'My target, like all racing drivers, is Formula 1'
The Rediff Interview / Karun Chandhok
After Narain Karthikeyan, it is now the turn of 18-year-old teenage sensation Karun Chandhok to grab the attention of India's formula racing fans. At the age of 17, in his first international racing appearance, he became the Formula Asia champion. Now he is participating in the British Formula 3 Championship, Scholarship class.
He did exceedingly well in his first race in England, finishing overall fourth, with just two points separating him and the third place. In fact, it took two-three races for him to get accustomed to the English conditions, but after that he has consistently finished on the podium. In one of the races, he even set the fastest lap time. Nine more rounds to go, and Karun aims to finish in the top three.
After completing the first leg of the British Formula 3 Championship, Karun was in Chennai for a week to be with his parents. Shobha Warrier took the opportunity to meet him.
Generally, parents gift their children, especially boys, with toy cars when they are young. Did your passion for cars start that way, or is it in your blood?
A bit of both. My grandfather, Indu Chandhok, founded the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs in India. He has been racing from the 1950s, and my father, Vicky Chandhok started racing in 1972. So I grew up in a motor sport environment, and it was just natural for me to be a part of the sport. I went to my first race when I was six weeks old!
Like you said, I was also gifted with lots and lots of toy cars, but all racing cars. That was also one of the reasons why the passion for racing started.
At a very young age itself, did you get the feeling that your family also wanted you to be a racer?
Yes. My whole family encouraged me tremendously. There hasn't been a day they discouraged me or tried to stop me from racing. They have given me all the support; financially and in other ways.
Ever since I could remember, I wanted to be a racing driver. Yes, it was also an expected thing. Everyone who knew me knew that I wanted to be a racing driver only.
I heard that your first birthday cake was car-shaped, and even your bed was shaped like a racing car. Is it true?
Yes, very true. When we shifted to this house in 1989, I wanted my bed to be shaped like a racing car. So, my father arranged a carpenter to make it that way. Not only my first birthday cake but till I was 6 or 7, my birthday cakes were shaped like racing cars!
One question that you face in school is: what do you want to be? Was your answer, 'racing driver'? How did your teachers and classmates react to such an ambition?
I used to say I want to be a racing driver, but I donít think they took me seriously. So, I generally kept quiet. But all my friends knew that I wanted to be a motor racer. I never said about my passion to my teachers or the principal. They read about it only in the newspapers.
Unfortunately, in India the perception of motor racing is that it's a very dangerous sport, and hence people shouldn't do it. That's why in school they don't encourage you to follow motor sport. I don't think people over here still believe that someone can actually go and make a career out of motor sport. It may be changing a bit now but there was a time when not too many people approved of it.
Like you said, here nobody believes that you can make a career out of racing. After school, was it a tough decision to discontinue studying and start motor racing?
No. I finished my 12th in 2001. In 2001, I participated in the National Racing Championship, and was writing my 12th standard board exams too. That was very, very hard. I used to wake up at 4.30 in the morning, finish all my studies, go to school at 7.30. At 1.30, I used to go straight from my school to the race track. I would be there till eight at night. Till 11 at night, I would study. It was very hard balancing school and racing.
I used to be a 60-70 per cent student till my 12th. I got only 70 per cent in the 10th standard board exams, but for my 12th, I got 91 per cent. So, racing did not affect my studies at all. In fact, it helped a lot.
Of course, your father also used to race. Still, how did your mother react to your passion for racing?
Because my father was a racer, my mother knew what it was all about. I am sure she was nervous initially when I went to race. She was there for all my races at the Nationals. She also came to England for my Formula 3 championship. She came to watch my Asian championship last year. She is quite relaxed. That's been a very good thing for me.
You tuned 18 only this January. Is there no age bar for racing?
To get started, we have go-karting, and there is no age bar for it. I started go-karting when I was six years old! At that time, there was no go-kart drive here. So, we imported a go-kart drive from England and put tyres and had it in our basement. I used to drive around in the basement. My first go-kart race was when I was 16. I participated in a go-kart race in England, and won it.
You don't need a road license for racing. But you need a competition license for racing, and 16 is the floor age. I was waiting to turn 16, and as soon as I turned 16, I did my first National Racing Championship. I won the championship with all new records. I won the most races and I had the fastest lap in all the races.
Were you the youngest at the nationals?
Yes, I was the youngest. I am still the youngest National champion ever.
Were you nervous when you went for your first race? Or were you excited?
I was nervous in the first two races. After that, the nervousness went away. You get used to it.
Last year, when you were 17, you participated in the Formula Asia championship and won. How was the experience?
We had 14 races for the Formula Asia Championship, and it is conducted all over Asia -- Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea and China. It was my first international championship and I won eight out of the 14 races. We started in April, and finished in October. It was a good experience, as I could go racing in different countries.
