Karun Chandhok on his nightmare year at Lotus: 'I fell out of love with F1'

F1

Racing at your home grand prix for Lotus? Karun Chandhok thought he'd landed an ideal ride, but as he describes in the torrid tale, it soon all turned sour

Chandhok Australia 2011

"It was a very strange year – I felt like a spare part" Chandhok says

Grand Prix Photo

“It was very frustrating, very strange,” Karun Chandhok sighs, the pain in his voice still evident now. “I should never have done it.”

He isn’t talking about the latest Sky F1 production meeting, but his disastrous final year in F1 ten years ago – a season he thought could’ve been the key to making his career in grand prix racing, but in fact signalled its demise.

After a truncated debut annum in F1 with HRT, the now-consummate TV professional thought he’d signed the perfect deal to make his way up the grid with Team Lotus in 2011. However, Chandhok hadn’t reckoned with an all-powerful technical director, absent billionaire owner and largely disinterested team.

It all started with a Lotus F1 car landing on top of him – perhaps he should’ve taken it as a sign of things to come…

“The first contact with Tony was bizarre” Karun Chandhok

“The first contact with Tony was bizarre,” he says, sharing the story with Motor Sport. “If you remember in Monaco, Jarno [Trulli, Team Lotus driver] ended up on top of my head [in a collision] when I was driving for HRT.

“On the Monday, my phone rang – and it was Tony. He said ‘Hope you’re okay. Really sorry, it was my fault. I was shouting at Jarno on the radio, I was saying he needed to pass you, was geeing him on and he had a desperate lunge.’

“In that conversation, he said, ‘What are your plans for next year? Clearly your car was a bit of a s***box but I was impressed with what you did.’

“They had the Indian Grand Prix coming up in 2011. He thought we would work some sort of a deal out which would tick various PR boxes for it. Clearly if he thought I couldn’t drive a greasy stick up a dog’s arse, we wouldn’t be having a conversation. At that stage of the year I was generally ahead of [HRT team-mate] Bruno [Senna] and having quite a good run.”

How it all started, with a Lotus straddling an HRT

GUILLAUME BAPTISTE/AFP via Getty Images

The Chennai native signed a deal which would see him drive several Free Practice sessions for entrepreneur Fernandes’s Lotus Racing team (to be renamed Caterham in subsequent seasons) and drive at both the Korean and Indian races. The only problem was, no one had told the man running the factory – technical director Mike Gascoyne.

“I flew with Tony to Valencia to the pre-season test, walked into the paddock and Mike went ‘What are you doing here?’ So straight away I was on the back foot…”

“I quickly realised it was a small team, but with all the politics of a big team” Chandhok

Not a great start then, but Chandhok felt if he could ingratiate himself within the wider team, he could build up some strong relationships before his race appearances. But the Indian was surprised by what he found on arrival.

“I quickly realised it was a small team, but with all the politics of a big team,” Chandhok remembers.

“You had this faction of people who were ex-Toyota guys who were their own little clique. Then you had another group of people who came from other teams who didn’t really get on with them.”

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At the centre of the action was Gascoyne, the design genius who had begun in F1 at McLaren, helped Jordan win races, aided Renault on its way to championships before moving over to Toyota’s ultimately unsuccessful gargantuan grand prix effort. He was now running the show at Team Lotus, trying to push it up F1’s slippery slope.

“Mike Gascoyne had his sort of favourite people around him,” Chandhok says. “He’s a very powerful character and was quite a force of nature in that team. It was very much the ‘Mike Show’ – when he said something, everyone just bowed their heads. I almost got the impression Tony was kind of afraid of him almost – he would just sort of defer to anything Mike said really, which was a little bit odd.

“I got on with him personally but not professionally. I don’t think he really respected me.”

If things got off on the wrong foot between Chandhok and Gascoyne, any chance of improving relations through on-track progress was stymied by the elements and then some.

“First of all I was supposed to test the car in Jerez, then Mike called me the night before and said, ‘Sorry, I need to put the Angolan guy – Ricardo Teixeira – in the car.

“Mike was trying to do some deal of Angola with [sponsor] Sonongal, but the money never arrived, the whole thing was just a mess.”

