Karun Chandhok became part of a very exclusive club in 2010: Indian racing drivers to have competed in F1.
Coming from a country that boasts over a billion people in terms of population, his journey to the top level of motor racing is a fascinating one.
From watching amateur racing in India to following a motorsport legend out on track in Barcelona on his first day in an F1 car, Chandhok’s rise is one to be admired.
GIVEMESPORT spoke with the Sky Sports F1 expert to chat about his motorsport journey, his racing heroes, and his first experiences of F1, including a great story of meeting Michael Schumacher properly for the first time:
“I grew up in India and in India motorsport wasn’t a big thing. It was very, very small; very niche,” Chandhok says as he recalls his first forays into racing.
“But fortunately, I grew up in a motorsport family. My dad used to race, my grandad raced, my grandmother used to race, and so I grew up going to race events. The actual events were quite big because they used to run on disused airfields around the country and they got big crowds. My dad used to drive an ex-Elio de Angelis Chevron Formula 2 car. I grew up in a motorsport family and that’s what sparked my interest but, at the time, India had no real interest, it was much more amateur or a hobby level than in Europe or the rest of the world.
“These were people who enjoyed doing it and did it as their passion, but it wasn’t ever a full time job for any of them. I mean, I was the first of my family to leave India and race internationally and abroad.
“I never did a go-kart race in my life because India didn’t have karting. We didn’t have go-kart tracks in India when I grew up. It’s changed, now we have championships in karting and a good level but at the time, it didn’t exist. So I’ve never done a kart race and that has implications throughout your life in terms of that early development and in terms of your skill and feel that the kids like Lewis [Hamilton] or Nico Rosberg, and Max Verstappen, who have been driving since they were five, six years old, had.
“So that’s how I started. I moved to my first season of racing in India when I was 16 in the Indian championship, and I won that. And then when I was 17, I raced in the Asian Formula championship and I won that. Then I moved to the UK to race in Formula 3 in 2002.”
Once UK-based, the route to F1 obviously opened up in front of him, and eight years later Chandhok would be on the grid as a driver.
Getting to that stage felt, at times, out of reach for him, though, as he tracked his heroes from afar back home:
“I think for any driver, you have three careers. You have the path to F1, which is incredibly hard, but you’re young and hungry, and quite naive, and therefore, you know, you have an optimistic view of the world that you’re going to make it and you charge through walls and you do anything to make it happen.
“Then you have your time in F1 which is however short or long it might be for different people. And then you have your career after F1, which is in sports cars or Formula E or IndyCar or television or whatever. Coming from India you feel so far away from F1. My childhood hero was Alain Prost and people like him and [Ayrton] Senna, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, you know, they were gods but they were so far away. And then later on it was [Michael] Schumacher and Damon [Hill.]
“Watching people like that, it’s like a different planet. Even going to Silverstone was like 5,500 miles away from my house. I remember just going as a kid and just being in awe, standing on the grass bank to watch some touring car race or something for the first time.
“It’s quite emotional, just being able to walk through the gates of Silverstone. So to go from there to achieving that dream of racing an F1 car. We’re a country of 1.3 billion people and there’s only been two F1 drivers. So it’s a pretty exclusive ratio!”
Chandhok’s first taste of an F1 car actually came in 2007, with him testing for Red Bull, and it was at that point in Barcelona he shared a racing track with one of his great heroes for the first time:
“Before I raced with HRT, I was a test driver at Red Bull. Michael [Schumacher] was one of my heroes, and I had my very first test with Red Bull in Barcelona. When I pulled out of the pit lane, Michael was driving the Ferrari as he’d come back to do a bit of testing in the 2007 car.
“I followed him out the pit lane and it was just unbelievable. Your first lap in an F1 car and you’re following your childhood hero out in that iconic red car.
“I’m very lucky because I got to tick a lot of boxes. Of course, I didn’t get to tick all the boxes I wanted to – I didn’t get the opportunity to race with decent teams and have the chance to run with a good team and get good results but that’s life.
“You accept it and you go, ‘Okay, I can either be grumpy and miserable about the negatives of that or I could pick the positives and go, guess what? There are 8 billion people on the planet, less than 800 of them have been Formula 1 drivers, and I’m one of them.’”
Chandhok’s experience of Schumacher didn’t end there either, of course, with him becoming a member of the F1 grid in 2010 for HRT, and he revealed how the 7-time world champion, then famously making his return to the sport with Mercedes, took it upon himself to introduce himself and have a chat:
“My first ever race was in 2010. I went in the paddock on the Thursday for the race to do the media, pictures and all that stuff, and the first driver I met was Michael.
“He came to me and shook hands and said, ‘Hello, and welcome to F1,’ just to have a polite conversation asking where I came from and what my background was because he didn’t know anything about me. And this was the race that he was making his comeback with Mercedes.
“If you think of the context of that 2010 season, Lewis [Hamilton] was a one-time world champion. Michael was by far the biggest star on the grid. You’re the sport’s biggest star returning with Mercedes, making a big return with the Silver Arrows. He is the biggest star compared to all the others combined and yet he took time out of his day to chat with me and get to know me and welcome me to F1 and that meant a lot.
“That was a memory of that first weekend. I was very conscious of the fact that you’ve got to be respectful of people like Michael and Fernando [Alonso] but you cannot be in awe of them. Because ultimately, optimistically, you view them as competitors.”
Since leaving F1, Chandhok has raced in the World Endurance Championship and Formula E, and is now a regular face on our screens, providing in-depth analysis and coverage for Sky Sports F1.
As he says, he’s one of a very select few to have made it to F1 and of even fewer to have come from India, and has since become a very prominent member of the motorsport sphere.
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