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Finally, it's home run
The race weekend is here, my first Formula One race at home and I am as excited and emotional about the Indian Grand Prix as any other motorsport fan in the country. I think the entire extent of that feeling will only be revealed when I come out of the pit garage and see the Indian tricolour in the stands. I think it'll be quite an emotional first few laps and watching the packed stands on race day will be just incredible.
Never had I even dreamt that F1 will come to India, let alone me being able to compete at my inaugural home race. The Indian GP was a huge motivation towards my decision to make a return to F1, it entailed a lot of sacrifice, but it was definitely worth it. The moment is finally here, and I definitely will revel in it and push hard to get a good result for the team and myself.
Five years back, I had made my debut in F1, becoming the first Indian to do so. Now I am here becoming the first - and only - Indian to race at home.
It would have been great for the fans had Karun Chandhok also been on the grid. Karun has worked hard to get here and it's a shame really if he isn't able to race.
Formula 1 is as much a business as it is a sport. But this is the sport I chose to compete in and now my aim is to give my best at home on the biggest stage.
Racing at the Buddh International Circuit will be an awesome experience. The track has a character not generally associated with new-generation circuits which have been added to the calendar in recent years - which is thanks to the artificially-induced elevation changes around the circuit, making it quite a roller-coaster.
In some places, the drivers will have to use their judgement to turn in blindly instead of spotting the apex beforehand as it is traditionally the case. Plus the track has been made wide in a couple of spots, to encourage overtaking and it should be a really exciting first lap especially. It is definitely in my personal top-five already despite not having driven it in an F1 car - it is going to be extremely challenging.
Looking at my career so far, the journey has been bumpy at times but the drive has been exhilarating nonetheless.
The first time I saw an F1 race was in 1989, when I got my hands on a tape of the FIA official season review and I was instantly hooked. Then I used to get recordings of live races from America for the next couple of seasons.
From then on, being a racing driver and ultimately making it to F1 was all I thought of, knowing little of the real perils and roadblocks that lay ahead.
Luckily though, my motivation through my entire career was high enough to overcome the hurdles, which were many - competing with Europeans on their home ground was an extremely challenging task for someone who started with racing Formula Maruti cars in Chennai. And, as I was to discover, things were run miles ahead in Europe compared to what we had been used to in India.
My F1 debut was in 2005 at the Australia GP but the first time I drove an F1 car was back in 2001 - the incredible power (that was the 3L, V-10 era) and downforce which gave it the ability to generate a staggering amount of grip, beyond what its tyres and suspension and every other mechanical aspect would be otherwise capable of, was just unbelievable.
A couple of tests later, I was able to put together the requisites for the entire season and in my debut race I found myself ahead of the legendary Michael Schumacher on the grid, as a crazy qualifying session with changing weather conditions had benefited us. I was quicker than my teammate in qualifying and finished ahead of him in the race, so it was quite a positive debut weekend.
It all happened so fast, as F1 gives you little time to reflect - that the feeling of being on the grid didn't sink in until a couple of races from there;it is difficult to put it in words.
Overall, my first season was great - but sadly it was Jordan's last year in F1 and I couldn't come to an agreement with the new Midland management.
From my stint at Jordan to my second coming with Hispania Racing this year, I was never away from competitive racing and that helped me keep focus.
Williams gave me an opportunity to test at the end of the 2005 season, and chose to give me a test-driver seat for 2006. Unlike today, in those days teams heavily relied on test-drivers for in-season testing while race drivers were away. I was able to clock over 3, 600 km of testing during 2006, despite not being in a full-time seat and contribute to the development of the car by providing inputs to the engineers.
Then came the A1GP in 2007 and it gave me a chance to represent my country on the world stage;fighting it out with some very competitive drivers and bringing top honours to the nation twice was an extremely proud moment, since it was not me but A1 Team India who had triumphed over the world - it was supremely satisfying.
In 2009, I had my first stint in the Le Mans series and it was uncharted territory for me, coming from a singleseater background. However, I discovered that the LMP1 cars were incredibly advanced machines and it was quite a productive season despite the disappointment of being unable to compete at the 24-hour LeMans due to a last minute accident.
Last year was another landmark as I explored the undiscovered realms of American NASCAR in the Camping World Truck series, and while driving the Superleague Formula (SF) at the same time. It was perhaps the most hectic racing season ever, with constant shuttling between the two sides of the Atlantic as the SF was based in tracks around Europe.
Both seasons turned out well, despite lack of experience in ovals - which is like chalk from cheese compared to road-racing circuits and SF was a satisfactory outing as well, with a win coming at Brands Hatch.
So, basically, in my run up to my second stint in Formula 1 - the pinnacle of motorsport - I had been driving competitively in different environments, in different cars and all of it came in handy as I stepped into the HRT at the first pre-season test in Valencia on a cold, damp day in February earlier this year.
Driving a lot of different cars with different characteristics enables one to adjust quickly, but a Formula 1 car has a very specific set of demands compared to any other race car in the world.
First thing is the incredible pedal pressure required, which is sometimes in excess of 150 kg. It is something that can be worked on in the gym, but until you sit in the car and hammer that pedal with all you have got, it is difficult to judge the sheer physical demands it entails.
Then there are the incredible G-forces, which demand a strong neck - but it's the most difficult to train, more than being in the gym you need to actually keep driving at a level which makes demands on the neck muscles to keep them in shape.
Last but not the least are the off-the-track challenges you face while being in the big league, including critics and detractors.
When I was out of F1 and everyone wrote me off, I never did pay a whole lot of attention to it because I knew what I had to do and most of all, within myself, I knew that I was still capable of delivering at the top level. It was only a question of timing and luckily the Indian GP round the corner provided that extra boost of motivation which enabled me to make a return to F1 this year.
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