Then Karun Chandhok started racing, he could easily have been a victim of the “racing driver dad syndrome”. The phenomenon would be more familiar to followers of tennis, which has equivalent versions in Steffi Graf’s father Peter, Jelena Dokic’s dad Damir and Andre Agassi’s father Emmanuel—they all drove their children pretty hard.
Karun’s father Vicky Chandhok, having carried forward his own father’s driving legacy, did not sit on the sidelines and scream at his successor. Instead, he took a step back and trusted his son with his decisions. “He was trying to survive as a driver, which was critical,” says Vicky. “We had our fair share of humour when my younger son (Suhail) used to tease me with ‘Here comes the coach’. The humour aside, the path was clearly carved out and the rungs of the ladder were quite well defined,” Vicky adds.
That was over a decade ago.
Karun, 29, drove in the FIA World Endurance Championship with JRM Racing in 2012; he was the test and reserve driver for the Lotus Formula One (F1) team in 2011 and the only Indian driver in 2010 F1 with the Hispania Racing Team (HRT), apart from having raced in the GP2 Series (the support series for F1) from 2007-09 and British Formula 3 from 2002-04. Vicky, 55, helps run the two family companies, Wallace Sports and Research Foundation and KC Motorsport, with sons Karun and Suhail, besides managing the former’s commercial and sponsorship interests. In December, Vicky was also re-elected president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), the parent body for racing in the country.
The two men sit next to each other at the Mars premier room in the Sahara Star hotel in Mumbai, hours before they have to catch a flight to Chennai, where they live. They travel “insanely”—Karun says that from the age of 18, he has done a hundred flights a year, averaging a trip every three days.
Theirs is a relationship of understanding, of two men who have journeyed together, both literally and philosophically, towards one common goal—of making Karun the best racing driver possible.
No sport other than F1 combines business and technology, and skills at people and media management, with the ability to drive at over 250kmph in different circuits of the world. In this intensely competitive world, the driver needs a team and good commercial backing. “There is no sport where the result of the competition is directly affected by the investment,” says Karun.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Karun: We both are practical and every problem is solved rationally, without emotion. Vicky: We are cut and dry about it; something has to be done, we don’t waste time."
“When I arrived for my first F1 race, a friend told me: ‘Everyone here either wants to make money off you, is a crook, liar or a thief. Ninety per cent are one of these; so put a label.’ It may not be 90%, but it is largely true. Wherever there’s money, there are sharks.”
In Karun’s case, his father, who raced till 2000, understood the business of this sport, which subsequently led to their rather practical division of labour. “Within the company, we have been clear—each one plays to his strengths and lets the other one do his job,” says Karun.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Vicky handles the commercial and administrative departments; Karun takes care of marketing, media and, of course, driving."
Karun had just turned 18 in 2002 when he moved to England to chase his dreams: from a city of 4.3 million in Chennai to a town of 12,000 in Brackley (which is close to Silverstone, the venue for the British Grand Prix). He had skipped college and decided he wanted to be a race driver, at a time when F1 racing was still almost an illusion in India (Narain Karthikeyan is the only other Indian to have raced in F1). Karun says his father stayed with him for three weeks in the UK, set up the place with the help of assembled Ikea furniture, tried some cooking and left him to find his own way.
“He isolated me (from commercial concerns) till GP2,” says Karun, “which took the pressure off me. If he hadn’t done that, I would have been in trouble.”
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Vicky makes his decisions impulsively, Karun is logical. Karun: He is an eternal optimist, I am a realist. Vicky shakes his head in amused disagreement. Conflicts are rare. Karun: Then I would shout and he would say ‘OK, fine’."
Though Karun’s decision to skip college was not a shock to Vicky, he didn’t see it coming. He also never wanted to get involved in the administration of the sport. “It’s not easy to give 90% of your free time to do something for free. But it’s exciting trying to manoeuvre the Indian way of thinking to align globally,” Vicky says.
In 2011, when F1 racing first came to India at a track in Greater Noida, the Chandhoks had a significant role to play behind the scenes, acting as consultants to promoters Jaypee Sports International Ltd and leveraging their friendship with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.
"DO NOT OPEN: None in particular; the two travel so much that they rarely get in each other’s way."
Karun says, laughing, that the only time they have a difference of opinion is when “he wants to raise money by mortgaging our house with another bank, mortgaging my grandfather’s house, aunt’s house….”
He adds: “His Punjabi brain kicks in, to earn Rs.10, he will spend Rs.100. I have half a TamBrahm brain from my mother Chitra, which will help me rein him back in. She brings us back to earth.”