My first taste of racing was as a 12-year old spectator at a dusty, packed Sholavaram airfield on the outskirts of Chennai and throughout the years, the short T-shaped track marked out of haystacks saw everything from an Ensign Formula 1 car to a Standard Herald compete on its turf, with motorsport buffs like me looking forward to the first Sunday of February every year.
In 1990, the Chennai racetrack changed the way we went racing in India and that is where I cut my teeth into single-seater racing in the extremely basic Formula Maruti. But two decades down the line, we have now come a long way in terms of infrastructure — especially karting. Karting is the kindergarten of motorsport and later I realised that while I stood behind the barriers watching a F5000 car lap a Formula Maruti at Sholavaram, the drivers whom I would go on to race with in F3 and F1 were already hammering karting circuits around the UK every weekend.
The hard way
Anyway, I was left to learn the basics of racing in a single-seater which isn't as ideal as a racing kart and has a better pedigree than a basic single seater like the FISSME. So it is critical that a driver starts karting as soon as possible — in Europe they sometimes start at seven and the trend is now catching up in India. Karting helps a young driver develop a driving style and then learn how to set-up the car to suit it. And a competitive grid teaches them wheel to wheel racing while honing their race-craft during these early stages.
The problem comes next. After doing maybe five years of karting (at different age levels), there is no clear next step in Indian motorsport. There are a couple of saloon car championships but they won't take you to F1, and the single-seater machinery is nothing to write home about. What we need is a basic, cost-effective formula with a proper longitudinal engine/gearbox layout which would allow a driver to transfer the skills learnt in karting and build up on them. It will serve as an intermediary before they head to something like the MRF Formula Ford and then the MRF F2000 which is a very sophisticated, high level series comparable to anything available in Europe at the same level.
Once through with these, you ultimately need to head to Europe to pursue the F1 dream. During my days, the ladder to F1 was pretty straight-forward. You go to UK, do Formula Ford, then switch to F3 - go to Macau and if you won there you were all set for F1. After I got pole and fastest laps at Macau in 2000 followed by the wins at Spa International F3 and Korea Super Prix, I was invited to test for Jaguar and Jordan F1 teams soon after. Drivers like Senna, Button and Hakkinen graduated straight from F3 to F1. Up to speed
But nowadays, things have become more complicated with several junior formulas around. But I still think F3 gives you a solid foundation and irrespective of whatever path you take after karting — Formula Ford/ BMW/ Renault/ F4 and so on, you still need to go through F3. Maybe the grid isn't as strong since the new GP3 series came along but still, if you can win in F3 — everyone knows that you are quick.
It doesn't matter if you want to drive in F1, Le Mans, DTM or other single-seater championships; Formula 3 is an absolute must. It is the first truly professional series for anyone aspiring to be a professional. Manufacturers often have an eye on Formula 3 to pick drivers for their factory teams.
The final step
And as for the final stepping stone to F1, you need to choose wisely as even though there are only two options — World Series and GP2, the strength of the grid varies from season to season and it is always better to compete in a stronger grid instead of kidding yourself since there is nowhere to hide once you are in F1. All this is well and good, you know what to do and where to go — but before you take the plunge you seriously need to find a financier who would stick around to fund your road to F1. Everyone knows how bad the situation is in F1 but even to be knocking on that door isn't cheap. To do two years of F3 followed by two years of GP2 or WSR, which is the bare minimum, can easily cost 5 million euros even before you think about F1. And once you are there, only Ferrari, Red Bull, Torro Rosso and Mercedes don't need drivers to bring in funding. Even a top team like McLaren is rumoured to have signed Perez in part because of his Telmex backing. So you can imagine what it is like for the lower rung teams.
So finding a team like Red Bull or McLaren which has a young driver program, a sponsor or if you're lucky — your country's exchequer to pay for your racing is absolutely critical. Without proper backing, and I say from experience during the early stages of my career, you are bound to go up against a wall soon. It shatters your confidence and curbs your ability to perform at 100 percent.
I have been lucky to have Tata Group's support since the start but I know for a fact that finding sponsorship for motorsport in India is still an uphill task, despite the fact that we are about to host our second GP. Cricket continues to take gnaw away a huge chunk, but it is up to us to take motorsport to a level where corporates aspire to associate with it - not just with F1 but lower rungs of the sport as well. There are talks of several small race tracks sprouting up around cities like Mumbai and Bangalore — and that can only be good news for the future of motorsport in our country.