Chandhok finally got some track action in Melbourne…

Grand Prix Photo

Still, Chandhok had his FP1 sessions to look forward to – first up was the season opener in Australia. He was raring to go, but his debut Lotus outing didn’t last very long.

“I hadn’t driven the car by the time we got to Melbourne, I’d never tried the Pirelli tires,” he says. “And then I shunted it, which was my own mistake.”

Coming out of Turn 3 on a cold Albert Park track well outside the Pirelli operating window, a slight application of the throttle sent Chandhok straight in the barriers. His debut with Lotus had lasted barely three corners.

“From that point onwards, I always felt like I was being treated as a bit of a spare part by the management,” he says in resignation.

Trying to make up off-track for his on-track transgression, Chandhok headed into the Hingham base, but felt he might as well have been part of a rival team.

… but his Lotus saw more of Albert Park circuit on a flatbed than it did its own four wheels on his FP1 debut

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“I made an effort to go to the factory and speak to the engineers, but nobody really wanted to talk me,” says Chandhok. “Mike put this sort of barrier up, he didn’t really want to engage with me.”

Matters weren’t helped by further difficulties in the precious little track the Chennai native was afforded.

“My gearbox broke in Valencia (at a test) when I got to the pit exit, then it rained in Turkey, it rained in Silverstone, then Mike canceled my FP1 one in Barcelona. I didn’t really get to drive the car in the dry – it was just really frustrating.”

Chandhok tried to make valuable use of his track time, but struggled to find anyone who was interested in what he had to say about it.

“There were some people there that were good to me, but in general, I’d come back from an FP1 with comments, and everyone was just go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah – let’s get the race drivers in and finally get some real comments.’ There was never any real value to what I was doing.”

Chandhok was already starting to wonder why he was even there. But then, out of nowhere, the situation was suddenly turned on its head.

“As we were walking towards the grid at Silverstone, Tony looked at me and said, ‘I’m getting really frustrated with Jarno [Trulli]. He’s having a tough season, it’s not going well, I need to shake things up. I’m going to put you in the car for Nürburgring next time out’.

“And I sort of went, ‘Okay this has come out of left field.’ It wasn’t what I was expecting, but obviously, I said I’d do it. But, you know, at the time, I hadn’t driven a single lap in the car, or Pirelli tires in the dry.

“But the trouble was, I felt like I had to say yes, because already I’d started getting undertones that they wouldn’t uphold the contract for the Korean and Indian races later in the year.”

Tony Fernandes (right) took Chandhok by surprise with the timing of his driver swap decision

Grand Prix Photo

Then Chandhok found himself screeching towards yet another communication breakdown.

“It was all a bit awkward because Tony told me, then the CEO Riad Asmat called me to confirm to – but it seemed like no-one had told Jarno!” he says, on one of the rare occasions he laughs in telling the tale.

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“I remember arriving at the Dorint Hotel on the Wednesday at the Nürburgring, and I bumped into Jarno at reception. He had literally just been told that he wasn’t driving that weekend! It was all quite badly managed.”

Luckily the Italian didn’t hold it against him.

“To be fair, Jarno’s a lovely guy. He’s said, ‘Look, I know it’s nothing to do with you. It’s a team decision. It’s not your fault.’ He was very good to me.”

In the German GP FP1 Chandhok could put some laps on the car and finally got going – but now stopping, not starting, was his latest problem.

“Annoyingly, they use a very different kind of brake material compared to anything I’d experienced before [Carbone Industrie]. And I just kept locking up the fronts, and flat-spotted two-or three sets of tyres, which basically ruined the Friday.”

2011 Germany CHA

Chandhok finally got a race chance in Germany: “I didn’t do a great job”

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Not helping was the atmosphere in the garage.

“It was always tricky, because I don’t think Mike wanted me there – he didn’t agree with Jarno being left out,” Chandhok says. “All the engineers are professionals, they just get on with their job. Everyone did their professional best for the weekend. But it was never ‘Oh, let’s give this lad a big push, because we want him to do well – he might get a couple more races.’ I think they did what they had to do as a box ticking exercise.”

