When it comes to Formula 1, Indian racing talent has brought the sport more publicity than the ill-fated Indian Grand Prix; you are welcome to debate this point with me. After following Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok’s careers in the last decade, Indian fans are now eagerly cheering Arjun Maini and Jehan Daruvala’s motorsport careers with the hope that they will break into the big league soon enough.
It is a matter of pride for Indians to see Maini and Daruvala grow through the ranks in the cut-throat and competitive world of single-seater racing. After all, both of these prodigies graduated from Interestingly enough, both the drivers have chosen different routes and series to find their way to the top of the Motorsport ladder – Formula 1.
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During the days of the ‘One from a Billion Hunt’ (circa 2010-11), Maini was arguably regarded as one of the best karting talents in India. His natural talent and smooth driving technique was heralded by the fraternity (and by his rivals) and the folks at Force India were eager to see how Maini would fare in the uber-competitive world of Motorsport in Europe. From winning trophies for the ‘Best Rookie’ to races and podiums, Maini has done well to earn himself accolades and respect in Europe too. He is a step closer to his ultimate dream after the Haas F1 Team announced an extension to his development role a few days ago.
Come the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, Arjun Maini will be starting his maiden Formula 2 season with much hope, talent and support. The 20-year old Bengaluru lad will be facing his biggest challenge yet as he dreams of becoming India’s next Formula 1 driver.
Formula 2: Biggest Challenge Yet?
“Formula 2 is my biggest challenge yet. It is the ultimate step before Formula 1. Everything that one has been working towards in their Motorsport career has to be at its best when you arrive at Formula 2. There is no time for excuses. I am excited for my debut season, I am not in fear and I am happy with my preparations through the winter,” Maini told Firstpost in an exclusive interview.
Competing Against A Strong Formula 2 Grid
After a revamp in the ladder to Formula 1 a few seasons ago, Formula 2 has been recognised as one of the premier feeder series. Last year’s Formula 2 Champion, Charles Le Clerc, made his Formula 1 debut with the Sauber F1 Team last weekend in Australia. One of Formula 2’s biggest selling points is that it shares the paddock with Formula 1 and is a support race at 12 out of 21 Grands Prix this year.
The visibility to Formula 1 team owners and management is one of the strongest reasons why junior drivers who are on the cusp of a Formula 1 breakthrough choose to participate in Formula 1. This season, George Russell (Mercedes), Lando Norris (Mclaren), Nick de Vries (Mclaren), Jack Aitken (Renault) and Antonio Fuoco (Ferrari) will be some of the names that will be looking to make life difficult on track for Maini.
“The 2018 driver line-up in Formula 2 is very strong. I look forward to battling with (George) Russell this season. We’ve been in the same racing categories since Formula 4 and have had good battles,” Maini adds.
Russell is a highly regarded talent in the paddock and could follow Esteban Ocon’s footsteps into Formula 1 via Mercedes’ junior driver program if all the blocks fall in place. For Maini, battling against and proving his mettle against drivers such as Russell will definitely work towards generating interest in the Formula 1 paddock – Haas and otherwise.
His 2018 Form
Unlike Formula 1, Formula 2 is a single-make series and the organisers have introduced a new package this season. This means that all the drivers and teams race with the same chassis-engine-tyre package (Dallara-Mecachrome-Pirelli) leaving driver skill and car setup to make all the difference in performance and not engineering and a superior operating budget. In this season’s pre-season tests that concluded a few weeks ago, Maini was one of the many drivers that topped sessions — an indication that competition is going to be strong and fair.
“Prema (Racing) looked strong in testing. Lookout for (Nick) de Vries, he will be quick. There are a lot of fast drivers and the times will be close,” the 20-year-old said.
In fact, Formula 2’s racing and competitiveness if what reigning Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wants to have in Formula 1. At last year’s BRDC Awards, Hamilton said, “There’s no reason why a Formula 2 race should be louder and sound better, and be able to have better racing, and follow closer. And that’s what we’ve somehow got to make in Formula 1, while it’s still faster than the other classes.”
A Stepping Stone To Formula 1
For Maini, 2018 is a crucial year towards his Formula 1 dreams; it could make or break his momentum. However, it isn’t unusual for drivers to spend at least two years in Formula 2 before aiming for a seat in Formula 1. As for Maini, he graduated to Formula 2 after nearly two full seasons in GP3 where he scored a win, a podium and several fourth and fifth placed finishes.
