12 months - the time it took Kush Maini to go from a challenging season in Formula 3 to becoming a sensational rookie in Formula 2 and be announced as a junior driver for the Alpine F1 Team. He went from ‘everyone’ wanting him to repeat a season in Formula 3 to ‘everyone’ now waiting for him to get a break in Formula 1!
There are many reasons why Kush’s story stands out - how he bounced back despite an unintended career break, his early investment into working with a sports psychologist, Mika Hakkinen wanting Kush to be his mentee and finally, being signed up by Alpine after less than a full season in Formula 2.
I had the chance to catch up with Kush just hours before the exciting news of joining the Alpine emerged. During our 80-mins long chat for autoX, we discussed a range of topics from the start of Motorsport journey to Formula 2 with Campos in 2023, his expectations from the new Formula 2 car in 2024, and of course, the role Mika Hakkinen will play in his career.
Formula 2, and not Formula 3 in 2023
“Everyone, literally everyone, told me that I should repeat Formula 3. For me, it was a tough moment - one that I had to process mentally. No one believed that I could perform at the pinnacle of junior single-seater racing,” said Kush when quizzed about choosing to race in Formula 2 after finishing a lowly 14th in his debut season in Formula 3 in 2022.
He explained, “In my head, the choice (Formula 2) was clear. I felt that my speed was up there in Formula 3 but it was very tough for me to put a weekend together. All the drivers I raced against in Formula 3, they raced non-stop in 2021. As for me, 2021 was a break year. In Formula 3 in 2022, I was very rusty.”
“In four out of the nine race weekends, I didn’t even put a lap together in qualifying. In the sessions that I did, I was in the top 7. So I knew that I had the speed and Formula 2 was a clear preference.”
In his debut Formula 3 race in Bahrain, Kush qualified 3rd. In Hungary, he was 6th while two 10th places in Imola and Silverstone. On the flip side, he qualified outside of the top 20 for three races - Barcelona, Austria and Monza.
“Frankly, I was supposed to get into Formula 3 in 2020 - that was always the plan. But I didn’t have a budget in place to race, so I had to make my debut in the series two years later than planned,” said Kush.
Before we get to the break year in 2021, here’s how Kush’s journey in the world of Motorsport started.
How it all started
In 2011, Vijay Mallya, the Team Principal of the Force India Formula 1 Team, announced the team’s junior driver program - the ‘One from a Billion Hunt’. I was the Program Manager for the academy and our objective was clear - to find India’s next Formula 1 driver.
Out of nearly a thousand applicants, Force India chose three drivers as their juniors from 2012 - Arjun Maini, Jehan Daruvala and Tarun Reddy. But little did I know, there was a fourth driver the program inspired.
“I was his helmet carrier,” joked Kush while sharing that elder brother Arjun was his biggest inspiration. “I got inspired by Arjun’s success in Force India’s driver academy program, he was getting a lot of attention. After a point, the competitive little brother in me wanted to race cars just so that I could be better than my brother. Over the years my respect for him has grown immensely and Arjun has taught me so much that I wouldn’t have been here without his guidance today.”
I recollect a meeting in a hotel in Bengaluru towards the end of 2012. It was a summary meeting after Arjun, Jehan and Tarun had spent a year living and racing in the UK as Force India’s junior drivers. In attendance were Force India’s late Deputy Team Principal Robert Fernley, myself and the drivers with their families. Kush, who was 12 years old, was ever-present in the background showing eager interest in the conversation.
2021 - The Break Year
From 2012 to 2016, Kush participated in some of the most competitive go-kart races in Motorsport. In 2014, he finished 4th overall in the World Karting Championship. After switching to single-seaters in 2016, Kush impressed in the British Formula 3 Championship in 2018 (3rd overall) and 2020 (2nd overall). In 2019, he raced to 6th position in the Formula Renault Eurocup.
2021, however, was Kush’s break year. After racing in the Formula 3 Asian Championship (11th overall), he drove a race in the World Endurance Championship (LMP2). Kush’s move to switch from single-seaters to sportscar racing intrigued me.
It was either that he was pivoting his Motorsport career or that he didn’t have the budget to shift into Formula 1’s feeder series - Formula 3 and then Formula 2.
“A full year out of racing, that too when I was racing at a very good level (in British Formula 3) - I had to completely forget about racing. To come back after that unplanned break and do what I did in Formula 3, I think that’s gone a bit under the radar,” said Kush matter-of-factly.
Understandably, the break year impacted his performance in Formula 3 in 2022. However, it didn’t hamper his progress to Formula 2 this year.
Kush was the last driver to confirm his participation in Formula 2, he shared, “I first spoke to Adrian (Campos) at the Formula 3 race in Monza (in 2021). They knew I was quick, but they had their doubts because obviously, I had finished 14th in the Championship.”
“Campos is a family team - they teach you all you need to know in a positive and good way, and I needed that in my first year in Formula 2. After my meeting with Adrian, I felt that he was eager to help me grow and that he believed in my talent, and remember, this was at a time when everyone’s opinion was that I was not ready for Formula 2 and that I needed another season in Formula 3.”
