One of the final driver signings for the 2010 Formula 1 season was Karun Chandhok, who has been paired with GP2 team mate Bruno Senna at the newly formed Hispania Racing Team. The 26 year-old is the second Indian driver to compete in Formula 1 and although he has had a rather difficult beginning to his career with the Spanish team, his upbeat demeanour and positive attitude have made him a hit amongst Formula 1 fans across the globe.
He has previously enjoyed good results on the road to F1 in both British Formula 3 and A1GP, and in 2006, Chandhok became the inaugural Formula Asia by Renault champion, winning 7 of the 12 races along the way. He later competed in Formula 1’s primary feeder-formula, GP2 with Durango, iSport and Ocean Racing Technology respectively, amassing two victories along the way at Spa-Francorchamps and the Hockenheimring. A tough 2009 campaign saw the young man from Chennai struggle to pick up points during the season, but it did not block his progress to the top tier.
Following the Chinese Grand Prix, I contacted him to find out how things are going on at the pinnacle of motorsport, about his role in pioneering social media in motor racing and what bits of road his loves most.
Since it was announced you would be driving this season, it has been a whirlwind couple of months for you. Have you had a chance to take a breath yet?
It was surreal to be quite honest with you. However I must add that when it happened, the feeling of accomplishment was the last thing on my mind as just before the start of my first race, I was told about a possible hydraulics problem. So the only thing on my mind was whether we will get the car out.
It’s pretty incredible but to be honest I hadn’t had time to think about it and let the feeling sink in until the break now. My whole life has been spent dreaming and working towards being a Formula 1 driver and I think when these big things happen in life, our brains don’t process it so quickly! Ever since I was a kid all I wanted to do was be in Formula 1 – I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or anything else and the past couple of months have been the realization of that dream.
What was it that sparked your interest in motor racing all those years ago? Was there a driver that you really admired and influenced you during your younger years?
Racing has been my whole life since I was a kid. I’ve been obsessed with the sport and have grown up in a Motorsport environment (my grandfather raced in the 50’s and founded the Federation of Motorsports Clubs of India and my dad has been racing since 1972). It was a natural progression for me. In India family businesses are very common so I guess this is ours! Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be a racing driver. When my friends were reading comics I was reading Autosport!!!
Alain Prost has always been my all time favourite driver and it was an amazing feeling to finally meet and talk to him over the Bahrain GP weekend. It was a dream come true for me. Prost was one of the few drivers who believed that the focus of a race driver should not only be on speed, but on a technical level as well.
You are the second Indian driver to compete in Formula 1 following Narain Karthikeyan’s 2005 début. With Vijay Mallya’s Force India squad doing rather well at the moment and an Indian Grand Prix on the horizon, how is Formula 1 and motorsport as a whole being received in your homeland? Has there been much feedback?
The hype and response in India has been fantastic. I have had so many messages on my Twitter page and my website, that it’s been quite overwhelming. The media response has been fantastic as well and I’ve had kind words of support from some great Indians like Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev and Shah Rukh Khan as well as captains of industry and political supremo’s.
There has been so much support from within India and also the Indian communities around the world, who have said that they will come to the races with Indian flags to support me which is great to see. I think with the Grand Prix scheduled for next year, I do hope that I can be in a position where we are more competitive for the rest of this season and I’m in a competitive position next year – there’s no doubt being the only Indian driver lining up for the first Indian GP will be a special feeling!
With your use of Twitter, you (with one or two other drivers) are technically leading a revolution amongst Formula 1 drivers – a group of sportsmen that famously tend not to get too close to fans. Was a closer relationship with fans something you always had in mind or was Twitter something that just fell into your lap and made it possible?
I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve always been very concious of my role as not just a racing driver but as an ambassador for the sport especially in a country like India where I have to help the sport grow in popularity. twitter provides a great medium to communicate with the public and give them insights into our world that they don’t otherwise get on the internet or from the magazines and newspapers.
When my, admittedly, untrained eyes are looking at the onboard footage on television, the HRT car looks spectacularly difficult to handle through the fast turns – is that something that you actually feel when driving or are there other problems that amplify the perception of the car’s poor handling issues?
It’s no secret that we are lacking downforce and that is central to improving how the car works in all types of corners – not necessarily just the fast ones. we have a lot of work to do still with the electronics and on the suspension side but primarily the big performance gains will be aero.
