A tempestuous, yet exciting journey

I have very clear memories of going around the dirt track while they were building the circuit and the three-time Formula 1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart laid the foundation stone in 1987. The sense of excitement for that first race in February 1990 was very high. Circuit racing in India was never the same again.

Friends turned foes: Karun Chandhok (left) and Narain Karthikeyan are the only two Indians to have driven in the F1 circuit and were thick as thieves during the early years of their career. But over time, the author writes: “The pressures of being the only two people from our country fighting for the limelight at the top of our sport caused some inevitable friction. It’s a shame and I think it’s fair to say that both of us are guilty of letting this boil over at various points.”   -  The Hindu Photo Library

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sportstar, the editor asked me to write something a bit different in my fortnightly column and to look back at my memories of Indian motorsport over the past 40 years.

This is especially significant for me as my family has been involved in the sport for six decades. My grandfather Indu Chandhok competed in the 1960s and was one of the founding fathers of the sport in India. He was a founder-member of both the National Federation, the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) as well as the Madras Motorsports Club (MMSC), India’s oldest motorsport club. Even my grandmother used to race in Ambassador cars in the 1970s, while my dad began competing in 1972. Family businesses are a big thing in our country and I suppose motorsport is ours!

Early pioneers

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my father was one of the better-known race and rally drivers in the country. Along with people like Karivardhan, Vijay Mallya, the Maharajkumar of Gondal, Kamlesh Patel, Ajit Thomas and a handful of foreigners, they used to travel the country racing on disused air fields, battling wheel to wheel at high speeds in Formula 2 cars with very low regard for any form of safety. In fact, we still have copies of Sportstar magazines from the 1980s at home with my father in his Chevron F2 car on the cover as well as other issues which have features of him winning various rallies around the country. Today, journalists struggle to convince their editors to dedicate half a page to national racing, which is a shame.

Things were very different back then, with only loose rules and in general it was all very amateur, but the crowds loved it and getting 60 or 70 thousand spectators at a race meeting was the norm. The grids were huge, with several races for bikes and cars held per weekend and in fact my grandfather tells stories of how people used to get into a bidding war to get a ticket to come to Sholavaram. Sponsors used to bid to get involved with fantastic coverage across newspapers and magazines around the country — these of course being the days before the satellite TV explosion.

First race track in India

The whole landscape of racing in India was transformed in 1990. In the previous few years, my grandfather and the rest of the senior members of the MMSC sought to build India’s first ever FIA-approved race track just outside Chennai. Piece by piece they bought the 250 acres of land which on average cost the club ₹11,000 per acre at the time. I have very clear memories of going around the dirt track while they were building the circuit and the three-time Formula 1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart laid the foundation stone in 1987. The sense of excitement for that first race in February 1990 was very high. Circuit racing in India was never the same again. A year before that, Karivardhan and my father had started a project to create India’s first single-make Formula series, Formula Maruti, using Maruti 800 engines and gearboxes. My dad worked on the commercial deal with Maruti while Kari designed and built the first cars and Formula Maruti formed the backbone of Indian circuit racing for 15 years.

Waning spectator interest

For some inexplicable reason, the crowds seem to slowly disappear as soon the racing shifted from the old airfields to the permanent, proper race track. Year by year, the grandstands were less full and it was absolutely extraordinary how with the monumental step forward — in terms of making the sport more professional and in line with global standards — it seemed to take an even bigger step backwards in terms of spectators in the grandstands. I’ve never fully understood the reasons for this and I don’t think anybody can fully explain it. Perhaps the spectators liked watching the racing on the old ‘T’ shaped track where you could see a lot from sitting in one place. Perhaps the introduction and rapid growth of cable television meant that people had other forms of entertainment. Either way, nearly 30 years later, it still remains a mystery.

However, on the track and through rallying on dirt roads around the country, the sport was in good health. The two big tyre giants JK Tyre and MRF began to invest huge sums of money and for the first time drivers were paid a professional salary. My dad ran the JK Tyre team from 1992 until 2000 and I remember travelling across the country for rallies while all of February was basically spent at the MMRT race track for the annual big race event. It was a brilliant period of competition where both the tyre giants put huge amounts of pressure on the teams to deliver results and the rivalry was intense.

