An Indian colt gets to ride a prancing horse!

Parth Ghorpade…“To make real progress you have to race outside India.”-

The Formula Pilota Asian champion, Parth Ghorpade, talks about his stint with Ferrari, his progress in the ongoing Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Series and much more in this interview with G. Raghunath.

Parth Ghorpade’s ambition is to become a professional racing driver, or to be more direct a Formula One driver. His F3 testing with the Ferrari Driver Academy (he is the only Indian to enter the Prancing Horse’s academy) at the Fiorano Circuit, near Maranello, in Italy recently is a fair indication that the 19-year-old is on the right track to achieving his goal.

Incidentally, the Academy, under the stewardship of Luca Baldiserri, who had worked as a race engineer for prominent Ferrari drivers such as Gerhard Berger, Eddie Irvine and the legendary Michael Schumacher, trains talented young drivers for a future in F1.

“The best thing about the testing was the exposure I got working with one of the giants of Formula One racing,” says Parth, a resident of Kolhapur (Maharashtra).

In a higher level… Parth Ghorpade receives last-minute instructions from famed race engineer Francesco Pons during his F3 testing at Fiorano.-

In an interview with Sportstar, the Formula Pilota Asian champion talks about his stint with Ferrari, his progress in the ongoing Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Series and much more.

Question: What was your reaction on being chosen to test a F3 car with the Ferrari Driver Academy?

Answer: The test was a prize for winning the Asian class in the 2012 Formula Pilota Series. However, once the Asian series switched to VW engines for 2013 there was an element of doubt whether Ferrari would go through with it. I was fortunate to meet Luca Baldiserri during the Vallelunga round (Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Series) in April and he readily agreed to arrange the test when I was introduced to him. This made it even more exciting as I had almost given up on it happening.

What was the testing all about and how did it go?

It was a very professional test with the Ferrari Academy driver, Antonio Fuocco, also on track as a benchmark. The race engineer was Francesco Pons who used to be with the Ferrari F1 test team, and the cars were run by Taatus Engineering. Baldiserri was there throughout.

The emphasis was on working with the engineer and adapting to a new car and track in a limited time. They ran sessions of 10 laps and then worked on the data with me. I did about 75 laps before the rain came. In terms of progress, I was faster on 100km-old tyres at the end of the day than with the new set in the morning. It meant I had adapted to the new car and would have been at least half a second or more quicker if we had put on a second set. My best was 1:13:80 on old tyres, which was not very far off Antonio given his experience with the car and the Fiorano track. I think Baldiserri was satisfied at the end of the day.

How was the experience of driving a F3 car?

It was exciting — a big difference from the Renault Alps Series, especially the speed. That’s perhaps why drivers who drive F3 don’t want to get back to the Alps Series.

Was it difficult to adapt to F3?

Not really. Speed wasn’t a problem as much as the tyres and the grip, but I had no difficulty in driving the car.

How do you think the testing will help you in your career?

In the short term, the media exposure has been very good, but apart from having the privilege of being the first Indian driver to test on this track, I have been able to demonstrate what is possible if I had the same opportunities and support as some of the Ferrari Academy drivers. Ferrari will be present at the (Formula Renault) Alps because Fuocco is driving in the Series. If I can perform consistently and progress to the front by the end of the season, they will be watching. Let’s see...

Your impressions of the Ferrari Driver Academy and its way of functioning...

Very professional, as would be expected (of such big teams), but also very warm. Baldiserri personally drove us around. Not often do you see a person with that much experience and clout conduct himself in such an unassuming manner.

Now, coming to the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Series, how has it been for you so far?

The pace has been very good in qualifying. I would have been P5 in Race 2 at Imola but for a red flag. At Vallelunga, I was sixth fastest in qualifying. The race results have been disappointing given the qualifying positions. I started off with a top 10 in Race 1 at Vallelunga, but then in Race 2, got taken off when running in the top 10. At Imola I had brake problems throughout which caused an off early in Race 1 and in Race 2 the same issue got worse to the point where I was unable to finish the race. I should have had four points-finishes by now. But the pace is there so just the luck needs to catch up.

How competitive is the Alps Series?

Along with the Formula Renault NEC, it is probably the second most competitive junior championships in the world. It has 36-plus cars on the grid of which at least 25 are capable of top-10 or better finishes. Some of them are very strong second-year drivers who are also frontrunners in the Eurocup. It is good to be racing with them on equal terms in the first year itself.

To what specifications does the Alps Series run?

The cars are powered by 210 BHP Renault engines, with a seven-speed paddle shift gearbox. They run on Michelin tyres while the chassis is built by Taatus to FIA F3 safety standards. An Alps car is much closer to an F3 car than the older version of the Renault 2.0.

The format consists of three one-hour practice sessions on Friday; qualifying is on Saturday followed by Race 1. Race 2 is on Sunday.

Why did you choose the Alps Series? How do you think it will help you in achieving your goal of earning a drive in Formula One?

In terms of competitiveness, the Formula Renault 2.0 Series is very high. It is also considered a benchmark to evaluate a driver more than any other junior series. We chose Alps because of the track time on Friday, which allows me to learn the track as I had done only three days of pre-season testing due to a late call on the season. This is borne out by the qualifying, which would not have been so good if we had only two 30-minute sessions as in the NEC. In addition, we had worked with BVM Racing engineers in Formula Pilota. However, the main reason was the track time and the close schedule of races, which minimised the time out of a car. I think it was the right call.

As for F1, it is still some way off but a number of drivers have reached there via the Formula Renault 2.0 and 3.5. But first, I have to show I can be at the front in this series and the Eurocup.

How difficult is it for youngsters like you in India to take up motorsport as a career?

Very difficult because of the lack of infrastructure and a systematic programme to move you up the ladder as in other countries. Funding is limited, very selective and not always performance based. The corporates are not interested in taking up a fresh challenge beyond cricket, and the established motorsport network does not seem very keen on investing in the future. If you are relying on talent and results, there is more chance of getting support abroad even though you might not have the right connections. In contrast, foreign drivers seem to find it easier to get funding from India! Very confusing — so it’s better to concentrate on the results and my driving for now. But to make real progress you have to race outside India.

FOR THE RECORD 2002 & 2003

JK Tyre National Karting Championship (U-12) winner.

2004

JK Tyre Rotax Challenge Cadet Championship (U-12) runner-up.

2005 & 2006

JK Tyre Rotax Challenge Minimax Championship (U-13) runner-up.

2008 & 2009

JK Tyre Rotax Max Challenge Junior Championship (U-16) winner.

2010

JK Tyre Rotax Max Challenge Senior Championship winner; VW JK Tyre Polo Cup Championship runner-up.

2012 Formula Pilota Asian Champion. * * * SHORT TAKES Your best moment in the sport so far?

Winning Race 2, Round 2 at Sepang in pouring rain on slicks, and with it the Formula Pilota Asian Championship.

Your worst moment — the one you would like to forget?

Round 6 of the 2010 VW Polo Cup. Questionable jump-start in Race 1 cost me points lead and a bad start cost me position for Race 2. Then got taken out when I was one position away from winning the championship.

Your idol? Fernando Alonso. What does racing mean to you? Everything; it is all I know. Your favourite track? Spa. Your favourite holiday destination? San Diego, California. Your favourite sport apart from racing? Football. Your favourite personality in other sport? Roger Federer. What do you do when not racing? Gym and music.

What would you have been if not for motor racing?

No idea!