In 2005, Narain Karthikeyan broke new ground when he drove in F1 with Jordan. After his exit, Vijay Mallya gave us reason to cheer, with his racing team, Force India. Earlier this year, Volkswagen announced their Polo Cup’s entry in India. In a first for Indian motorsport, the winner will be awarded direct exposure on the European circuits and will be backed by VW.
It gets better. A few days ago, Hispania Racing Team announced the signing of Karun Chandhok for the 2010 F1 season.
As a former racer and someone who has shared off-the-track experiences with Karun, I’m delighted; it’s a well-earned reward for him, and a great boost for Indian motorsport.
F1 has always been elitist. Aimed initially at European audiences, it took 50 years to come to Asia. But in the 2000s, it has successfully tapped Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore, even China, in its quest to become more accessible to large emerging markets — and add to its TV viewership.
There has been talk of an Indian F1 GP since the late 90s. In the early 2000s, the Chennai-based motorsport community, film star Nagarjuna and the then AP government attempted to bring F1 to Hyderabad. Then Chandrababu Naidu lost power, and that was the end of that.
But India is too lucrative to abandon. It’s not surprising that Bernie Ecclestone, commercial rights owner of F1, has us firmly in his sights.
The next attempt was hit by controversy. In August 2007, the Suresh Kalmadi-led Indian Olympic Association announced a letter of intent from Formula One Management to ‘promote and back’ the Indian Grand Prix. In October that year, F1 Management signed a Rs. 1,600 crore contract with JPSK Sports to bring F1 to India. JPSK Sports’s share-holding had Kalmadi DNA: 13 percent was owned by Sulba Realty, where Kalmadi’s son, Sumeer Kalmadi is a director; and Kalmadi’s daughter and son-in-law joined JPSK Sports as directors a year later. This attempt too ran into legal and financial hurdles. The Ministry of Sport claimed F1 wasn’t a sport, branded it ‘entertainment,’ and disallowed the international transfer of a large sum (for the F1 license fee). The matter was solved after the intervention of political powers that backed JPSK Sports.
And the provisional FIA F1 list for 2011 now has this entry: Indian Grand Prix, Gurgaon.
As F1 gears up for the Indian GP, Ecclestone’s trump card is Karun Chandhok. The prospect of an Indian driver lining up on the grid of the Indian Grand Prix is a perfect way to Indianise a global motor-racing product, attract new sponsors, and guarantee new eye-balls, making Karun a very marketable driver. He’s in the right place, at the right time.
Karun started racing at 16 (early by Indian standards), winning the national Formula Maruti championship convincingly. His record of 10 pole positions and 10 fastest laps remains unbroken.
In 2001, he moved up to the Asian Championships and won. A few Formula3 teams offered him a seat in the fiercely competitive British F3. Karun’s 2002 move to F3, while gutsy, was also hasty. His three years there were without much success: He finished 14th in the Championship class. He tried his hand at a few single-make series, before stepping down to the Formula Asia V6, which he — not surprisingly! — dominated and won. He also represented India in the A1 Grand Prix World Cup, but struggled to match the pace of the front runners.
While Karun has the talent to dominate the Asian racing scene, he was not as comfortable against the top level Europeans. According to motorsport site driverdb.com, out of the 184 races, he’s won 31 and appeared on the podium 65 times; a fairly unimpressive race winning percentage of 16.85 percent.
So how did he get that F1 seat?
Karun has talent. And two other things going for him: Luck, like being funded by an Indian tyre major when motorsport wasn’t as popular in India as it is now; and the right genes.
His father, Vicky Chandhok, was a rally driver in the 80s. He went on to manage Wallace Sports and Research Foundation (Team WSRF), a team that was instrumental in promoting a lot of junior racing talent in India. He became a senior member of the Federation of Motorsport Clubs of India, the governing body for motorsport in India, and is now its Chairman. His network includes Vijay Mallya, Bernie Eccelstone, and former F1 world champions. Chandhok Sr has pledged his all, and more, to fund Karun’s career. The father-son duo has been dreaming F1 ever since Karun’s first drive in a go-kart, and Karun has certainly benefited from his father’s contacts, experience and passion.
In Ecclestone’s attempt to bring F1 to India, Karun is a strategic pawn. The initial excitement will fill seats at the Indian Grand Prix, but our long-term F1 success will depend on Karun and Force India. As a lifelong motorhead, I am hopeful. Good luck, Karun! Good luck Force India!
WHAT TO EXPECTA slow car
NHRT’s car has done zero testing, not the best way to prepare for a debut. Getting Senna-ed:
Bruno Senna, his HRT team-mate, had the edge when they paired together in the GP2 series.Gutsy drives:
He’s excited, and it should show in his driving Peaking late:
He gets better as the season progressesA fitter Karun:
He’s been working hard, cycling 5,000kms in the last year.A fitter Karun:
We might see him jump to Force India next year. (Though I would recommend against it.)WHAT NOT TO EXPECTPodiums / Wins / Fastest Laps
If an untested car clinches any of those, the other teams would have wasted millions in pre-season testing and research.Finishes
HRT Racing missed pre-season testing; don’t be surprised if Karun doesn’t manage to finish his first few races. Miracles:
13 teams, 26 cars, including strong mid-grid teams like Williams and Renault: its going be tough to pick up dropped points.Mid-season jump:
Karun’s contract runs till the end of the season and it makes sense for him to honour it and grow with the team. If he does, next season will only be better!AN INTERVIEW WITH KARUN CHANDOKJust before the Bahrain Grand Prix, we emailed Karun Chandhok.How has the journey been?
The last ten days have been totally crazy. Tomorrow I finally drive the car and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. The first weekend is going to be very tough as we are yet to test the car. We have a good set of people working with us and I am confident by mid-season we will be competitive.Indian driver on the Indian GP grid – good bet for sponsors?
Like any sport — look at Sania or Mahesh and Leander in tennis, or Anand in chess — an Indian influence does help to generate interest from the media and public. As Bernie [Ecclestone] has said, India is rapidly becoming one of the most important and powerful players in the world of business culture and sport. I am sure that a GP next year will be fantastic for the country.Is the Jaypee Group funding your F1 drive this year?
The Jaypee group had no influence in me securing a drive. My father and I know the people and are advising on various aspects of the F1 2011 project but as regards to my drive there’s no link at the moment. You have a pay seat. Could you share how much you have invested?
It’s wrong to define it as a pay seat. I personally have a contract with the team and now it is between them and the sponsors if they want to exploit the undoubted potential of the Indian market. Your dad has played an important role...
My father has played a huge, huge role in supporting me. Being a former racer himself, his advice has been very useful. My parents have had to sacrifice a lot. I am lucky to have a family who are always standing by each other.Did you ever feel like quitting?
End 2006 was really tough. I had won the Asian V6 pretty convincingly. I knew that to pursue my ambition of being in Formula1, I had to find a way back to Europe. As the money just wasn’t forthcoming I had mentally prepared myself that this was going to be the end. I was even close to accepting an F3 Team Manager position! A week before GP2 testing season, Bernie Ecclestone told me that me he had managed to come to a deal with Durango which totally rescued my career. That was a defining moment in my career, one I will always be indebted to them for. (As told to Kunal Shah and Abhishek Raghunath) Kunal Shah is a former race driver who now works with Sport18, a division of Network18
(This story appears in the 02 April, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)