But England is the capital of world motor sport. All the major motor sports events take place in England. So the Asian championship was a good training ground for me before I went to England this year.
Winning the Formula Asia championship was really, really good but I had already been thinking about England, and Formula 3. My target, like all racing drivers, is Formula 1. I won the Asian Championship on a Sunday. By the time it was Tuesday, I was back to normal.
It was a relief for everyone around me, for I was being tested to see whether I had the ability and talent to win an international championship.
What kind of talent do you need to be a successful motor racer?
You need the ability to drive the car faster; you should know what the car is doing and you should know how to drive it.
Do you have to be very aggressive mentally to win races?
You have to be aggressive, but you have to have control over your emotions. What we call, controlled aggression.
Do you want to win all the races all the time?
Yes, I want to. Last year at Formula Asia, I went with the objective to win. This year at Formula 3, I went with the objective to finish in the top three, because it is my first year of racing in England. Unlike me, all the other drivers might have done two or three years of racing in England, and they know all the different race tracks. They know the weather conditions. Weather can affect the track surface. So, for me, this year was more an experience-building year. I have nine more races to go. I will be happy if I finish in the top three.
How was the first Formula 3 race in England? Tough?
It was. The first two races were very difficult because I didn't know what was going on. I was working with a new team, an all-English team, and I had to know them better. I was a bit disappointed with the result, initially. I finished fifth and sixth in the first two races. But then things have improved a lot after that. Now, all the teams have realised that we are contenders to be in the top three. We may not win the championship. It is not realistic to aspire to the championship. I know it is not possible.
What was the turning point? The race at Brands Hatch?
The turning point was even before Brands, at a place called Castle Combe. The race result wasnít very good. It rained in the middle of the race, and when we had to make the choice of tyres, we made a wrong choice. But we found our potential to finish in the top three.
Ever since, we have been qualifying in the top three and consistently finishing in the top three. I have now moved from sixth to fourth in the championship, and we are just two points behind the third place. We are making very rapid progress. The first half was to learn, and in the second half, we have been finishing on the podium in all the races. I am enjoying the races now but earlier, I was not enjoying it that much. Now, I am looking forward to all my races.
At Brands, you finished second, and set the fastest lap timeÖ
Yes, Brands was a good race for me as I finished second, but there were other races where I finished third but I felt I drove a lot better. The last race was so far my best, I feel, even though I finished third.
I did a lot of overtaking in the last race. I was running sixth at one point and I then passed four people and ran in second place. Then, I made a small mistake of braking a little too late and went a little wide. It is very difficult to pass people in Formula 3 because the aerodynamics makes a difference. When you are running close to somebody, there is no wind flowing on the car, and it makes it very difficult to overtake. Anyway, I was second in practice and third in qualifying and finally finished second.
Which was your worst race?
The one at Silverstone. I was running third and closing in on the second place. Then, I made a small mistake of driving too fast in a corner and went a little wide. I was really, really angry with myself when I finished fifth. But each mistake is a learning experience. You don't make the same mistake again.
Again, while practising, the wind was blowing one way but in the race, the wind was blowing the other way. And, I didnít realise that the wind direction had changed. The English wind is so strong, sometimes at 50km/hr!
Are you the youngest driver at championship?
There is another person who is two weeks younger than me. He is my team mate. Otherwise, the average age, I think is, 20-21.
In other countries, from the age of 8, they do racing and go-karting. So, they do 6-7 years of racing in go-kart while we don't do any racing. Now, we have the National Go-karting Championship. When I do one race in go-kart, they do eight years of go-karting which means they might have done a thousand races.
Formula 1 is the ultimate ambition for all motor racers. Have you set any plans for yourself?
It is not realistic to set a goal now for Formula 1 even though my ultimate goal or dream is to race Formula 1. There are only 22 people in the whole world who can drive Formula 1. There are thousands of racing drivers in England or in Europe who want to do Formula 1. And I am only one among them! All of us want to be Formula 1 drivers. It is not an easy goal.
I am now competing in the Formula 3 Scholarship class, which is for people who just come in. Next year, I want to race in the Formula 3 Championship Class. It all depends on the amount of sponsorship that I can get because it is a very expensive sport.
Last year for the Formula Asia, we could raise the whole budget. This yearís budget was Rs.20 million. We had to sell off some property to raise the money. Luckily, my parents had the confidence in me.
We are working hard and trying to raise money for next year; the budget for Formula 3 senior championship class is around Rs 30 crore. If we manage to raise the money, I would like to do that. If we finish in the top three, it will be easy to get sponsors.
Anyway, I donít want to look beyond one year. Maybe, next year, after the Formula 3 Championship, we will be sitting here and talking about my further plans! (laughs)
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj