Game on - MRF National Racing Championship

By Dhruv Behl | on November 1, 2014

It’s time to dust off those racing shoes once again, as we strap into the MRF Formula 1600 for the final round of the National Racing Championship. And it wasn’t in vain either, as we came away with some silverware…

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I momentarily contemplated my mortality as I sat across from an orthopaedic surgeon who told me that I had done irreparable damage to the AC (Acromioclavicular) joint in my shoulder. He then proceeded to point out that, at 33, professional athletes were well past their prime – and since I’m no athlete, it shouldn’t really bother me too much. His bedside manner was as comforting as it was disturbing.

In truth, it was more disturbing than I care to admit. Nevertheless, a couple of weeks of rest, x-rays and MRI’s later, there was mild improvement. But then I proceeded to jump into the two Bowler rally / raid machines that you see elsewhere in this issue – and I was shattered! Sufficient doses of adrenalin meant that I only noticed the (excruciating) pain a few hours after I jumped out of the cars.

MRF National Racing Championship

And so I was a little hesitant when Murali Sashidharan called to say that he had finally been able to arrange a drive for me in the Formula 1600 machine for the final round of the MRF National Racing Championship – held at the BIC during the last weekend of September. Murali handles PR for the series, and we had been on his case for quite some time to organize a test of the MRF machines (both the Formula 1600 and 2000 race cars). So there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity – even if it meant lacing my meals with painkillers throughout the weekend.

Earlier in the year, after sufficiently hounding JK Tyres motorsport head, Sanjay Sharma (Hardy, as he’s better known), I managed to get myself a handful of laps around the BIC in the JK Racing Formula BMW machine. It was only a couple of laps, but it was more than enough to whet my appetite and demonstrate that any of the supercars that I’ve been fortunate to pilot around the BIC simply pale in comparison to a proper single-seat race car. Fortunately, a handful of laps in the Formula BMW were also enough to demonstrate that these cars weren’t actually all that physical to drive, and I could still manage – even at the ripe old age of 33! That being said, I had to ensure that I packed adequate supplies of crepe bandages, Volini and Combiflam.

MRF Formula 1600

The first order of business was to conduct a seat fitting on Thursday – which consisted of sitting in a bare shell, on top of a black plastic bag as the mechanics poured a hot resin behind my head that somewhat eerily took shape around my crouched frame. The Formula 1600 isn’t a carbon monocoque like the newer Formula 2000, but a more basic space-frame developed by JA Motorsport in Coimbatore. It’s clad in svelte fibreglass, powered by a 1.6 litre Ford engine, mated to a 5-speed Hewland sequential box. It’s a pretty straightforward, but very effective, tool. MRF slicks provide mechanical grip, while wings, front and rear, provide downforce.

The weekend would consist of two 30-minute practise sessions on Friday, before a 15-minute qualifying session on Saturday morning, a 10-lap race the same afternoon, followed by two more races on Sunday. All in all, a couple of hours of track time should be plenty to get a real feel for the machine. The number one priority was to avoid embarrassing myself completely.

Suit, helmet, HANS device, gloves, and it was it time for the first practise session – and my first time in the car! The first order of business was to get out of the pit lane without stalling – something I didn’t quite manage to do the first time I pulled out of the pits in the F-BMW. Well, the Formula BMW is powered by a K-series motorcycle engine – and so it requires a few more revs than normal to get it going. The Formula 1600, on the other hand, is propelled by a pretty standard – albeit quite strong – Ford engine, and so getting going was pretty straightforward. Getting the gearbox to work, though, wasn’t! I spent the first couple of laps just understanding how to get the transmission to shift when and how I wanted it to.

MRF Formula 1600 Racing Championship 2015

The gear lever requires a real shove for it to have any bearing on the gearbox whatsoever. And while you don’t need to use the clutch pedal on the move, swapping cogs is easiest when you’re skirting the redline. It also helps to lift just the right amount when you’re changing up, and blip the throttle slightly when you change down. Add to that the fact that my car didn’t have a gear indicator, and the way the shift lights were operating meant that I was short-shifting all the time – all of which meant that the first session was quite tricky to say the least.

