Now, Arjun Ha(a)s a F1 bow!

Arjun Maini is going places. Haas has picked him as a development driver and the Bengaluru lad celebrated the appointment with a GP3 race triumph in Barcelona.

Arjun Maini at the Haas F1 Team Headquarters.   -  THE HINDU

Recently, the 19-year old Bengaluru boy, Arjun Maini, was announced as a development driver for the Haas F1 team, a great achievement by itself. And the teenager backed it up with a maiden win in the GP3 race in Barcelona, a first win for an Indian in one of the premier junior category stepping stones to Formula One, after nearly eight years.

While some may scoff about just one win in the junior category, the achievement should be seen in the context of a lot of other things.

For starters, GP3 is just two levels below F1 and is one of the most competitive championships contested by some of the best junior drivers in the world.

Arjun’s mentor and former F1 driver Karun Chandhok knows a thing or two about winning in junior categories.

Chandhok, who won two races in GP2, a level below F1 said, “It’s interesting that when I won in Spa in GP2 for the first time, the feeling I had was relief. Relief that I had proved I could compete with the best in Europe at a level just outside F1. I was a Red Bull F1 test driver at that time and the pressure was huge. There was no Indian in F1 at that time so the pressure to get to F1 was high. And the relief was a feeling that superseded the joy.

“The parallel with Arjun is there — of course GP3 is still one step down the ladder from GP2 (now re-branded F2) but if you swap Red Bull for Haas, there are parallels and it was interesting he told me just after the race that he felt relieved!

Maini, with his mentor Karun Chandhok (left) and father Gautham after winning the GP3 race in Barcelona.

“This will give him a big boost in confidence that he can beat the other highly rated drivers on the grid convincingly.”

More importantly, the manner in which Arjun won showed once again his ability to come out of tough situations. In race one, he underperformed in qualifying and struggled for pace in the race, overheating his rear tyres and finishing seventh after starting sixth with one driver ahead of him retiring.

In race two, however, he confidently got the lead in the first corner and then soaked up all the pressure from Frenchman Dorian Boccolacci. Arjun was very good in wheel-to-wheel racing and once in control, unleashed the pace and was comfortably the fastest man on track.

The weekend was a microcosm of his career so far in the junior ladder ever since he finished first among the three chosen (the other two being Tarun Reddy and Jehan Daruvala) in Force India’s ‘One from a Billion’ talent hunt to find India’s next F1 driver in 2011. Arjun, monitored by Force India, then moved to the UK for karting the following year and it was baptism by fire. Eventually, after all the parameters were weighed, Jehan Daruvala made the Force India’s young driver academy.

Arjun came back strongly in 2013, finishing runner-up in the JK Racing India Series in his first season in formula cars. Another good show came in 2014 in the BRDC F4 championship, which he was leading until the final round, only to lose by just three points.

But 2015 was a tough year for him as he finished 18th in the FIA European F3 championship; there were flashes of pace though, like the fourth place finish in Pau, a street circuit in France.

Arjun changed teams for 2016 but with just two points from four rounds, the season was heading nowhere and some tough measures were needed.

That was when a last minute call-up from Jenzer Motorsport materialised for the GP3 season from the third round at Silverstone. With no testing, Arjun qualified fourth in his first outing and finished the season 10th in the standings despite missing the first two rounds. He scored 50 of the team’s 68 points including a podium in Hungary.

The tie-up with a F1 team now will open up new avenues of learning for the youngster. Chandhok says, “When climbing the ladder to F1, creating a USP is important. Arjun will benefit from the Haas F1 association because people in the media centre or paddock will make it a point to look for him now.

“For him, personally, having access to the Haas F1 garage and the team will teach him just how a top line professional team and driver operate. He will spend some days in the simulator at Ferrari which Haas use and that will give him a chance to experience a little bit of F1 driving in the virtual world.”

A mark of a good athlete is to recognise one’s weakness and Arjun has shown he is more than ready to improve himself. While the F1 tie-up and the subsequent win have turned the spotlight on him, there are areas like qualifying where he has to be more consistent and Arjun has realised this.

For now, though, he can and should enjoy what is a significant achievement for Indian motorsports.