Karun Chandhok’s Formula 1 car history mixes the sublime and the ridiculous.
His first F1 start came with a team whose car wasn’t ready for the first practice session of the year, never mind pre-season testing.
But since then Chandhok has sampled some of the sport’s most successful cars, including title-winning machines driven by Nigel Mansell, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
In an exclusive interview for RaceFans, Chandhok shared some of the best stories of his F1 cars.
2010 HRT F110
Having won the Formula V6 Asia series in 2006, joined Red Bull’s Junior Team and tested their F1 car, Chandhok was competing in GP2 and winning races when he got his F1 chance. Four new teams were due to arrive in the sport in 2010, and after speaking to several of them Chandhok eventually signed for Spanish squad HRT.
“I’d been to the US to see Peter Windsor and his people there about US F1,” Chandhok told RaceFans. “I’d been in contact with Tony Fernandes and Mike Gascoyne, so I’d been around the houses talking to different teams.
But there was a snag – Hispania had taken over an entry which had originally been put together by Adrian Campos. Chassis builder Dallara had paused work on their F110s and the team were racing to finishing construction of the cars in time for the season-opening race in Bahrain.
“When I got to Bahrain, they were literally still building the car. So we never got through the shake down that we were hoping to do in Adria.”
Chandhok’s team mate Bruno Senna was able to drive his car on Friday, but Chandhok’s had persistent engine problems. “I changed in and out of my race suit, I think about eight times between the three practice sessions.”
The team finally managed to fire up Chandhok’s Cosworth and send him on to the track as the first qualifying session of the year began. “We put 70 kilos of fuel in it just for me to drive it around and do a systems check, really. It wasn’t a qualifying [effort]. But at least I drove the car and I knew it changed gear and it sort of worked.”
Chandhok qualified last, 10.8 seconds off pole sitter Sebastian Vettel. Senna, 23rd on the grid, was over two-and-a-half seconds slower than the next-quickest car. Nonetheless, with no 107% rule to stop them from racing, the two F110s took the start from the pit lane. Chandhok’s race ended with a spin on lap two.
“The whole Bahrain weekend was so difficult for the mechanics,” he recalls. “I really sympathised for those guys. I think some of them did 56 hours straight working on the car, which is unbelievable.”
To begin with at least the team had high hopes for its car. Aerodynamicist Ben Agathangelou had told Chandhok they would have to race the launch-spec car for the opening rounds outside Europe, but a substantial upgrade was on the way.
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“[Ben said] ‘It looks like we’re going to have to race this version for the first four races but when we get to Barcelona, here’s the update. This is what we’ve had on CFD and in the wind tunnel, it’s going to be 60 points of downforce, that’s the real car’.
“And 60 points of downforce is two-and-a-half seconds, that would have brought us into sort of Toro Rosso territory at the time, which is kind of where Haas were when they came into F1.”
But the promised update didn’t arrive at the Circuit de Catalunya as planned, and the team faced further disappointment at the next race.
“We went to Monaco and that’s when I think things fully fell out between the team and Dallara,” recalls Chandhok. “I don’t fully know the ins and outs of it. All I know is basically that a lot of people from Monaco onwards sort of distanced themselves from us.”
“The Dallara factory was only about three hours away from Monaco and there was a van full of bits of meant to arrived and it never came. So as it turned out that car carried on the entire season in effectively the launch spec.”
This meant running the car in much the same trim at high-downforce Monaco as they did on the long straights of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Nonetheless, Chandhok recalls some minor results in the battle among the three new teams that year.
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“I remember Canada, I managed to beat Timo [Glock] in the race. In Valencia I managed to beat Lucas [di Grassi] and Bruno and have a good race there.”
While its shortcomings were obvious – the car only started higher than the back row if another team had a problem – Chandhok remembers the car being surprisingly rewarding to drive.
“It wasn’t actually too unbalanced. We managed to get a vague balance about it. The problem was just the lack of downforce, especially at the front end. We were maxed on the front flap all the time, and that’s wrong obviously.”
“The only weird thing about it was there was at a certain point at a very high speed, for example, if you got to the end of the straight I remember in Shanghai, the wing would get to a stall point and it would start to oscillate. And that obviously upset the balance under braking for the hairpin at the end of the straight. But apart from that, it just like downforce. It was actually quite a drive-able car for the rest of it.”
But Chandhok didn’t get to enjoy the better aspects of the HRT in the second half of the year. For round 10 at Silverstone Sakon Yamamoto appeared in Senna’s place, but thereafter the well-heeled Japanese racer took over Chandhok’s car. However he had impressed enough to earn a place with a rival team the following year.
