Arjun Maini, one of India's two racing car drivers hopeful of flying the tricolour in Formula One, recently announced a switch to sportscar racing. Personally, Maini's decision felt disappointing. In the world of motorsport, a switch to sportscar racing from single-seaters usually signifies a giving up of the dream of racing in the ultimate single-seater series in the world, Formula One. But then, if the millennial fan is redefining the way sports is consumed, why couldn't a millennial driver challenge the traditional 'ladder' in motorsport by attempting something different?
Maini's decision to pursue a season in sportscar racing is practical and commendable. In fact, it could well be the best decision of his motorsport career till date. The young Bengaluru lad, who has had the prestige of being a member of the development driver program for two Formula One teams — Haas and Force India — announced his decision to race in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) in 2019. Maini will race for the RLR Msport team, the champions in the LMP3 category, and join the list of a handful of Indians to have raced in the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In this exclusive interview for Firstpost, Maini discusses his reasoning behind the switch, his ultimate goal as a racing car driver and more.
Maini on his Formula 2 season debut
At the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix, I had the chance of following Maini's Formula 2 weekend with his father, Gautam. Maini Sr., a well-known Indian businessman and a Motorsport aficionado himself, kept a close eye on his son's progress through the weekend. In fact, 2018 was expected to be the year when Maini Jr. took his time to settle in the series with an eye for the top prize in 2019. However, it is only understandable of the Maini family to pursue another racing series. That said, it would be unfair to blame the lack of results in 2018 on Maini alone; a fair share could be attributed to the team, Trident and their inability to get on top of the newly introduced Formula 2 racing car.
George Russell, the 2018 Formula 2 Champion, is busy preparing for his Formula One debut with Williams in 2019. It was only in 2014 when Maini and Russell were locked in a fierce battle for the title of the Formula 4 championship till the last race of the season. Cut to 2018, Russell's points tally was almost 10 times more than Maini's. This difference could be attributed to driving for a top team vs mid-level team and possibly how fast each driver settled into the series. Also, it would be important to keep in perspective that Maini Sr. is almost single-handedly funding the expensive motorsport careers of both his sons — Arjun and Kush.
Maini was candid and open about his not-so-successful season in Formula 2. He revealed, "To be honest, the season was not ideal. I think I showed a lot of potential but unfortunately, it was one of those years where nothing worked out. I showed that I could be up there with the top teams in qualifying and showed strong pace in a lot of races, but for some reason, nothing came together at any given weekend last year. But as always, I learnt a lot from the experience and I'll be a better driver come the future."
When quizzed about his key learning from the season he said, "I think the key learning last year was that I always have to make sure I am at my best because there will be a time when everything works your way and luck is on your side and when that time comes you have to capitalise on it."
On his decision to switch to endurance racing
So what prompted Maini to switch to endurance racing in 2019? Before announcing his decision and at the end of last season, Maini did participate in a test in the Super Formula Championship in Japan — another popular series for drivers to race in as they waited for an opening in Formula One.
"I thought it would be a good change for me (the European Le Mans Series) and this will bring to me a new perspective of racing which I'm sure will improve my skills. Also, working so closely with drivers like Bruno Senna (Ayrton Senna's nephew and a former Formula One driver), I think that experience is beyond valuable," shared Maini.
On preparing for endurance racing
Maini's calm demeanour and honest answers have always been a delight. In fact, when asked if he followed endurance racing and if there were any racers he looked up to, he admitted, "I'll be honest, till this year, I wasn't a big follower of endurance racing so there wasn't anybody really I looked up to. But it would be a pleasure to be on the same track as some big names in motorsport."
In the past, Firstpost has spoken to several racing car drivers across disciplines who shared the different racing and preparation techniques each form of racing required. Although the official ELMS tests are only in April, has Maini put in place any special preparations already? He revealed, "All I have done is watch footage from the previous seasons so far and I think I can learn more when I start testing and start talking to the team who will help me understand the finer nuances of endurance racing.
On the road ahead to Formula One
Is the Formula One dream over for Maini? Or would he still consider a Brendon Hartley-styled comeback to Formula One?
"Don't get me wrong. My ultimate goal is still Formula One and I might sneak in a few single-seater races as well during the season. But my main goal this year is the European Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We thought this (endurance racing) way we could possibly make a good impact on teams and drivers. Look, (Brendon) Hartley got his chance after succeeding in endurance racing and I think if you are good enough you will have the chance at some point," expressed the always-honest Maini.
He added, "Of course, it would be great to have another shot in Formula 2. But it would need to be with a top team."
Yes, Hartley might not be the best example for one to cite, but again, the New Zealander and former Toro Rosso driver is well-respected and a multiple times World Champion. In fact, Hartley's career in motorsport is probably more stable than some of the drivers racing for the mid-level and bottom-grid teams in Formula One. It was only a few weeks ago that Ferrari announced Hartley as one of their simulator development drivers aiming to use his experience to further their World Championship campaign in 2019.
Was Maini's switch prompted by the fact that the career path of an endurance racer is possibly longer and more stable? "Honestly, no, it has little to do with that!" exclaimed Maini.
And finally, would Maini be continuing as a development driver for the Haas F1 Team? "Sorry, I can't answer this question at the moment. But, we should know more soon," acknowledged Maini. Frankly, Haas F1 Team deal for 2019 or not, if Maini shines through the endurance racing series, there could be possibly better (read: faster) Formula One teams eyeing his talent. Just that it might not be for the actual racing cockpit — but in this millennial age, following the norm is so passe!
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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 15:46:24 IST