The next-gen Formula One icons
In 2011, when 14-year-old Arjun Maini won Force India’s nationwide talent programme to find their Indian driver, he thought he was just a step away from the pinnacle of the sport—Formula One (F1). Over the years, the Bengaluru boy has learnt that it’s not easy, even if you’re blessed with an ecosystem around you, like he was. In fact, Guenther Steiner, team principal of the Haas F1 team, where Maini is a development driver, says: “Getting him into an F1 car would attract good publicity but it won’t help him at this stage of his career. He is still too young for it.”
The 20-year-old is willing to wait, especially since 2017 turned out to be a breakout year. North Carolina-based Haas signed him in May. The same week, he became the first Indian to win a GP3 series race, in Barcelona, racing for Jenzer Motorsports. “I had goosebumps when the national anthem was playing,” he recollects. “It’s the F1 podium you’re standing on, you’ve just driven before the start of an F1 race, the fans have started trickling in, the anthem’s playing for everybody. It’s an unmatched feeling.”
The Haas gig has given Arjun a real taste of F1—being at race weekends with the team, attending debriefing sessions with engineers, and even doing some post-season testing. He also did some testing with Russian F2 teams, Trident and Russian Time, towards the end of 2017—this, he believes, has set him up well for 2018.
Last month, Arjun confirmed his association with Italy-based Trident for the 2018 season of the FIA Formula 2 Championship. He moves to the F2 after competing in the GP3 Series.
What is different this year is that his younger brother Kush is living close to him in England; the 17-year-old is competing in the British F3 Championship for Lanan Racing, a club Arjun raced with in 2014. While Arjun lives in Milton Keynes, Kush stays very close to Silverstone. Kush joins the British F3 after a successful Italian F3 stint last year, where he managed two podium finishes and ended the season seventh overall in the standings. “Being around Arjun will be fun, and a learning experience,” says Kush. “Like most brothers, we’re very competitive about everything. Whether it’s finishing a glass of water, or beating each other at a game of FIFA. And though we’re racing in different categories in motorsport now, and will be living in different parts of England, I think it will be a different level of bonding.”
That the Maini brothers’ careers would have something to do with cars was a given. Their father Gautam had raced in the national championships in the late 1990s, while uncle Chetan is the brain behind India’s first electric car, Reva.
India’s success stories in motorsport have been limited. We have only had two F1 drivers—Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok. The Maini brothers are aware of that, and, with the kind of head-start they have, are keen to change that statistic.
“We can afford physical trainers and mental coaches, and afford to live in Europe, and we’re blessed that way,” says Arjun. “When I was young, we had to travel from Bengaluru to Coimbatore to race, and that was just five weekends in a year. In England, youngsters get to be around the track almost every weekend. India has potential, and interest in the sport, but needs plenty of local championships to identify talent.”
Funding remains the biggest hurdle. “It is expensive,” Arjun says, “and if families are willing to get into it, it’s got to be a long-term commitment. And you have got to start early.”
But India’s larger problem perhaps lies in acknowledging motorsport as a sport. The Indian Grand Prix went off the F1 calendar after three editions (2011, 2012, 2013), following a tax dispute with the Uttar Pradesh government. “I think it’s a mind block,” says Kush. “Most people in India think motor racing is basically entertainment. You just sit in a car, turn on the engine, and drive around.”
That needs to change. Motor racing is, in fact, extremely challenging. All F1 drivers need to undergo a period of conditioning to cope with the physical demands of the sport. “The vast loadings that Formula One cars are capable of creating, anything up to a sustained 3.5 g (G-force) of cornering force, for example, means drivers have to be enormously strong to be able to last for full race distances,” says the F1 website about driver fitness.
The heat inside the cockpit also puts the body under strain and drivers can sweat off up to 3kg of their body weight during the course of a single race.
And then there is the fear factor. Although most drivers don’t acknowledge it. Are the Mainis afraid?
“The only fear is that of failure,” says Arjun.
“When I was 8 and karting, my kart flipped thrice in one race and fell on my thigh. When we went to the hospital, the wound was so deep that you could see my bones. My dad fainted,” says Kush. “Then, two years ago, while racing in Europe, my car flipped in an accident and my collarbone snapped into two. So, no, I have no fears,” he says.
The Maini brothers are a study in contrast. While Arjun is measured, methodical and smooth, Kush is candid and aggressive. But their goal is the same—to stamp their names on the sport of motor racing.
“In India, you need heroes. Could one of us be that hero? I definitely think so,” says Arjun.
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