2011 Lotus T128
Of the three new teams which made it into F1 in 2010, Lotus established themselves as the most credible, and Chandhok landed a place as their test and reserve driver for 2011. He was also promised a chance to race for the team at his home event – the first-ever Indian Grand Prix on the new Buddh International Circuit.
But things soured quickly. “The whole year wasn’t a fun one for me,” he remembers.
“Being a reserve driver who does a Friday morning, you’re sort of like that cheap spare bottle of champagne at the wedding, which nobody really wants to drink. Nobody really pays enough attention to your opinions. You know, from the Friday morning, you’re just sort of there, they’re just trying to get rid of you and tick the box. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with every team, but that was certainly the case in that environment. It wasn’t a healthy environment to be in.”
The “internal politics” at Lotus made matters worse, said Chandhok. “Lotus was a small team, but with all of the politics of a big team.
“There were factions in between, so and so didn’t like so and so. There was all these issues in the technical department. And It was a it was a really strange atmosphere. Tony sort of dipped in and out because he was running an airline business and then he bought QPR and then he bought Caterham and he had all these other things going on. He’d sort of came in like a whirlwind and make some decisions and then disappear again. The whole thing became a really difficult management structure because there were a lot of factions in between.”
Much was expected of the team’s new T128 chassis after the team agreed deals to switch to Renault engines and use Red Bull’s gearbox. But Chandhok’s first lap in the car during practice for the Australian Grand Prix ended in the wall at turn four.
“It was my first run with the Pirelli tyres and as we know now, in hindsight, they’re very, different to the Bridgestones. I got to turn three and expected grip that wasn’t there and just lit up the rear tyres and went into the wall.
“That put me on the back foot a lot, actually, in terms of a reputation. Not in terms anything in myself because it wasn’t a big shunt, it was a fairly innocuous, knocked the front right corner off, but in terms of reputation internally with the team that set me back I think some way. But that’s life.”
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Chandhok had further practice runs in the T128 which culminated in an unexpectedly early chance to race the car at the Nurburgring. He stood in for Jarno Trulli, who was struggling with the car’s handling.
“They had a steering system in there which he just didn’t get on with. Heikki [Kovalainen] was fine with it. I didn’t find anything strange with it but Jarno wasn’t happy with it.
“I did a lot of simulator days, we had a deal with Red Bull to use the simulator so I did a lot of sim days working on the steering system and we came up with a solution which we thought was better, but he still didn’t get on with it.
“Tony got a bit frustrated. At Silverstone as we were walking up the pit lane to go to the grid he said to me ‘I’m going to put you in the car for Germany’. And I sort of went ‘OK, wasn’t expecting that’. I don’t know what it was, a bit of a play between him and Jarno at the time.”
Just 12 days later, Chandhok was practising for his first race in over a year. “Qualifying was okay, I think was just over half a second off Heikki which was not bad. The one thing that caught me out was the brakes, they were very different to anything I’d driven before.”
An overnight change of supplier from Carbone Industrie to Brembos gave him better feel. “That was the first time I could actually relax and drive the car,” he said. Nonetheless he finished a distant 20th in the race.
After accumulating further miles in the T128, Chandhok felt his performance improving in the car. But to his obvious disappointment, the promised opportunity to race in front of his home crowd never materialised.
“In Suzuka I remember I drove Heikki’s car. It was my first time at Suzuka and obviously Jarno had been there a billion times before and the only place I lost to him was the entry to turn one the rest of lap I was actually the same if not quicker than him.
“So I was getting there despite no testing mid-season no mileage. And then at that point obviously Tony then reneged on the contract and that was the end of that.”
That was also the end of Chandhok’s time as a racing driver in Formula 1. But many more opportunities to get back behind the wheel lay ahead of him, including a reunion with Red Bull.
2011 Red Bull RB7
The must-have technology of 2011 was a blown diffuser, as pioneered by Red Bull and engine supplier Renault. But while Lotus had access to some of the same hardware and software, their attempt at a blown diffuser “never really worked”, said Chandhok.
“We went to Kemble Airfield and had a bunch of straight-line testing try and get it to work but at the time I don’t think they could ever really get the blown diffuser working properly. And that was frustrating for the team.”
A few years later he got to experience the system working properly on the car which dominated the 2011 season – Red Bull’s RB7. “It was still the car which had the blown floor and all the rear downforce,” he recalls.
The car felt vastly different to the Lotus he once raced against it. “Obviously we were on demo tyres but I got to do a few good laps of Paul Ricard. There was no mileage restriction because the cars were so out of date.