We went out on old tyres, and I have to say that the MRF slicks were incredibly consistent through the entire session – actually the entire weekend. So that was one less variable to worry about. Towards the end of the session, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the car. The handling was incredibly neutral, bordering on mild understeer on turn in – or a quick snap mid-corner if you got a tyre on the dirt or were too aggressive with the throttle, or if you used too much kerb. The AP racing brakes required a proper shove and didn’t lock up easily. The front end behaved best if you carried a little trail braking into the corner. Once the front was pointing in the right direction, you could get on the power quite aggressively and very early. The only place I thought I could feel the aerodynamic grip was through the parabolica at turn 10 – certainly the most challenging series of corners to get right lap-after-lap.

For as good as I felt when I climbed out of the car after the first session, this sense of wellbeing was shattered once I saw the timing sheets. I was second last in a field of 12, and 8 seconds off the pace of then championship leader (and now champion) Tarun Reddy – an extremely talented young driver who’s also racing in the Formula Renault series in the UK. Needless to say, he’s almost exactly half my age!

MRF Formula 1600 Racing Championship

The JA Motorsport engineers were very helpful, and studied some telemetry with me to help understand where I could go quicker – which was pretty much everywhere. We started the second session with new tyres, so it took a couple of laps to get them up to temperature. I certainly felt a lot more comfortable in the car, and began to push that little bit harder. At the end of the session, I was within 5 seconds of Tarun – better, but still an age when you consider that all the cars are virtually identical.

And so I had a lot of studying to do overnight. There was Go Pro footage to analyse and telemetry to study. I posted my telemetry chart on Twitter, and Karun Chandhok was kind enough to offer some advice. He said I was still short shifting and not carrying enough speed through the corners. Very useful advice, but I would have to implement it straightaway in the 15-minute qualifying session the next morning.

Qualifying was on another set of new tyres. So, there were two laps to get the tyres working properly and get myself acclimatised with the car once again. On the third lap I caught the car in front of me – which meant I had only two laps to go, both of which had to be perfect because they would count toward two of the upcoming three races. On my second last lap, I downshifted to first instead of second going through turn three leading to the back straight. So, that left me with just my last lap to get in a decent time. I felt like I was pushing the car more through the corners and also shifting closer to the redline. But when you’re consciously trying, you’re usually slower. You’re either too tentative or too aggressive. The most crucial factor in squeezing a lap time out of a car is to get into a rhythm – something that I had failed to achieve, and so my times didn’t improve from the evening before. I would line up 10th for the first race.

A race start is intense – and arguably the most chaotic time in a race. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get off the line properly, since you’re not allowed to do a practice start beforehand. Peter, the chief engineer and partner to J. Anand – and all-around MRF racing Yoda – said to rev it to about 4,000rpm and then dump the clutch (well, gently!). What most people were actually doing was mashing the throttle and dumping the clutch – not especially gently – which turned out to be quite effective, as I would eventually learn. I was too tentative off the line and lost a spot going into the first corner. I had to stick to the outside line, and concentrated on getting the power down early though turn 1 and getting a good line through turn 3 and onto the back straight. I was pushed wide and off the track at turn one, but I got a good line through turn three and found myself attacking the cars ahead down the straight. I managed to get on the inside through turn four, while a bunch of cars ran wide. Lo and behold, before I knew it I had made up three spots. I managed to stick my nose down the inside going into the double left-hander at turns 5 and 6 – not a spot you would normally overtake. The car in front refused to yield, and cut the corner to keep the place. So, that’s how it was going to be…

MRF Formula 1600 Racing Championship

I managed to get sixth spot down the back straight on the next lap only to lose it a lap later as I ran wide at turn 3. I put my head down and retook the spot once again, and before I knew it we were crossing the finish line. I was sixth, but more than being satisfied with my finishing position, it was the dicing for position that was absolutely exhilarating. I got out of the car with the adrenalin flowing like it was being pumped through a jet engine. Wow – these kids really get to have a blast in these cars! Siddharth Trivellore from Chennai, the only other mid-30’s father-of-two on the grid understood exactly how I felt. The icing on the cake was the fact that the adrenalin-fuelled wheel-to-wheel racing had also propelled me to get on the pace – I was now within a second of Tarun.

I slept soundly on Saturday night, eager for the double-header on Sunday. I started race two in 6th, since the start order was decided by the race result of the previous evening. Siddharth would start on pole, since the top-four had a reverse grid. Tarun, who won the race comfortably the day before, would be right ahead of me as we lined up on the start line. The idea was to try and stick to his tail and follow him through the field if I could. I got a slightly better start than the day before, and managed to stick with him till the end of the back straight. I stayed in his slipstream and tried to get a run on him down the straight. He’s far too experienced for that though, and didn’t give me an inch – forcing me to back off and take the outside line through turn four. He then shut the door on me at the exit and ensured that I wouldn’t trouble him again through the next sequence of corners.

