Passion in the driver’s seat: meet four of India’s brightest young racers

As the Cannes Film Festival wraps up this weekend, a short distance away on the French Riviera, the glamour and action continues at the 75th edition of one of the biggest motorsport events in the world, the Monaco Grand Prix. This Sunday also sees the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, making it the biggest day in the world of motorsport. Indian fans will be tuned in, for certain, for our fascination with auto racing has been picking up speed since 2005, when Narain Karthikeyan made his Formula One début with the Jordan F1 team. Five years later, motorsport had attained a certain critical mass — with two Indian drivers (Karun Chandhok, 2010, and Karthikeyan, 2011 and 2012) on the F1 grid, and an Indian-owned F1 team, (Sahara Force India, inching its way up the order.

In 2011, we got the Indian Grand Prix. With it came a new wave of fans — fascinated by the expensive automobiles, the need for speed and, of course, the celebrities. Like actor Arjun Rampal who hosted F1 parties at his Mumbai resto bar, Lap. And for those who couldn’t cheer with the stars or fork up ₹35,000 for a season ticket, there were pubs and restaurants airing the races. However, the high lasted just three years. The competitive nature of the sport and the finances involved meant the Indian GP last flagged off in 2013. Nor has there been an Indian driver for the last five years.

But now, with motorsport getting bigger worldwide by the year, there is a silver lining — four promising talents who are making waves internationally, competing in some of the toughest international competitions in junior categories. While they are putting India back on the map, the challenges before them are daunting, with the competition getting stronger every year. Apart from being a capital-intensive sport, over the last two decades, areas like fitness and preparation, and attention to the tiniest of details has meant the work one needs to put in to succeed has intensified the competition, with little separating the top from the also-rans.

Fighting the odds

Former F1 driver and the first Indian to reach the summit, Karthikeyan, knows a thing or two about the challenges Indians face. “Making my way to Formula 1 was an uphill task. Having competed only in India and Asia till then, with less sophisticated equipment and infrastructure, was a handicap. Most other drivers on the grid had at least some experience in Europe, where things were run head and shoulders above what we were used to,” says the Coimbatore-based racer, who is still competing in the Japanese Super Formula.

While Chandhok agrees that the level of racing in Europe is much higher than in Asia, he feels the challenges off the track are equally daunting. “All of a sudden you’re living away from home, 8,000 km away from friends and family. I had to learn how to cook and train outdoors in the freezing cold, dark, wet winter months,” he shares, adding, “You need a lot of motivation to succeed, but to rise against all these challenges makes you mentally stronger than the European drivers. I would always try and force myself to get on a bike, go running or go to the gym because I knew the Brazilians, the Japanese or the Brits were doing it and I didn’t want to be left behind.”

Maini on track

Passion in the driver’s seat: meet four of India’s brightest young racers

The most promising talent right now is Bengaluru-based Arjun Maini. The 19-year-old comes from a racing background — his father, racer Gautam Maini, participated in the national championships. Arjun first made headlines when he won Sahara Force India’s ‘One from a Billion’ talent hunt in 2011. Though he was not taken on by the F1 team, following final trials in the UK, he continued racing in Europe. He did a season of karting in 2012, before his first season in cars in 2013, when he finished second in the Indian championship. But 2014 was his breakthrough year, finishing second in the BRDC (British Racing Drivers’ Club) F4 championship, losing the title in the final round by just three points.

Recently, Arjun’s stock has been on the rise after he was announced as a development driver for the Haas F1 Team. Association with an F1 team is vital for progress and this marks an important milestone in his career. The teen is currently participating in the GP3 championship for team Jenzer Motorsport, a junior racing series that is two levels below F1 (most of its races happen during the F1 weekend, at the same venue). Two weeks ago, in Barcelona, he won the GP3 race, becoming the first Indian to do so. Speaking about the challenges, Arjun says, “I never had a typically normal childhood; I had to make sacrifices from an early age to get to this stage. My focus is to spend a lot of time on both the mental and physical sides of being a race car driver.” His biggest strength has been his ability to weather tough situations both in his races and his career.

Taking control

Passion in the driver’s seat: meet four of India’s brightest young racers

Another promising youngster is Mumbai’s Jehan Daruvala. The only Indian driver in Sahara Force India’s young driver academy, he finished third in the 2011 talent hunt, but pipped Arjun in the final UK trials and was selected to be part of the F1 team then owned by businessman Vijay Mallya. The youngster’s career has since been carefully structured by Force India. After excelling in karting championships across Europe in 2013, he began racing cars in 2015.

Incidentally, during his karting season, Daruvala even had a chance encounter with the legendary Michael Schumacher, though in less than ideal circumstances. The young Indian was racing Mick Schumacher, son of the seven-time F1 champion, in 2013. “In the first four races, we had contact in three. Michael was upset about the repeated incidents and had a word with me. It was really nothing but, because of his stature, it became a big talking point,” Daruvala told The Hindu three years ago.

Chandhok knows both the racers well. In fact, the former F1 driver is Arjun’s mentor-cum-manager and was instrumental in putting together the F1 deal. “I work closely with Arjun, but I’m also in touch with Jehan and his father, Khurshed. They’re both talented and motivated, and racing at a good level. But most importantly, they have their feet on the ground and that really is a huge credit to their families,” says Chandhok.

In great company

Last year was an excellent one for Daruvala, having excelled at the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, where he finished second. Later in the year, he finished fourth in the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC (Northern European Cup). This year, he is racing in the ultra-competitive FIA F3 European championship, whose recent graduates include current F1 drivers like Max Verstappen, Force India’s Esteban Ocon, and Williams driver, Lance Stroll. The season started well with a podium finish in the second race in Monza, Italy. A good season here could see him graduate to F2 or GP3 next year. Comparing the challenges Indian racers face, the 18-year-old explains, “Racers (in Europe) have so much experience, racing 30 weekends a year. In India, we do only five. So the first challenge was just to practise and do more testing.”

Waiting in the wings

Besides top contenders Arjun and Daruvala, two others are poised to make it big. Tarun Reddy hails from Chennai, the city many call India’s cradle of motorsports. A former national champion, he started karting at the age of eight and was the first runner-up to Arjun in Force India’s talent hunt.

Unlike the others, his move to Europe came a bit later, after having conquered the national titles — in 2013, he showed tremendous pace to finish third, and in 2014, he won the MRF F1600 title with 11 wins from 14 races. After two years of struggle in the international circuit, he had an impressive outing last year, in the BRDC F3 championship, finishing sixth overall. “The competition is extremely high and the preparation has to be thorough. Tiny details, like how you adapt to the brakes and the tyres, can make a huge difference,” explains the 19-year-old, who, in the past, had a tendency to overdrive and get into avoidable incidents. “Now, with age and experience, I have been been able to find the right balance between aggressive and conservative,” adds the racer, who is also pursuing a business management course at Warwick University. Reddy is part of the ongoing EuroFormula Open, after clinching a last-minute deal. A good season is vital to take the next step, so 2017 will be a make or break year for him.

The road ahead

Passion in the driver’s seat: meet four of India’s brightest young racers

The final contender is the youngest of the lot. Kush Maini, Arjun’s younger brother, won the national karting championship in 2011 (in the micro max category) before heading to Europe. There, the 16-year-old continued to improve and finished an impressive fourth in the CIK-FIA World Karting Championship in 2014. He graduated to cars in 2015 and moved to the competitive Italian F4 championship in 2016, where he finished 16th. For 2017, Kush has decided to continue in the same category, with the team his brother Arjun drives for in the GP3.

While there is a lot of road yet to be travelled, Chandhok believes the youngsters are better prepared than him and his peers. “We missed out on the whole karting phase, which has given them a better foundation. So now, in Europe, they’re competing on a much more even platform,” he says, adding that the domestic motorsports scene is growing steadily. “The sport has changed a lot since Narain and I started racing (24 and 17 years ago, respectively). Now, with names like JK Tyre and MRF, as well as manufacturers like Volkswagen, investing, these boys and other drivers have more opportunities and better cars to learn their craft in. It would be great to see one of them in the F1 one day!”

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:24:00 PM |

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