The motorsport scene in most European countries is quite mature if you compare that with India. However in India too, it is indeed changing rapidly and several auto companies like Volkswagen, Toyota etc. have taken initiative in recent years to promote budding talent in the country. Still, there’s no clear way and only confusion in minds of most people who wish to choose it as a viable career option.
We interviewed Akshay Gupta, who kept going against all odds and won the Nissan India GTA 2015 recently. He also finished third at the final race in Silverstone for India.
Pankaj Vig: How did it begin and what got you hooked to motorsport?
Akshay Gupta: As a child, I preferred cars over other toys. My dad noticed this and got me a soap box instead. I loved riding it fast down the mountain slopes around my house in Rajasthan. I figured out ways to make the corners at the end of the straight while still carrying speed. It was only after my first real experience with kart driving at school, I realized that I liked racing.
I must have been five years old then and have been into cars since then. At the time when I was seventeen, Force India Academy came out with an initiative that was aimed at identifying racing talent in India ‘One from a Billion’ (OFAB) and it helped me form a vision and hence began my tryst with speed and racing.
PV: You started racing at 17 years of age while almost all F1 drivers start between the age of 6-9. Don't you think you began late?
AG: Yes, totally. Before I participated in the OFAB, I had been searching for ways all along to get into the sport. I soon figured out that either I had to finance this on my own or look for sponsors. As an adolescent of fifteen years of age, no amount of convincing could get me a sponsorship for 6-8 lakh for a season. I was mostly laughed at by the sponsors that I tried to garner or they were simply unwilling.
Getting help from father was really not an option since I was aware of my humble background. Even though I started late, all this while I had been racing against myself on rental karts or playing video games to fulfill my childhood dream. So I feel that the OFAB came just at the right time and helped me get the eventual breakthrough for free.
PV: So what happened after OFAB?
AG: Despite the challenges that I faced during the first competition, I was determined to make my way further into the sport. In fact, this also inspired my father and we started looking for future sponsorship together. Subsequently, I got selected in the inaugural season of the Etios Motor Racing championship. During the event, I received training from professional Toyota GT racers from Japan, which really helped me hone my skills further. Sponsorship still remained an issue but it became relatively easy since I was selected from 3300 drivers, not really an achievement in actual sense but it paved way and made things a little easier for me. My alma mater (Indus University) together with their sister firm Electrotherm sponsored most of my racing career ahead.
During the championship, I qualified 19th for the first race and moved to 4th in the second. The third and the last race even got me a podium position. It was an amazing learning curve for me. After 2013, I decided to go international and do a season of Ginetta GT5 in the UK alongside Formula 1600 in India.
PV: How did you get into the GT Academy?
AG: I got to know about the Nissan GT Academy through a press release while I was working as a journalist to support my racing career. From that moment on, I knew that it could perhaps be another great break, of which I can make use to launch myself at the international scene. So, I left my job and started preparing for the competition. I got through the national finals in India and made it to the top six.
In a fateful event, just days before the onset of the final competition, my grandfather died and my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which had to be operated upon immediately. It kept me from competing in the international race camp at Silverstone in the year 2014. Nevertheless, I decided to prepare again and compete in 2015.
PV: How did you prepare yourself and what kind of preparation did you do?
AG: I prepared posters with messages for self-motivation that reminded me day in, day out of my immediate goal of winning the GT Academy. I did about 2-3 hours of workout every day in gym to keep myself fit, and kept a track of ingested diet to the last calorie. Meditation along with core, endurance and interval training formed a part of the training schedule.
I did extensive and intensive training on the simulator, and drove Nissan cars on every possible track. I generally took about 60-70 laps to get the most out of a car. However, when the circuit remained the same, it started taking less time. By the time I was finished driving all the cars on different circuits, I had developed better adaptability. This helped me get within a second of the best time and I could do this within 3-4 laps of practice. So basically, I improved a lot in terms of adaptability to cars and circuits and that I believe is also one of the most crucial skills of all in motor racing.
The hard work paid off eventually and I was fortunate enough to get selected again for 2015, and this time out of 10,000 competitors.
PV: You made it to the final round at Silverstone, what happened there?
AG: Competitors from five countries (six from each country) competed against each other in different events for seven days, and the weakest one from each country was eliminated after each successive competition event.
On day one, we had to drive different cars (Formula 3000, JPLM, Caterham & Nissan GTR) on a variety of tracks to secure maximum points. Apart from driving skills, to prove our overall worthiness for the sport, we competed in a GT Ninja fitness challenge on the second day. The first level elimination was done taking into account the cumulative score of the first two days.
In the following events that took place for other four days, we saw ourselves competing with other participants in a range of vehicles from two stroke buggies in a quarry to Nissan 370Z on the RAF airfield. I won the sprint race in two stroke buggies in an off-road event and was saved from elimination.
In a Nissan Micra Stock car challenge that followed, we competed in a 20-minute race against other countries (two drivers from each country participated). There were no eliminations at this phase but it was crucial in a sense because it decided the starting positions in the final race. Sadly, teams from Thailand & Philippines crashed us out and we could not finish and had to start in 4th position in the final race.
Karun Chandhok was our mentor during the entire race week and was one of the judges for the event. The judges decided that I would represent India in the final race. We started 4th and by the 3rd corner on the Silverstone National Circuit, Thailand crashed into my car. It cost me five seconds in a ten lap race. I was second fastest in the prerace practice session but I was still holding back. So had a lot in reserve but not enough to regain five seconds to the leaders unless they made a mistake. We lost to Philippines and Indonesia and finished 3rd despite multiple contacts with Thailand during the race.
PV: What were the biggest challenges while you prepared for the academy?
AG: The biggest challenge was definitely getting any kind of seat time in India. I had to work a lot to get sponsorship for almost about seven years. I am satisfied for now with the GT Academy results (1st among 10,000 drivers in India and 3rd in the entire continent) and the year 2016 looks very positive indeed.
PV: What are your future plans?
AG: The winner of 2014 GT Academy 2014 got a chance to compete in the Nissan Micra Cup season in Canada. I have my fingers crossed and hope Nissan or NISMO have something in store for me too.
Apart from that, I am looking for sponsors for international racing championships. I have realized that I am up there with the best when it comes to racing in Asia, and want to make full use of it and compete at the international scene when the time is right. In addition to competing in the sport myself, I am trying to do something revolutionary in the Indian motorsport, and I hope when that happens, it would change the motorsport scene for better and help nurture a few talents in motorsport. So, I can’t wait for 2016 since there’s a lot of racing in store and it all starts from January.