He had gearbox or engine trouble later in the lap though, and pulled off to the side – which left me in fourth. We had an eventful race peppered with safety car periods. Mid way through, I had Siddharth in front of me who was also struggling with his machine. I was setting him up down the start-finish straight, when he couldn’t find the next gear and I almost went straight into the back of him. I had to jink to the left, and almost lost the back end while doing so. I took my line through the first corner after passing him, but he was struggling to slow down and clipped my right rear tyre with his front wing. No damage done thankfully, and I was left to see if I could get closer to the leaders. I managed to put in some clean laps, but couldn’t really fight with the duo in front. I had started the race on a set of used tyres to ensure that I could have a good first couple of laps and make up some places. By the end of the race, though, I was sliding around like crazy. My last lap was pretty messy, but I managed to hang onto third place. And so it was that I found myself in a podium position – not bad for someone clinically past his prime!

My goal for the third and final race was to make up as many spots as I could from my 7th starting spot. I had one set of new tyres for the race, and I wanted to use them to find that missing second relative to Tarun – who had already clinched the championship by then. His closest rivals hadn’t made it to the weekend. Advait Deodhar from Mumbai was down with Dengue, and was rightfully distraught at not being able to fight for the championship, while Vikash Anand reportedly faced budgetary constraints. The MRF series costs 1.75 lakhs a race (plus damages), which is a fair amount of money, but it’s a fraction of what you would pay in Europe for a similar drive. Moreover, some European drivers who have done well in both the MRF 1600 and 2000 series have gone on to make a mark in other championships as well – so there’s certainly an element of recognition overseas. The current champion, Tarun Reddy, will continue to fly the flag I’m sure.

MRF Formula 1600 Racing Championship

I got my best start yet in race three, and made up a few spots through the first half of lap one. As I settled into fourth place after making up a couple more spots, I started pushing to get closer to the top trio. But I had a few big slides, and couldn’t really get into a rhythm. They were getting away… the gap was cut by another safety car period, and by now I had also figured out how to handle a safety car restart, so I hoped to get my last crack at the top-three as they battled it out for the final podium of the season. Expectedly, Tarun vanished into the distance and I found myself sliding more than before – it didn’t help that my seat was actually moving around slightly in the cockpit. At the parabolica on the last lap, I ran wide but managed to get back in line – not before a proper slide though, and so I expected that I would have to defend in the last few corners.

To my surprise, though, there was no challenge. As it turned out, the three cars behind me all followed me wide through the long right-hander and had a collective drifting session through the outside of the corner – as if performing in a single-seater synchronised sliding competition. And so I crossed the line for the final time in fourth place. I didn’t quite manage to shave off the half-second that I had targeted, but I still had a reasonable weekend – without embarrassment thankfully.

MRF Formula 1600 Racing Championship

The MRF machine is incredible. It has just the right amount of grip and power, and requires just the right mix of physicality and cunning to get the most out of it. All said and done, it’s a great series to cut your teeth in and prepare yourself for greater competition overseas. What it does need is more corporate sponsors to support the young drivers. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the series was better promoted as well. The crowds at the BIC on Sunday afternoon were actually pretty impressive though, but the entire series could do with a bit more of a push.

A couple of years ago, the BIC hosted the Sidvin Festival of Speed, which saw both JK and MRF racing on the same weekend – which made for a lot more action and, therefore, more compelling viewing for the fans. It would be nice to see more such initiatives in future. In the meantime, get your racing shoes on and give MRF or JA Motorsport a ring if you’re serious about honing your racing skills.

My mood over the course of the weekend can be best summed up by my tweets to Karun. They started with pure admiration at being able to handle such a nerve-racking profession. Let me put it this way, I didn’t eat the entire weekend – and had to really dig deep to find a modicum of speed. But, when it was all over, that admiration turned to pure unadulterated envy. Racing drivers really do have the best job in the world!

I don’t know how to thank Murali, Peter, and the entire crew from JA Motorsport and MRF. I feel 10 years younger and stronger than ever – despite what the MRI results say…

Tags: National Racing Championship

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