KARUN CHANDHOK wanted to be in Formula One by the time he was 25. Last week he turned 24, and with the season's first official test on the same day, embarked on what could be the most crucial year of his career, racing for top team iSport International in Formula One's feeder series, the GP2.
Every driver who has won the GP2 series since it began three years ago - Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Timo Glock - has gone on to race in Formula One the very next year. As the first race of the GP2 Asia Series gets under way in dusty, cloudy Dubai on Friday, Chandhok reflects on the road ahead.
How are your preparations, going into the first race with a new team?
I've settled in well with the team. They're a very professional, very methodical unit: typical English team mentality and we have made a lot of progress since the first test on Saturday. The Dubai circuit is very bumpy, very slippery. And I feel as if I have inhaled 10 kg of sand already! I had been in the top five for every test session until Wednesday when we ran into some engine trouble. But as long as we get that sorted out, a podium finish this weekend would not be tough.
You are closest to being in Formula One than you ever were, what with a test drive for Red Bull and a GP2 win already under your belt. How are you dealing with the expectations?
From the F1 point of view, the European series is most important and the Asia series is more of a precursor. Having said that, I still want to win and do well in both.
It's a good position to be at the moment, being on the F1 radar more than ever. But one bad year and things can change very quickly. The aim is for a top-five finish in the championship and a couple of wins along the way.
Isn't that playing it down a bit? iSport is the top team, wouldn't a top-five finish be too easy?
It was the champion team in 2007, but it need not necessarily be so in 2008. The series is very unpredictable. Last year, 12 drivers of the 26 that were competing, won a race. Timo, who won four races last year, could have easily won another four. That's how competitive it is. Luck matters as well.
You'll have an Indian competitor in GP2 this time, with Armaan Ebrahim driving for DPR …
Well, we had some issues when we were both driving for Team India in the A1 GP Series (in 2005). But it's been 2-3 years and that's all been forgotten. At the end of the day, I would be disappointed if I end up behind him, but I am not too worried about that.
Much has been made of your rivalry with Narain Karthikeyan…
Yeah it makes for a good story. Even within the racing community, people tend to play it up. It's more hype though. When we meet each other, we often have a laugh about it. But the fact is, we are in similar positions: both have test driven in F1 and are presently racing in a category just outside of F1. We are in two different parts of racing, so there is no real rivalry. But if he comes back into F1, then things could get a bit complicated…
Have there been any discussions with Force India regarding a F1 drive for 2009?
It is an option, and Dr Vijay Mallya (Force India co-owner) will be seriously considering it. But the 2008 season is yet to get under way and we will evaluate the situation by around April.
Were you disappointed not to get at least a test drive with Force India?
Dr Mallya and I are personal friends, so I was fully aware of the goings-on even before he bought the team. But I have been inducted into the junior driving programme of Red Bull, and will test drive for them again this season - probably some time around the summer. Red Bull is supporting my GP2 progress and I cannot be involved in two F1 teams at the same time.
Besides, I want to be in F1 for 10 years, and my stint in GP2 is crucial from the long-term point of view. If I finish in the top-five it will establish my credibility as a driver. Then if I get an F1 seat, it will be because I delivered and not because of any personal equations.