Interestingly, the Mainis already had a relationship with Campos. In 2019, Arjun’s final year in Formula 2, he raced for Campos, too.
Formula 2 in 2022 with Campos
Campos Racing finished 11th and last in the 2022 Formula 2 Championship. Earlier in the year, when Kush signed for the slowest team on the grid, I wasn’t sure if it was the right move for a driver wanting to pave his way back into the uber-competitive and results-obsessed world of Motorsport.
However, from the very start of the season, Kush proved his detractors wrong. As cliche as it sounds, he took to the Formula 2 car like a fish takes to water!
Kush scored points in 8 out of the first 10 races - a streak is second only to McLaren’s current star Formula 1 driver, Lando Norris, who holds the Formula 2 record. “In qualifying trim, Campos has a great car. In race trim, we were great in the first half of the year. We were really quick on the non-European tracks. I could fight through the field irrespective of where I started. We could use different strategies - and it worked well on some tracks (e.g. Baku),” said Kush.
He continued, “Unfortunately, in the second half of the year, even though we’ve done some amazing qualifying sessions, sometimes better than the first half, things haven’t come together. It may depend slightly on my understanding of the tyres. But Campos and I never gave up! They helped so much and helped me revive my career.”
When I asked Kush to pick some of his favourite moments from 2023, he picked his first and only Formula 2 podium in Australia (his overtake on Arthur Leclerc) and how he dared to pick his own strategy in the Feature Race in Baku. “My engineer called me in on that lap in the race and I decided to do another lap because I felt good with my tyres - I actually extended my own strategy and that’s what helped me come out of the pits in P5. I was proud of my call because it was early days for me in Formula 2 and it’s easy for one to also get such calls wrong.”
Kush also confessed that after his early season successes, he got a bit greedy and started overdriving the car. “I’m slightly to blame, I felt that my mindset did shift a bit,” he said.
During my conversation, Kush confirmed that he would be racing in Formula 2 for a second season. One of the reasons why most drivers need two seasons in Formula 2 is to understand the Pirelli Formula 2 tyre better. The expectation is that a driver takes a full season to understand how best to use the tyre and then extract the most in the second season.
Kush expanded further, “Pirelli has got a very sensitive Formula 2 tyre. If you’re in the window, everyone praises you and you look like a superstar. If you miss the window slightly and you drive in the exact same manner, you can be nowhere - and that’s when the criticism comes at you.”
Formula 2 in 2024
Kush confirmed that he would race for a new team and that the announcement would come closer to the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Of course, this would also be the team he would participate in the post-season test with. “2024 will be my last season in Formula 2 and I need to be bold and selfish. I need to see which team I can work with to fulfil my Formula 2 championship ambitions,” said Kush.
I quizzed Kush about the benefits he would carry over from his first Formula 2 season into the second. He explained, “I won’t be a rookie anymore. I’ve shown good speed this year and in the first race next year, I am going to be a lot more confident about my chances. Tyres, brakes, pit stop and circuits - four variables that Kush picked when I asked how his experience would help him do better in 2024. He showed me a stack of notebooks from his various races this year and the notes will come in handy as he returns to race in Formula 2 in 2024.
The additional challenge in Formula 2 next year will be the introduction of a new car. All team drivers will be starting on a clean slate, literally speaking. The new car is heavier, given the additional safety features, and will derive more aerodynamic grip from its floor a la Formula 1 style. The new car is expected to be more stable and predictable in the high-speed corners, a characteristic that the drivers will appreciate. Conversely, it might be worse off than its predecessor in the low-speed corners, given the extra weight it will carry around.
“We’re expecting the pace to be similar - maybe Monaco will be slower and Silverstone will be quicker than the previous generation car,” said Kush.
He continued, “All 22 of us will be in the same car. I’ve worked very hard in my career to reach Formula 2 and the last thing I want to do is complain about the car I will be racing. Even if I don’t like how the car feels, I will race it in a positive way.”
The current generation Formula 2 car was introduced in 2017. Since inception, only three teams have claimed championship honours - PREMA, ART Grand Prix and MP Motorsport. The new car offers the series a great chance to reset and we will see the hardest-working team-driver pair race their way to the front.
“Everyone’s been given the same tools and it is now on us to put in the hard work,” summed up a confident Kush.
The challenges of being an Indian in the Motorsport world
It’s a well-known fact that to succeed in the world of Motorsport, specifically towards Formula 1, one needs to race in Europe. I recollect stories from Narain Karthikeyan & Karun Chandhok over the years about them leaving home in India and moving to Europe to pursue their racing dreams. I witnessed this first-hand when Arjun, Jehan and Tarun shifted to Europe in their teenage years to do the same under the Force India academy banner. I guess the magnitude of such a shift hit me harder only after I had my daughter three years ago!
