Arjun Maini is an Indian racing driver who is living a life that a lot of us dream of but one that only a select few are privileged enough to experience. From the age of 5, this 20-year-old from Bangalore has only ever had one goal, to become India’s first Formula One world champion. As he gears up for his maiden season in the FIA Formula 2 championship, in-between flying back and forth between his home in the U.K. and mainland Europe where his team and the majority of race tracks are located. I had the chance to catch up with him and put into perspective what it’s like to be one step away from Formula One.
We start with the term “Development Driver” which is jargon that is being used around the Formula One paddock a lot these days. You have a reserve, or a third driver, but a lot of us aren’t quite sure on the exact role a development driver plays. Arjun who has of course signed with the Haas Formula One Team in the same capacity shared some insight into what the role entails, “A development driver is someone who is being groomed by a team for the future. It’s quite an important learning tool as I not only get to use the team’s simulator, but I am also part of the team briefings as well as a part of the Formula One atmosphere which is quite important as it helps me prepare for my chance at Formula One.”
So does that mean he is close to driving a Formula One car? “Well in my opinion I think it depends on the start of my season. For now, i am just focused on my preparations for the coming year and I’ll leave the rest up to the Haas Team to decide.”
What’s interesting is that Arjun began karting in Europe at a relatively late age, “While I was doing 5 weekends of racing a year when I first started a lot of the people I race with now were at the kart track almost every weekend either testing or racing”. A strong karting foundation is key to doing well in motorsport and it was only after he won Sahara Force India’s “One from a Billion” driver hunt that Arjun moved to Europe and started competing at a higher level which you could say was somewhat of a disadvantage.
So what’s the ideal age for an Indian racing driver to move to Europe? “Honestly as soon as you can, though the level in India and Asia has improved significantly, you still find the best drivers and teams competing in Europe. A lot of the people I race with competed on the kart tracks with me and I’m sure it’s the same with a lot of other generations as well.”
We all read about a driver’s successes quite often but what about the challenges that punctuate those highlights every now and again? One of the most difficult phases of Arjun’s career came in the first half of 2016 where after displaying great pace at the season ending Macau Gran Prix in 2015, he struggled during the first few rounds of the European F3 Championship in 2016. “Though both the team and I were giving it a 100%, nothing seemed to work. No matter what we did, we just couldn’t translate our efforts into on track performance and though I was there only for a few months, it was definitely some of the hardest in my life.”
In fact Arjun’s entire career in F3 seems to have been a bit of a challenge. After promising displays in both the BRDC Formula 4 championship and the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand a lot was expected from the then 18 year old. However, things just didn’t seem to click and a switch to GP3 proved to be more fruitful where Arjun became the first Indian to stand atop a GP3 podium after he won the second race of the season opening round in Barcelona in 2017.
So what exactly is the difference between F3 and GP3 as both seem to be a similar level in terms of career progression, “Well the GP3 car has a 160 horsepower more, the car is a lot heavier than a F3 car and also uses Pirelli tires that are a lot closer to Formula One. I wouldn’t say I wasted my time in Formula 3 as you are always learning as a racing driver and the tough times always show you who you are as a person but I also do think if your goal is Formula One then GP3 is a little ahead especially considering a majority of the races run as a support race to Formula One.” Luckily for those coming up the motorsport ranks, next year will see both championships merge into one.
Another key aspect to go motor racing are your finances. Arjun has been fortunate enough to have a sponsor back him from the start of his Formula Car career in the form of J.K.Tyre who are one of India’s largest tire manufactures. “Having J.K. support us has been massive. It’s taken a lot of the pressure off my father and we’ve been fortunate to have them onboard for what will be our 5th year together. In 2016 I signed an additional sponsor in the form of TVS who have also played a part in getting me to where I am. That being said I do hope more Indian corporates come onboard as it is not cheap to go car racing especially at the F2 level.”
It is astounding that in a country of over a billion people we have only ever had two drivers in Formula One. Though Arjun is on course to become the third, that number should be much higher. Having experienced the highs and lows of the majority of the junior championships, Arjun is perfectly placed to gauge what young Indian racing drivers need to do in order to increase that number, “Being self-critical is key. You always need to look at your own performance and see where you need to improve. Races more often than not are won long before you hit the race track, so you need to make sure your preparation is top notch, most importantly avoid playing the blame game as it lowers the morale of everyone around you.”
To conclude, yes the results of winning races and championships can be quite glamorous however racing through the lower ranks in reality is anything but. Succeeding in motorsport requires a lot of hard work, dedication and focus and though Arjun is living a life that only a selected few can experience he has also made all the necessary sacrifices and dedicated himself solely to his craft to get where he is. Despite being only one step away from achieving the first part of his dream, driving a Formula One car. He is also the first to admit that the final few steps are the hardest. That being said if results do go his way, Arjun stands on the precipice of truly living up to his moniker and becoming a “One from a Billion” racing driver.