‘Unbelievable feeling’

Karun Chandhok, set to make his Formula One debut in Bahrain on March 14, is fully aware that the road ahead is going to be very tough. By Stan Rayan.

At the age of three, when he watched a video of a Formula One race for the first time, Karun Chandhok was fascinated. Children taking a fancy to fast cars and ‘vrooming’ their Hot Wheels all over the house is nothing new but things were different for the Chennai youngster.

His grandfather Indu Chandhok, one of the founders of the Madras Motor Sports Club and the sport’s national body FMSCI, and dad Vicky were racing champions and Karun was just continuing a family tradition when he first got into his dad’s go-kart at six.

It is said that his mother was very keen on Karun trying out a racing career as he grew up than concentrate on academics, despite her son’s excellent record at school. “You can always return to academics at 40 but you can’t begin your career in motor racing then,” she had told him once.

Karun’s birthday cake for the first six or seven years were shaped like Formula cars and when he was nine, he even had a bed shaped like a racing car. Naturally, all his dreams were about racing.

The other day, Formula One doors opened to welcome its newest driver when Karun was officially named in the new Spanish outfit, Hispania Racing Team (HRT), at Murcia, the team’s base. He will be the second Indian in F1 after Narain Karthikeyan, who drove for Jordan in 2005.

“This is just an unbelievable feeling!” said the 26-year-old. “I am absolutely thrilled to be able to fulfil a lifelong dream, to break into Formula One. It feels a bit surreal.”

Close friend and former GP2 team-mate, Brazilian Bruno Senna, the nephew of the late F1 legend Ayrton, will be Karun’s team-mate at HRT.

Karun will make his F1 debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix. He will test the Dallara-built, Cosworth-powered car for the first time on March 12 during the Friday practice, just a couple of days before the main race on March 14.

His late entry — Karun was the last driver to be signed this season — and with his team unable to get even a single day of pre-season testing means that it’s going to be tough road ahead. And the young man is fully aware of the situation.

“I know it’s going to be a difficult weekend (in Bahrain). I’m going with my eyes open, there are no illusions. The first four races will be extremely tough,” he said. “We will be competitive by the time we get to Europe.”

Karun earned his racing licence as a 16-year-old in 2000 and emerged as the national racing champion, winning seven out of 10 races. He was the youngest Asian Formula champion the next year and for three years after that, he raced in England in the Formula 3 series. He also drove for the Indian team in the A1 Grand Prix in 2005 and figured in the Asian Formula Renault V6 championship in 2006.

His finest hour came in the GP2 Series, regarded as the feeder series for F1, when he notched a memorable victory in the sprints at Belgium’s Spa circuit in September 2007. That performance earned him a test drive with Red Bull.

Karun’s second GP2 victory came at Hockenheim, Germany, in 2008. He finished 10th in a field of 34 drivers but the 2009 GP2 Series was largely uneventful.

Apart from following Vijay Mallya’s Force India — an Indian team with foreign drivers — the Formula One fans in the country will also cheer an Indian driver in a Spanish team.