Early days: Formula Maruti racing cars during the 7th JK Tyre National Racing Championships in Kolkata on February 2004. Karivardhan and Vicky Chandhok started the project to create India’s first single-make Formula series, the Formula Maruti, using the Maruti 800 engines and gearboxes in 1989. It formed the backbone of Indian circuit racing for 15 years.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Interest in F1

The late 1990s coincided with the rise in interest in Formula 1 in our country. It was interesting that in the 1980s and early 1990s, while people enjoyed domestic racing and rallying, actually they didn’t know very much about Formula 1. This all changed as the F1 broadcasts on Star Sports began — I actually remember that the first ever live broadcast of an F1 race in India and it was the 1993 Spanish Grand Prix on Prime Sports! The Michael Schumacher-era captivated audiences across the country and the interest in F1 was cemented. This was also when Indians started competing abroad in established championships. Akbar Ebrahim was probably the first export followed by Narain Karthikeyan. I was a teenager in school at the time and used to get very excited to see them racing around the world, particularly when Narain moved into the British F3 Championship. I actually won a ticket to Europe in my school lottery and used it to go and watch him race as a 14-year-old at Silverstone in 1998.

Racing dream

I started competing in 2000 in the National Racing Championship and the next decade was a hard slog chasing sponsorship deals and drives with teams on the road to Formula 1. My family sold and mortgaged everything they had to keep my dream alive, while I battled on the track winning championships in Asia and races in Europe before finally ending up as a race winner in GP2 which opened the door to become a test driver with the Red Bull Racing F1 team and then racing for Hispania Racing and Lotus in F1.

Being seven years ahead of me on the career track, Narain had made it to F1 in 2005 which was a huge achievement for him, and big day for Indian motorsport. The fact that only two of us out of 1.2 billion people have raced in Formula 1 underlines just how hard we had to battle to get there, but it’s also a little sad. I would love to see another Indian in F1 soon, but in some way, I feel proud to be a part of this exclusive club.

You have to remember that in the 2000s, India wasn’t ready to spend vast sums of sponsorship money outside cricket and the knowledge of the sport was still low. I remember travelling around the country with Narain to various promotional events where journalists from major papers would ask us to describe the difference between a kart and a Formula 1 car.

The rivalry

Over time, the pressures of being the only two people from our country fighting for the limelight at the top of our sport caused some inevitable friction. It’s a shame and I think it’s fair to say that both of us are guilty of letting this boil over at various points. A friendship that started between two teenagers from India who played hours of racing games together on a computer while chasing <FZ,2,0,9>a dream sadly broke down with the pressures of competition and the inevitable insecurities that all sportsman feel. Who knows, maybe one day when the competitiveness inside us dies down, we’ll be able to let bygones be bygones and work together to try and build the sport back up.

Indian GP

The Indian Grand Prix held between 2011 and 2013 was another huge milestone. My dad and I had built up a good working relationship with Bernie Ecclestone and there were several occasions between 2006 and 2009 when we met and travelled with Bernie to see people across India who seemed to be interested in building an F1 track and hosting a race. It was a fascinating insight into how Bernie worked and ultimately I’ll never forget the phone call we got from him to say that the Jaypee Group had put their money where their mouth was and were going to fund the race. It was a huge operation to pull off and the country was absolutely buzzing with excitement. Never did I expect to see five full pages of coverage for Formula 1 in the major national newspapers.

Sadly the government never got behind the sport. The Jaypee Group spent a huge sum of money delivering the race for three years but as a private organisation they could never be expected to sustain that level of expenditure. The loss of the F1 race was a huge blow for the sport and the interest levels haven’t really recovered.

Current scenario

Today we still have manufacturers involved, the tyre giants are still investing, we now have three race tracks around the country, as well as grassroots-level karting which never existed when Narain or I started. Unfortunately the sport is also rife with politics which is too long and complex a story for me to bore you with. But in a nutshell, sadly like most other Indian sporting federations, the political games behind the scenes suck the energy out of people who generally get involved with the sport for the right reasons.

I don’t honestly know what the future holds for Indian motorsport. To make the leap forward in the next 40 years, the government needs to start to play ball in terms of assisting the import of good cars and bikes, manufacturers need to invest more in driver and rider programmes and national series to find the next Indian stars and the federation needs to manage the sport in the right way to make it a marketable and justifiable sport that sponsors want to invest in. Time will tell but in the mean time, happy 40th birthday Sportstar!