Following a difficult weekend in Bahrain, you have since had three consecutive race finishes, including Malaysia and China where you and Bruno Senna brought both cars home. Are there still niggling reliability issues with the HRT cars or is focus shifting to improving the pace and balance?
We have always known that the first four race weekends for us were going to be about being respectable, being credible, and trying to just establish ourselves as respectable drivers who are ready to be in F1.
Over the next couple of races we will no doubt be in a slightly better situation because we now have more mileage under our belts, and hopefully the team can start pushing on from Barcelona onwards to chase performance.
You were teammates with Bruno Senna during the 2008 GP2 Season with the iSport team. Has the fact that you are paired with a driver that you have a good relationship with helped the team knit together and if so, how?
It’s rare for team-mates to be friends but Bruno and I get along very well. I don’t see him as Bruno Senna, nephew of Ayrton – I see and respect him as Bruno, a driver in his own right. He and his family are great people and we’re both mature enough to deal with the pressures. At iSport in 2008 we had a great working relationship with the engineers so I think we can carry that on this year. We always had a similar style and similar requirements from the car which is good for the engineers to carry out parallel programs
Both yourself and Bruno are rookies in a brand new squad – has that made figuring out the car a little more difficult that it might have been with a more experienced teammate and/or team?
Not really – yes an experienced driver may have pointed a couple things out that we’ve missed but fundamentally I think that we’re both experienced enough in other categories and have both tested with good teams in f1 to know what we need from the car and the team.
After a difficult GP2 year in 2009, were you ever worried that an F1 seat might never come about and did you have any back up plans in mind in case team did fall through?
Yes, we had options to be a test driver with a couple established teams further up the field and also to do GP2 again but in the end things worked out OK for us with HRT.
Bernie Ecclestone has popped up in your corner at various times in the last few seasons – has he had much of an impact on your career?
Bernie has always been a superb pillar of support for me and my family – it’s amazing how much that man can do in a single day ! This last winter has been very hard and it’s taken us a while to get a deal sorted so there are always times when you have doubts but in the end it all worked out OK.
You claimed your first GP2 victory at the Sprint race at Spa-Francorchamps In 2007. For many drivers (and fans), it is a special place with a strange aura – are you looking forward to finally throwing a Formula 1 car around the famous hills and corners? Are there any other circuits this season that you are excited about driving?
Absolutely ! Spa is a great circuit in any car and I have fond memories dating back to my F3 days as well. Monaco is my favourite race of the year – it’s a great circuit and a fantastic challenge for all drivers. The street circuit has many elevation changes, tight corners as well as the high speed sections around the casino and swimming pool, which makes it one of the most demanding tracks on the Formula One calendar. With the barriers so close, there is no room for even the slightest error. I also enjoy racing at Silverstone, which remains my home race until the Indian GP in 2011. This will be my first trip to Suzuka as well, so definitely looking forward to that.
Of course, you have done laps on most of the circuits on the calendar, but how do you prepare for circuits that you have never driven before?
There’s a lot of homework involved in the sport and we generally get to the track early enough to do track walks, talk to the engineers and look at data from the past. Simulators are also used sometimes to come to grips with a new circuit although it never is quite the same, apart from which I watch on board videos of other drivers to get a closer look.
What are your aims for the rest of the 2010 season?
I think the team’s target remains becoming the best of the new teams by the end of the year. We all knew we were going to be up against the tide going in but I hope we grow in performance through the year. Personally I would like to use this year to learn and establish myself as a credible F1 driver who’s here for the long run.
Finally, do you have any one single piece of advice for young drivers that are looking to make that step forward into Formula racing?
For me, this is the greatest sport on earth. There is absolutely nothing else that combines competition, technology, finance, marketing, geography and glamour like Formula 1. It is a real dog eat dog world however – very much a case of every man for himself and you really have to be on your toes.
I think it’s important to stay grounded, focused and shut out distractions. I live in a small town called Brackley in the UK, away from the big cities and the party life that comes with it. Motivation is a huge part of it. It’s very important to motivate yourself to work to the best of your ability, both in the car and outside of it. It is a very capital intensive sport and so you have to also be marketable for the sponsors and technically strong for the engineers.