(July 1, 2022) An expensive sport, motor sports in India finds only a handful of takers as a profession. It was in the early 2000s that motor sports took off in India with Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok getting behind the wheel of a mean machine, and since then the racing industry is trying to find a stable foothold in the country. However, none of this dissuaded Indian racer Akhil Rabindra. Fascinated by cars since a very young age, Akhil went from enjoying recreational go-karting on weekends to becoming the first Asian to be selected by the Aston Martin Racing Driver Academy.
Speaking to Global Indian from United Kingdom, ahead of the 2022 GT4 European Series, the 26-year-old racer reveals that racing was never on the cards, however, he always enjoyed speed driving. “Racing was never on my mind but driving cars, looking at cars and anything to do with cars was. I always thought I would own something nice and drive something nice,” laughs the Indian racer, adding, “There were fewer opportunities in India, but still I got to a higher level. Motor sports require a lot of financial resources, time and commitment. Somewhere along the way, it happened and I got into financial racing.”
Obsessed with cars and speed
The Bengaluru-born was always fascinated with cars. While other kids his age would spend their weekends playing cricket or football, Akhil’s parents would drive him to a go-karting trip. “At age 10, I was obsessed with cars. When you are that young the only option for you is rental go-karting which were very few, back in the day. So, my weekend would start around 4 am on Saturday, when my parents would take me to a go-karting place which was far away, we would spend the weekend there and return late on Sunday, so that I could attend the school next morning,” shares the Indian racer.
From recreational driving, Akhil progressed to professional go-karting at the age of 14. He did junior racing and moved to the highest national championships before moving out of India. However, it was a “busy life” for this champion. “I started professional go-karting in ninth grade. I had two sets of board exams ahead of me and I was not the brightest student. There was a lot of travelling involved, missing school, coming back and catching up on notes and I had to squeeze my school, fitness training and tuition on my week days. Since I was travelling, racing, working out on fitness, I had very less time to socialise and live the normal teenager life.”
In 2012, Rabindra, alongside racing in single seater car, debuted in touring cars, driving the Toyota Etios Racing Series, and was the youngest finalist in the saloon car category in the championship. He even managed a podium finish at the Exhibition Race in Chennai and a strong finish in the race of Champions in Delhi ensuring his place at the Columbia Night Race 2013. But an accident in 2014 threw him off the scene for a while, however he shares that he has fully recovered from it. “Motor sport is not easy. Having said that, I think no sport is easy or safe. However, my family was incredibly supportive throughout my journey,” shares the Indian racer.
Formula to success
After finishing his school, Akhil moved to the United Kingdom to enroll in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, to pursue his BSc graduation. It was here that he saw the stark contrast in racing between India and abroad. “When I went to UK, I realised two things – one talent abroad is very competitive and hard, and two, you have got to do a lot of things right to make it to the top”, shares the Indian racer.
But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, Akhil started dedicating more time and energy into racing. In 2015, he competed in BRDC Formula 4 Championship in the United Kingdom with Wayne Douglas Motorsport, a series for young drivers from all over the world driving the new MSV F4-013, 2-litre Ford Durance engine and paddle shift gearbox. Having to learn a new car and new tracks, Akhil scored 203 points finishing 14th overall.
While he was keen to become a Formula 1 driver, eventually, the racer decided to jump from Formula series to the GT. “This was a tough decision as the formula ladder needed a lot of time, financial resources, and the chances of making it was also doubtful. We wanted to have a sustainable journey in motorsport and also be able to make it to the top. In the GT category, it has a larger ecosystem than 20 drivers in F1 and there are several more car manufactures, which opens up opportunities,” explains the Indian racer.
Contrary to popular belief, motor-racing requires an equal amount of physical-mental fitness and discipline as any other sports. Explaining the intensity of the training, Akhil shares, “It’s the difference between a commercial jet pilot and a fighter jet pilot. Basically, it is the G-force that pushes into your body and weight and that’s when resistance comes into play. You’re sitting in a cramped position under a lot of external and internal heat and withstanding these forces. In some ways, it is a diluted version of a fighter jet on the ground.”
Road to the Aston Martin Racing Academy
India’s only GT4 racer, Akhil has been selected for the Aston Martin Racing Academy for the third year running. The 26-year-old was also the only Asian in the Aston Martin Racing (AMR) Driver Academy, which kicked-off its 2020 season with the French FFSA GT4 Championship, one of Europe’s strongest GT National Championships. “The Aston Martin Racing Academy was a big achievement,” shares the Indian racer, adding, “They help in many different fronts such as physical and mental training, technique of driving and a lot of on and off stuff. They are not just focused on the driving part but it is a holistic approach to teaching. It is also the network as you get to interact with drivers who would help you out in different situations. They help tap into different forms of support with ease.”
He began 2022 on a good note by securing a double podium finish in the season opener with his new team, Racing Spirit of Leman, at the European GT4 Championship. Currently ranking third overall in the ongoing series, Akhil feels that the interest in motor sports is slowly growing in India but it’s still a long way to go. “In India, people are not educated on the sport like say we are on cricket. We understand terms like wide, no ball or cover drive. There is a fair interest in fast cars and modified cars in any city in India. The middle class is getting more affluent and everyone is always seeking to have a nice car. I think if it is televised more and there are more opportunities to watch, the interest will grow,” he signs off.