Mira Erda, 17, settles into a go-kart and ties her hair in a ponytail. She fastens her seat belts, puts on a white balaclava, helmet, and, finally, the driving gloves that cover her multicoloured nails. Sitting in the pit area of Gurugram’s SMAAASH Sky Karting, she concentrates as other racers zoom past her during a practice session. She steadies herself amid the noise and then, suddenly, with a screech of tyres, takes off.

“For me, the noise of the vehicles is addictive. It draws me in," says Erda. “I get into the kart, close my eyes and listen to the noise. I change gears and run a perfect lap in my mind, and only then I start."

Erda’s father, Kirit, is a businessman in Vadodara who started a go-karting track in their home town when she was 8. “I used to hang out there. I was thrilled with speed. But the first time I got into a kart, I banged it into a wall," says Erda. “That is my first memory of karting."

The crash was a minor one and there were no injuries, but it left her terrified. She stopped karting. Her father, however, saw her potential and insisted she give it a try. She did, albeit tentatively, and eventually got hooked. She was 9 when she participated in her first race in Hyderabad.

“I entered the national karting championship with very little practice. It was a new experience," Erda says. She was the only girl on the circuit. “The boys were aggressive and didn’t like a tiny girl challenging them. So they made fun of me, tried to shove me into corners, push me off track, but it was fun," Erda recalls.

And tiny she was. She weighed just over 20kg, and manoeuvring the cart was difficult. “They had to put a lot of dead weight in my kart," Erda says. “I was tiring easily in the races and was overtaken…the stamina was not there."

She began training at a gym at the age of 10, with a focus on building her core and upper-body strength.

“Even while driving the formula BMW cars for the first time in 2017, I had no idea how tired I will get. But after a few laps I started getting tired easily. So I went back to the gym, started working on my stamina", says Erda, who today stands 5ft, 7 inches tall and weighs about 53kg. She spends about 3 hours in the gym five days a week, doing a range of exercises on TRX, Pilates, crunches, weightlifting and running.

Mira Erda inspecting her car before the final round of Euro JK at the Buddh International Circuit. Photo courtesy: Red Bull
Mira Erda inspecting her car before the final round of Euro JK at the Buddh International Circuit. Photo courtesy: Red Bull

In 2012, Erda decided to pursue karting as a full-time career. She went into the second round of national karting as a favourite but was disqualified in the practice session and had to start the race last. “But I won the race. The fact that I won despite starting last…it was my third year in karting, and that result was the turning point," says Erda.

She has now won more than 60 trophies and medals. Her Twitter cover photo is of her sitting with the trophies at the circuit in Vadodara. Over the years, she has progressed to LGB (a step between karting and Formula race cars) in 2014 and the Euro JK last year, becoming the first woman driver to compete in one of the highest classes of Formula racing in India.

Erda says her biggest asset is her overtaking skills. “Push me in any corner and I will overtake," she says with confidence. But Erda says she needs to improve her overall driving and braking skills. In fact, with coach Armaan Ebrahim, she is working hard on braking.

Her next stop, she says, is Europe, the mecca of motorsport. Talks with a team from London are in a preliminary stage, so she doesn’t want to name the team. But she is hopeful of racing there by 2020. “Europe is the best place for motor racing and I have been waiting for this to happen for a long time," she says.

But any future plans depend on the budget. “Formula One is the ultimate dream, but if I even get to test-drive at F1, that would make me happy. The only Indian at that level currently is Arjun Maini," she says.

The two biggest problems for Formula racing in India are that it’s not acknowledged as a sport, and the lack of funding. India has had just two F1 drivers till date—Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok. That is one reason Erda is also focused on her studies. As things stand, her progress in the sport depends completely on her budget (it costs Rs3-4 lakh a month). An association with Red Bull this year has helped reduce the financial burden, but a lot more is needed.

Motorsport, especially F1, is a male bastion. In 1992, Giovanna Amati of Italy became the fifth and last woman F1 driver. She did not, however, participate in the final races after failing in the three-race qualifying round. When Erda began karting, she faced gender discrimination too. Those challenges have eased off.

“I remember, my first trainer used to say behind our back to other boys, ‘Gujarati aaya hai. Ladki ko leke aaya hai. Chala jayega. Ladki khud darke chali jayegi (Gujarati has brought a girl with him. He will leave. The girl will quit out of fear),’" Erda recalls. “Today that trainer meets dad and keeps asking about my schedule and my progress."

Back on the track, as she tackles the turns and bends, inclines and slopes, the tension in her forearms is visible. After another couple of whirlwind laps, she drives into the pit lane. Off come the clasps and the helmet as she unties her hair. She jumps out of the kart and interacts with younger racers, takes a couple of selfies. Mira Erda, the racer, is again a 17-year-old celebrity.