Kush explained the challenges, “I started racing when I was 9 years old. I moved to Italy when I was 12 - and I was staying with my mechanic while racing in karts. I know I gave up a lot of my life in India to pursue Motorsport. There are very few who understand how different it is for Indians to pursue Motorsport.”
He continued, “You have to leave your country at a young age. In contrast, for a British driver racing in karts, for example, he would drive down a couple of hours from home with his father to the local tracks. On the other hand, for an Indian driver, you fly solo for 8-9 hours to Europe and meet a random set of people you’ve never met before and go racing with them!”
Apart from Motorsport, Kush shared that he had a passion for running (athletics) from a young age. However, he had to make an early choice between the two sports of his liking - and Motorsport it was. “I enjoyed running the 100 metres and the long jump. At the age of 12, I had to pick between an all-Indian running tournament and a race in Italy. That’s when I decided that I’m going to do this - and I went racing. I’ll have no regrets when I am older!”
Alpine Academy & Formula 1
Prior to Kush, India’s two most recent Formula 2 racers were Kush’s brothers Arjun and Jehan. Both Arjun and Jehan were privileged to be associated with two Formula 1 teams in their junior careers. Along with Force India, Arjun was a development driver for the Haas F1 Team while Jehan was a Red Bull junior driver.
The Alpine F1 Team (formerly known as Renault) announced Kush as the most recent signing to their driver academy. In Formula 2, Kush will join other Alpine Academy drivers, Jack Doohan and Victor Martins.
Julian Rouse, Alpine’s interim Sporting Director said about Kush in a press release, “He is a young talent who we believe has strong potential and will be a great asset to our driver development programme.”
My interview with Kush was hours before the official announcement. Explaining his excitement about being a part of a Formula 1 team academy, Kush said, “Obviously, I feel a lot more in the spotlight when signing with a Formula 1 team - that’s because a Formula 1 team is actually vouching that you can win a championship at the highest level.”
“It changes the whole dynamic of one’s career. As a part of a team’s academy, I think a testing program is important. For a Formula 2 driver, if you’re having a good year, there’s a good chance that you could become a reserve/test driver. The possibilities are endless.” said Kush.
“My career story is my USP, it’s my competitive advantage to get into Formula 1. I don’t think there’s been a driver off-late who has dropped off completely from Motorsport and then made a comeback of such a sort. In 2021, I think everyone has forgotten about me. I’ve struggled a lot more than others to reach this stage today and what sets me apart is that I already know how to deal with failure,” explained Kush.
“And of course, I’d much rather be an Indian than British,” said Kush matter-of-factly. He continued, “This is where the India advantage kicks in - I represent 1.4 billion Indians, and this is a great market opportunity. This is where, I hope, the business side of the sport kicks in. There are lots of things that need to fall in place to get you into Formula 1.”
Kush’s rise has been meteoric - from struggling in Formula 3 to now being a junior driver for Alpine in Formula 1. For him to convert the junior driver opportunity to a full-time race seat will require him to score wins and podiums in Formula 2 in 2024, and of course, challenge for the championship. His on-track performance will need to go up another gear or two, and in preparation for that, Kush has already put together a stellar team.
Mika Hakkinen’s mentorship & Team Kush
Kush Maini grew up idolising Mika Hakkinen. “Mika won both his Formula 1 World Championships (1998 & 1999) before I was born. I started following Formula 1 at the age of 6 and got to know about Mika when they used to broadcast flashback races before the live race broadcast,” said Kush.
It was at the 2022 Monaco Grand Prix when Kush’s dad Gautam met Mika. The two started talking and Gautam shared Kush’s story with Mika, who was all ears. After doing his own research, Mika expressed interest in mentoring Kush.
Opening up about his relationship with Mika, Kush said, “Mika is not going to be my driver coach. He’s a great racing car driver but I think times have changed, the cars, tyres and well, everything is different. But he trusts that I know what I am doing if I am already racing at this level.”
Kush continued, “Mika is very upbeat about India. He sees our country as a potential Formula 1 market and he appreciates the struggles I’ve gone through to get here. Mika will be involved in the business side of my brand. We will work together to raise awareness for the sport in India.”
Along with Mika, Kush shared that he also had a new manager in Guillaume Le Goff. Le Goff manages current Alpine driver, Pierre Gasly and the former Formula E World Champion, Nyck De Vries. Additionally, he would now have a travelling physio, another key addition to his team.
But the one aspect that stands out the most about Kush is his work with one of India’s renowned sports psychologists, Dr. Shree Advani. It’s natural for athletes competing professionally to employ a mind coach, but in Kush’s case, he’s been working with Shree since his karting days (2012). I’ve known the Advani family over the years, just as I’ve known the Mainis and I’m thrilled to have introduced them back then.
“Shree has been my rock through many many moments. He’s helped sharpen my focus and introduced me to meditation and several other methods to cope with the emotions of being a racing driver. We’ve been through a lot together and knows me better than anyone. He’s not going anywhere, I’ve decided that he’s going to be with me!” expressed Kush.
“And of course, my brother Arjun and my dad, they will always be a part of my team,” signed off Kush.