“Before you jump into a newer series and a faster racing car, you need to make sure you are ready — physically and mentally. In my situation, last year’s tests (in Abu Dhabi, post the 2017 Formula 2 season) made the difference even though it was a different car. It prepared me mentally to make the jump.” Maini revealed.
That said, why would Maini leave his most important step towards Formula 1 in the hands of a Formula 2 team that finished 10th and last in 2017? Maini offered a wise explanation saying, “Trident really wants to win, they’ve shown their merit in GP3 (where they finished 3rd, 2nd and 3rd in the last three years). In Formula 2, the results haven’t come yet, but we are here to turn it around. I don’t think the team’s full capabilities have been extracted yet. I am confident that the team will do a really good job with me.”
Where He Could Go One Up
Tyres play a crucial role in Motorsport and from his karting days, I remember that Maini was particularly kind with his tyres, a skill that should help him in his Formula 2 campaign. But apart from his generosity on the tyres, what other strengths will help Maini in his season-long battle?
“The tyre degradation this year will be a more than what I’ve been used to earlier (GP3), so this will be the key for 2018. The other aspects are getting good starts, making good moves. I think I am strong defensive driver, but have to ensure that my starts and opening laps are up to speed,” Maini answered.
Debut Formula 1 Test?
When talking to Maini, there’s this sense of enthusiasm and positivity that is difficult to miss — a trait that will drive him to much glory in the world of Motorsport and a possible indication of the good work done with his mind coach Dr. Shree Advani. However, as Haas’ development driver, he may already be dreaming about preparing for his debut Formula 1 test.
“I keep being asked about my debut Formula 1 test, but I am focussing on my Formula 2 program this year. I am not thinking about anything else (the step up to Formula 1), but I am here to impress the team (Haas) and hope that my performance will open a few doors for the future. With Haas, we haven’t got into details of my test — but if I do a good job, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t get a drive,” said the young driver.
As for his preparations, he adds, “Formula 1 has been my dream since I’ve been a young boy. If I get a chance to drive, I will take it, but I need to prove my worth first with a great start to the season, good results to prove my potential. But for the moment, there are more things to worry about than the test. If the chance arrives, I will be ready.”
In the off-season, Formula 1 drivers had their social media feeds full of their physical training programs, a crucial element towards their success in the sport. On what Maini would need to do differently for a call up to Formula 1, Maini stressed on the need for pure hardwork.
“I have been training harder every year. I’ve had no fitness issues in Formula 2 and it shows that my program is strong. As for Formula 1, the cars have power steering , so the steering weight will be lighter than a Formula 2 car. The only thing that would work harder would be the neck, thanks to the g-forces. The longer race distances in the hotter countries will be a bit challenging, but there’s nothing special required to get used to that from where I am currently. I am sure the physical barrier won’t block me from getting into Formula 1.”
Support From Sponsors
The FIA announced Formula 2 as a low-cost feeder series to Formula 1 (and a replacement to the expensive GP2 series) — however, Motorsport is an expensive sport. While Maini is well-supported, the quest for new sponsors will never cease — basically, that’s the life of most racing car drivers in the world. A Formula 2 season costs approx. Rs. 16 crores (~ 2 million euros)!
“I’ve been lucky to have support from JK Tyres right from the start of my career and now TVS has joined my list of supporters. Motorsport is an expensive sport and there’s a lot of effort that goes in to try and raise money. Formula 2 isn’t easy as well (budget-wise), but we’re happy with the support we have. But we need to keep pushing to get more support,” Maini said.
Motorsport in India has always struggled to attract corporate investments and Maini’s story isn’t any different. Despite the quality of the target audience that follows the sport and its heroes, the ability to raise large sponsorship has always been restricted to a few brands. This is inspite of the successes of the Force India F1 Team in Formula 1 and Mahindra Racing in Formula E. It seems that youngsters such as Maini are bearing the brunt of the failure and negative publicity created by the Indian Grand Prix and increasingly complex rules and regulations of Formula 1 that have led to falling television viewership.
After the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011, Maini exclaimed to a select bunch of Force India team personnel, “I’ll make it to Formula 1 one day”; here’s hoping that 2018 takes him several steps closer to his dream.
This interview was first published on Firstpost