A three-year journey leading up to a week of euphoria culminated in an excruciating two-and-a-half minutes of what can only be inadequately termed as anticlimax.
The second Indian—after Narain Karthikeyan in 2005—to get into Formula One (F1) racing, caught in a late inclusion, frenzied preparation and the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix on 14 March, Karun Chandhok did not even have the time to be nervous.
“It was just frustrating,” he said from the UK last weekend, where he lives part of the time.
Chandhok’s frustration was caused by not getting enough time to practice before the race. He got promoted to F1 just days before the race, after labouring for three years in GP2, which many drivers use as a platform to get into F1. The engineers were still fixing the car two days before the race and he managed only seven laps in the qualifying session. His race ended after one lap.
Raring to go: Karun Chandhok of India (left) and Bruno Senna of Brazil (in blue cap) during a practice session. Caren Firouz/Reuters
The Times newspaper’s online edition said the race cost his sponsors $5 million (Rs22.8 crore), that’s $500,000 per lap. “Seven laps of seriously slow qualifying were followed by a race that lasted 2 minutes 34.479 seconds. Just as well, given that poor Chandhok was already 31 seconds down on the leaders after the first lap before a bump in the track sent his car flying,” it said.
Chandhok dismissed the figure as a figment of people’s imagination. “F1 is more complicated than that simple calculation. It’s difficult to come up with an exact figure.”
The racer from Chennai said a season in GP2 cost him about €1.6 million (Rs9.86 crore); F3, which he competed in for two years, was about £350,000 (Rs2.40 crore). “In GP2, you are given a budget. In F1, you have to work with the team to raise sponsors. It’s not just ‘x’ million.”
Chandhok believes he will be familiar with his car by the time the GP reaches Beijing on 18 April, the season’s fourth race. “We have to be practical. Once I have done 20 laps, it would put me in a better position and we can get closer to other teams. I would be amazed to finish the race in Melbourne (28 March). The first objective is to get reliable.”
Chandhok was a late entrant to the scene after the Hispanic Racing Team (HRT) signed him on days before the Bahrain race. HRT itself came together late in the game; The Times said it was “flung together so quickly that their crates of cars and components made the plane to Bahrain with only 30 minutes to spare”.
Chandhok and teammate Bruno Senna joined the team without the pre-season testing and no F1 experience. And suddenly, he was in the same race as Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. “We don’t have much time to socialize because before the race, you go into your own bubble. Till Sunday night, I had no idea where anyone finished, even Schumacher. I was just focused on my job and problems,” says Chandhok.
He says that off the track he gained a lot of acceptance. “Before the race on Thursday (11 March), many teams came up and said they were happy to see me. Every 5ft, there was someone congratulating me, including Michael. I felt really privileged. Plus, there were so many messages, emails and Twitter updates. In Bahrain, there was such a big crowd that I was standing outside for 45 minutes. I feel blessed to be in this position, the only person (F1 driver) from a billion.”