“It was a really enjoyable experience and it was the most nimble, agile race car I’ve ever driven. It had so much rear downforce and so much stability on the way in.
“I’m sure we didn’t have the peak blown diffuser maps that they would have had when racing in period but it was still working because that’s the design of the car and the Renault engine still had the blown engine over-run maps in it. And it was just cool to experience what was a great car from that era was because they were so dominant.”
1992 Williams FW14B
Chandhok has now driven more than 20 F1 cars, over half of which are Williams’ chassis he has sampled through his work with their heritage division. That has given him the opportunity to experience the cars he watched racing as a young motor sport fan.
“I think the most emotional experience was driving Mansell’s FW14B from ’92,” he says. “For anyone who was born in the eighties, that era of Formula 1, Senna versus Mansell versus Prost, that was what we grew up watching.
“To be able to drive red five on British Grand Prix Sunday morning and Saturday after qualifying in front of a whole crowd that was very special and very cool.”
Chandhok has also driven the FW14B’s similarly high-tech successor, the FW15C, and finds it remarkable how sophisticated the cars were given the comparatively rudimentary computing power available at the time.
“The cars were so far ahead of [their] time,” he says. “It was when the world was transitioning from DOS to Windows and using that they wrote the software for active suspension, traction control, blown diffuser, launch control, all of this software. And then in ’93 it had individual pot braking to effectively give the car brake-steer.
“It was so far ahead of its time in terms of the technology it had and given the tools that the engineers had. Paddy Lowe did a lot of the active testing for Williams at the time. Obviously Adrian [Newey] did the design along the Patrick Head but Paddy and Damon Hill and Mark Blundell were the ones doing the testing on it.”
While later versions of the car used chunky one-megabyte memory sticks, an early test car used an onboard printer to collect data.
“Paddy said to me the first version had this sort of ream of paper in the sidepod of the 13B, the 1990 car, which they used as a test hack. And the data was being written on this ream of paper. So if the car broke down on track, the people would still be churning out with the data being written and they had to sort of scroll it back to find it.”
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2004 Williams FW26
Chandhok has also driven the Williams which held F1’s record for the quickest lap of a circuit for over a decade: the ex-Juan Pablo Montoya BMW V10-powered FW26.
“The engineers from BMW showed me the data,” says Chandhok. “In true German fashion, they still had all the dyno sheets from that engine that was in that particular chassis I drove and it was 952 horsepower. Bearing in mind it’s 605 kilos, that’s a better power-to-weight than a current car and with much less downforce, obviously.”
The performance of the FW16 made a huge impression on Chandhok. “That car, at every corner it scared me. I was in awe of it. It was like, holy cow, this is a sensory overload like I’ve never experienced.
“And of course, you got the sound of 19,000rpm. They only took about five or six hundred rpm off the top when I drove the car recently so it still had plenty of grunt and plenty of revs. So to me that was probably the most awe-inspiring experience of driving a racecar.”
2019 Mercedes W10
The latest generation of Formula 1 cars have surpassed the performance benchmark set by the V10 machines. But the V6 hybrid turbo machines are very different, much heavier and more refined pieces of engineering.
Chandhok drove the W10 which took Hamilton to his sixth world title last year and described it as “the most perfect race car I’ve ever driven.”
“There was nothing to fault in it. There’s no balance issues, everything just worked. They had a solution for everything. If there was an imbalance, you could tweak a switch on the steering wheel, you had engine braking support, the diff settings, the maps were all perfectly made up. The brake balance maps were a perfectly made up.
“The baseline was great but then you had a solution which you could tweak in the cockpit if you had any small issues. And that made it such a perfect race car. I think in some ways it’s taken away some of the challenge of what F1 should be and F1 was, I think in that early 2000s era.”
But while he feels today’s cars are heavier and in some respects less demanding than their predecessors, Chandhok is wary of looking back on past eras with too much affection.
“I think the reality is that the world has changed a lot from the early nineties, hasn’t it? People look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, and I’m guilty of that as well.
“I watched the ’86 Australian Grand Prix that was on YouTube a couple of days ago. And everyone looks at that era being amazing and the spectacle of it.
“But in reality, even up to the early nineties, you’d often have only three or four cars and the lead lap and the racing was actually sometimes pretty rubbish, really. Prost and Senna would disappear off and finish a lap ahead of the rest of the field in ’88 or ’89. That would not be tolerated today.”
Video: My F1 Cars – Karun Chandhok
Watch an extended version of this interview with much more insight from Chandhok on the RaceFans YouTube channel:
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