The new, modest face of Formula 1

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 2010, 12:00am

Head into the English town of Brackley and one of the first things you see is the Mercedes GP factory. A short distance up the hill is the impressive high street of this thousand-year-old market town, built on the wealth of lace and wool.

I'm turning left though, into a modern, anonymous housing estate. My destination is an equally ordinary pub. Only the pub's name gives a clue as to who I'm meeting for lunch - The Chequered Flag.

Karun Chandhok's arrival is similarly understated. He rolls up in an eight-year-old Mini, and it's not even his. He's borrowed it from a friend after forgetting to renew his lease car. Unlike most 26-year-olds, Chandhok tells me he has no great interest in road cars. As a new Formula One driver with the new HRT team, he's intent on getting his head down and getting on with the job, not that teammate Bruno Senna always understands.

'I am yet to go to an end-of-weekend party. Bruno calls me a complete wimp because he's the first one to be jumping up and down and making all the Sunday night plans and deciding where he wants to go out. All I want to do is get on the first plane and go home.'

Home is a modest rented house in this modest estate in Brackley. It's in the centre of England's motor sport belt and a stone's throw from Silverstone. Perhaps more importantly, it's 90 minutes from six airports. A few people recognise him, but by and large he's left alone. Given Formula One's image, it's not very rock and roll, I suggest.

'No, it's not,' he admits, 'but to be honest my life is so chaotic and busy the rest of the year it's nice to come home to a bit of peace and quiet and just have a little bit of time off. Monaco is a little bit full on for me. Switzerland is nice, I'd like to live there one day, but I'm not wealthy enough yet.'

This phlegmatic approach has served him well in what has been a bumpy introduction to Formula One. HRT had struggled to make the first race in Bahrain, and the first time Chandhok got to drive the car was in qualifying with the eyes of hundreds of millions of television viewers on him. The engine was still in installation mode and the electronics weren't set up properly, and yet his times improved dramatically lap on lap.

'What can you do?' he shrugs. 'Either you can say, 'I'm not going to drive the car' and walk away or you just get on with it. I'm not somebody who screams and shouts and jumps up and down, I'm not one of those people. I was quite calm about it because shouting at other people when they're doing the best they can is counterproductive, so what's the point?'

Given the slowness of the car, the season is turning out well for Chandhok. He's finished as high as 14th, helped by his relatively few race retirements. One of his best performances was at Monaco, before Jarno Trulli drove over the top of him. It was an accident, Karun says, that looked worse than it was. His achievements are even more remarkable given his high-profile teammate.

'People forget he was very close to having [Ruben Barrichello's] drive at Brawn last year, and I've been competitive against Bruno. Anytime there's a gap over a couple of tenths [of a second] it's down to circumstances. I think that has opened a few eyes in the paddock. A lot of people will think, 'Hang on a sec, this bloke can actually drive'.'

Mention Bruno Senna's name and you tend to mention his uncle, the legendary world champion, Ayrton. Chandhok has already raced with Bruno at iSport in GP2, and he insists the Brazilian's heritage has never been an issue.

'Bruno is a mate. I met him first in 2004 and to me he's my friend Bruno, he's not Ayrton Senna's nephew. I think that's probably why we are friends because for a change someone recognises him for who he is and respects him for who he is and not who his uncle was.'

The Chandhok name may not have the cachet of Senna's, but it is part of an Indian racing dynasty. 'I grew up in a family involved in motor sport,' he explains. 'My grandfather used to race, my father used to race and I got into the sport very young. There's very limited infrastructure, there was no go-kart racing then, so I started off straight into single seaters in the Indian championship. I won the national championship in my first year in 2000, and I won the Asian championship in 2001.'

He comes from Chennai, and whenever he heads back to India he's accorded the star treatment deserved of a sport that attracts TV viewing figures second only to cricket. On his last trip he clocked up 24 interviews in one day. The attention is only likely to get greater. His father Vicky, who has guided his career, is also one of the figures that have helped secure next year's Indian Grand Prix. I suggest it would be a dream to be the first Indian driver at the first Indian Grand Prix and with an Indian team. It's not something he denies.

'I'd love to race for Force India. I think from the country's point of view, from their point of view and from my point of view it's a win, win, win. I think it would take interest in the sport to another level in India,' he said.

'For the grand prix organiser it would be a dream come true because they'd sell a lot more tickets that way! If the opportunity came I'd take it because forget the emotional, patriotic point of view, they're a well respected midfield team now.'

It's that ability to put aside emotional concerns that will help his burning desire to establish himself as a credible Formula One driver for seasons to come.

With our lunch eaten, Chandhok heads to his borrowed Mini. He's off to prepare for a whole day of crunching data with his engineers. It's not part of the showbiz image of Formula One, and that is absolutely fine with Karun Chandhok.

Getting into gear, one step at a time

1 Born in Chennai, India, on January 19, 1984. Dad Vicky, mum Chitra and brother Suhail, a talented cricketer.

2 Favourite circuits: Silverstone, Monaco and Spa, where he won his first GP2 race.

3 Favourite food: 'Karun Special' from his local Indian restaurant, the Khushboo. 'It's a naan bread with some mincemeat filling and some potatoes on top.'

4 Good luck charm: Lucky rubber egg. In honour of his favourite film Cool Runnings.

5 Only Indian member of the British Racing Drivers Club, owners of Silverstone.