Fresh from his WRC return, India’s top rally driver, Gaurav Gill, tells us about how it feels to win the Arjuna Award, his life in the fast lane, and why he loves racing on dirt.
First of all, congratulations! After years of hard work, you’ve become the first motorsports personality to win an Arjuna Award? How does it feel?
Well, honestly, it hasn't affected my performance because, as a sportsman and a professional driver, my job is to achieve – for myself, my country, my teams and sponsors. So, I will always continue to do that. Obviously, the award came as a massive relief and is a boost for me. It's basically a bonus from the government and a recognition of my efforts. It’s an amazing feeling, and I'm really thankful to the government. Moreover, it’s really, really important for the sport as well.
While you’ve got your due, do you think that more support from the government is needed to help motorsports grow in India?
Of course! But things take shape slowly, and our next step should be to establish a support system from the finance ministry to, say, do away with high import taxes and duties levied on sporting equipment, which doesn’t make any sense. For instance, in shooting, which is also a very expensive sport, licence holders and professional shooters don't pay import taxes for their sporting equipment. So, similarly, the same should be done with motorsports to promote a global racing series in India.
Coming back to your move from MRF Racing to JK Racing, what prompted you to take that call?
I’m a professional athlete and a professional driver, and I was with MRF for a long time. And I thank them for their long support and am proud of the numerous championships that we achieved together. But, as a sportsman, I have to keep moving forward, and MRF didn’t have a programme to participate in the world championship this year. Now, I obviously didn’t want to sit back and waste the best years of my life, so I chose to partner with JK Racing for not only WRC but also other domestic rallies, as well as their driver and tyre development programmes.
But you will continue to be associated with Mahindra Racing?
Absolutely. I'm still with them, and we’re driving and developing the Mahindra XUV300 R2 rally car for domestic rallies.
You’re driving the latest-spec Ford Fiesta R5 in WRC2 this year. What’s the difference between the new and the old car?
Pretty much everything is new. There's no similarity between the old and the new car. It's the new generation Ecoboost-powered Fiesta R5 MkII. It's a new program developed after about five years of the previous-gen car. So, it’s got a new engine, a new chassis and new suspension components. The engine performance is very strong, and the gearbox is new as well.
You’ve got virtually no seat time with the new car, so how do you prepare yourself?
Unfortunately, there's no training, and the only way I can train is by driving our Mahindra R2 car here in India. But, again, that's far from what an R5 car can do, because the WRC cars are seriously quick. That said, I do undertake training programmes, wherein I go to Kenya and other countries to train properly, like other WRC drivers and get to drive cars with them. So, I'm on and off driving here and there. On the whole, though, it's never enough. But that’s the way it is, and I've got to make the most of it.
The difference between an R2 and an R5 rally car must be like night and day?
Yes, absolutely! In terms of speed and the way you have to brake and prepare for a corner, there’s a huge difference – it’s like the difference between playing cricket with a cricket ball and a tennis ball!
Three more rallies remain this season after Turkey, will you participate in all of them?
No, not in all three! Not in the tarmac one in Spain. But we’re going for the gravel ones (Wales and Australia). That’s because the tarmac ones are very specialised events, and I haven't had much time with the car. I need more time to test and understand the limits of the car and the tyres, so I don’t want to take part just for the sake of it. Also, on gravel, I know I have the speed to finish higher up the order.
What about road cars? What’s your favourite?
I love Porsche! I think that they really set the benchmark very high, while others are simply chasing them or trying to compete with them because Porsche is the master of production cars. I drive a Cayenne for the same reason. It shares my garage with the manual BMW M3, which is supercharged and produces around 620bhp!