine. My co-driver [Glenn] McNeal taught me a lot on this and on how to win rallies. It can reflect on your driving skills too. In fact, it has to work together and you cannot be two different personalities — in the car and out of it. I learnt the art of being one with the car. When you sit in the car, you concentrate to a level that you become part of it. You have to understand how each component works, how each millimetre of a tyre or suspension works. If you cannot feel all of that, you cannot achieve high standards of driving.

How far have you gone towards achieving that?

You will have to activate all your senses in your body to achieve these things. Everybody has that but you will have to find a way. I have found that but to be frank I am still learning and evolving as a person. But today, the way I drive is all because of that. I have activated those senses. If you do not become one with the car you can never win. I am saying this at the international level. That’s how I won the championships for MRF.

What other lessons did you learn?

2013 was another big year in my life. I was in a Skoda. It was left-handed drive and I was really nervous. I was paranoid about driving that car because I had never driven a left-hander before. I learnt the tricks of the trade on how to use them. They were very modern cars. There was not much time as well. I struggled a bit but my wife Shilpa helped me a lot in my mental make up. I guess it was the second phase of my life where I had to make the changes to step up my goal.

What did she tell you?

She told me a lot of things about being calm, respectful, humble and how to accept things that may not work in your favour. She changed my mindset and I started driving in a different way. I started controlling my aggression. When that happened, I won the championship in 2016. I won every rally. It shows how much one can change when he starts concentrating on his mental ability. In fact, your brain can achieve more than your body. She told me to be in a zone where it is both fast and safe. She created positivity in me.

Can you talk about your World Rally Championship-2 experience last year?

Last year was a big jump to WRC and I think I proved my worth there. I won eleven stages in Australia and did a few top-five stage timings in Great Britain, Finland, Italy. I think it was a huge achievement.

How can a driver attain mastery in the sport?

The thing that I have been working on all my life is to keep on evolving as the machines are evolving faster than us. If you can understand that then you can come close to mastering the sport. I am also working on controlled aggression ? which probably might take me all my life but that’s how all top rallying and racing drivers are in the world. You should know when to use it and should not burn your fingers using it at the wrong time or place.

Is age fast catching up with you?

Age does not really matter. People say I have three to five years but it is for me to decide when I hang up my boots.

What is your ultimate goal?

There are two things. People think I want to prove myself. I have already done that. Now, I only want to go to the world championship and win the WRC rally not to prove that I am capable of but I’m saying this because I feel I belong there and I am of that calibre.

You seem to get emotional talking about it…

I always get emotional thinking about it because, seriously speaking, I never got the opportunity when I was young. But, I cannot blame it on anyone. It could be my fault because I did not find the right support or the right sponsors. It just did not happen when I was 20 years old. If that had happened I would confidently say that I would have been [among] the finest drivers in the world as I know that I have that in me. My dedication, commitment and passion is of the same level of the top drivers in the world.

Would you be open to sharing your knowledge with youngsters?

I am an open book. You can take whatever you can from me and I am game for it. In fact, I share everything that I know. Internationally, they don’t even share the tyre pressures. But here I tell them what to do and how to go about.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:04:13 PM |

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