Still, Chandhok qualified a reasonable 20th out of 23 cars. Pre-race, he was informed by the man who signed him that the pressure was off.

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“Tony said to me: ‘Whatever happens today, don’t worry, it doesn’t affect the other two races – we’re all signed up, so just enjoy it.’ Those are the exact words he used on the grid!”

Chandhok’s reasonable starting slot would prove to be the high point however. His first F1 race in over 12 months didn’t exactly go to plan.

“I actually remember I got a very good start,” he says. “I made a couple of places, got alongside [team-mate] Heikki Kovalainen at Turn 4, then I thought I’d give him a bit more room because, ultimately, I was happy to sit behind him.”

This turned out to be Chandhok’s downfall. Going towards the wet line at the drizzly ‘Ring, he got stuck behind Daniel Ricciardo’s HRT. The Lotus sub decided to put his foot down and…

“I spun off and that obviously cost me a whole bunch of track position, we had to change the nose. To be honest, I don’t think I did a great job. That was final nail in the coffin for me with people like Mike.

“In hindsight, it was probably a mistake – I shouldn’t have done that race. I wasn’t ready. But I’d already started to get wind that they were they were going to break the contract, basically.”

End of year team photo: “Mike Gascoyne didn’t respect me – I felt like a spare part”

Grand Prix Photo

The Indian went forlornly back to his FP1 role in a last gasp bid to save his home race appearance, and from there things on-track improved. Finally managing to get some laps in, Chandhok could see the improvements.

“It was a shame – in Monza I was as quick as the other car in all the corners,” he comments. “Then we got to Suzuka, my first ever time there, and I was as quick as Jarno all the way around the lap apart from Turn 1. With just a bit more running, I started to get up to speed. I just needed mileage.”

However, it was all to no avail. After a year of seeing the writing on the wall, an absent team owner in Japan was the final sign off.

“Tony had arranged to have a meeting with me to discuss driving in India and he didn’t show up,” Chandhok remembers. “There were some good people in the team, Jody Egginton and Graham Watson [both now at AlphaTauri]. It was the team manager Graham, who let me know. He was straight up with me, in a classic Kiwi way and said: ‘Look. I’m telling you now, they’re all bulls******* you, you’re not gonna get the drive’.

“He was the one who told me the truth when no-one else was willing too, which I really appreciated.”

“We ended up coming to a financial settlement with Tony. It took a long time in classic ‘Tony’ fashion – we settled in April 2013.”

His dream of racing in his home nation in tatters, Chandhok realised his time at in sport was likely at an end, and the effect was profound.

“I fell out of love with F1,” he says, the frustration still clear now. “I’d just been messed around so much. I was in an environment where I didn’t feel I was wanted: ‘Forget the politics of F1, I’m done with it.’ It was a very unhappy time.”

After all his trials and tribulations, Chandhok did eventually see light at the end of the tunnel though. It was chance meeting with a future Sky F1 colleague that turned things around for the free agent driver.

“I bumped into Anthony Davidson in the paddock late in the season, he was doing some BBC radio stuff,” Chandhok remembers. “He could see I was just a bit pissed off and miserable with life in F1.

Chandhok found light at the end of the tunnel in endurance racing redemption

DPPI

“He said to me: ‘You’ve got to come and do sports cars, because you will never be happier.’ It wasn’t really on my radar, but after that I started hunting around and joined JRM to do WEC and Le Mans – which was great. After that, you start falling back in love with motor sport again.”

His time in F1 was an extremely toughening experience for Chandhok, and he looks back now as a steelier character.

“There’s a lot of people in F1 who don’t tell the truth” Chandhok

“The lessons from that, for me, were don’t just take people’s word at face value,” he reflects. “Just because they’re telling you something, it doesn’t mean they actually believe that’s what’s gonna happen.

“When you’re young and you’re dreaming of this opportunity of F1, you’ll believe anything that anyone tells you that feeds the dream.

“I don’t like to say it because it portrays our sport in not a great light, but essentially there’s a lot of people out there who don’t tell the truth.

“The lesson out of that is be smarter about your life choices.”