Exclusive: 'Formula One is no different, everyone is in same boat' - Karun Chandhok opens up on halted F1 season, life in lockdown and more

WION Web Team New Delhi, Delhi, India Apr 09, 2020, 07.28 PM(IST) Written By: Digvijay Singh Deo

Exclusive | Karun Chandhok in conversation with WION Photograph:( AFP )

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One of the prominent voices in Formula One and one of two Indians to race in the sport – Karun Chandhok – in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo spoke about a lot of things ranging from the halted season, how the racing season could be revived, team dynamics in F1, life in lockdown and more.

Sporting calendar has been left shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic and motorsport has also been affected heavily by the dreaded virus, postponing as many as nine races. The Canadian Grand Prix was the latest to join the list, consisting the likes of Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Netherlands, Monaco, Spain and Vietnam Grand Prix, to be postponed in the 2020 F1 season.

One of the prominent voices in Formula One and one of two Indians to race in the sport – Karun Chandhok – in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo spoke about a lot of things ranging from the halted season, how the racing season could be revived, team dynamics in F1, virtual races, life in lockdown and more. 

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Digvijay Singh Deo: Karun, you are in England and the news coming out of there does not make pleasant reading. How dire is it there?

Karun Chandhok: The situation in England is not great at the moment, even the prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, has been admitted to the ICU. So it is tough, but to be honest it is the same as the rest of the world.

I don't think the scenario is necessarily worse than the rest of Europe. Everyone is tracking a different curve and timeline. I think in a country like India, it's difficult to know what the actual numbers are because the population is so high and people aren't being tested enough. The same problem exists in the USA. We've all fighting a common enemy and every country is trying to deal with it the best way we can.
DSD: You have an extremely young family as well so both Akshara and you have to be taking extra precautions.
KC: We're very lucky because we live away from London, in the suburbs, so it is still possible to exercise self-isolation while still going out and being away from people, which is nice. The town that I live in has only 11,000 people, the population is probably less than that of my old colony in Chennai where I grew up. But for others who live in the heart of the city, it's difficult, whether you live in Delhi, Mumbai or London, it is tough to find space to isolate.

Exclusive | Karun Chandhok in conversation with WION
And the other part of your family is in Chennai, your bother is a broadcaster and must be in Mumbai so the Chandhok's are scattered here and there at the moment...

KC: It was my fathers' birthday yesterday, so we had a zoom call yesterday which involved about 20 family members from all across the world, including Australia, USA, all parts of Europe and India as well. So everyone is finding new ways of staying in touch with their loved ones. I just wish I had bought shares in 'zoom' before the coronavirus crisis started, that would have been a very fruitful investment.
DSD: Let’s talk about formula one. Canadian GP has been postponed now as well. That’s the first nine races gone. Just like that...

KC: Yes, nine races have been cancelled, and the decisions have been taken after due deliberation. The announcements are coming slowly, but that is because there is no immediate rush to do so. The promoters and race organisers can take their time. I personally do not think the season can start before august, and that itself is optimistic. I'm not a medical professional or a scientist so I don't know how long this crisis will carry on.but from what I'm reading and seeing in the news, I feel that the summer months will be able to flatten the curve and stop the spread.

But formula one is a global event, unlike say the IPL or Wimbledon. So even if the situation improves in Europe, but not in Asia or South America, then the formula one will not be able to function. The travel restrictions need to be relaxed for people to come in from all over the world, as races take place in every corner of the globe. 

That's the tricky aspect for formula one, that the situation in the entire world needs to improve for the season to get up and running. However, on the flip-side, we can have a truncated season, unlike Wimbledon, which can only be held during a certain time in a year. Whereas in Formula One you can be a little more flexible and juggle the calendar to have some form of a campaign. You can race in the middle eastern countries in the winter and race in Europe in August.

DSD: Let’s go back to those farcical scenes in Melbourne last month. F1 has the reputation of being a snobbish sport and the tamasha that unfolded in Melbourne is going to haunt the sport for a long long time.

KC: I think it is wrong to solely blame F1 for what happened in Australia. The reality is that there were three parties involved in the decision-making process- the Formula One authorities, the Australian government/ local promoters and the governing body of the sport- FIA. There were problems of communication between those three parties, as Chase Carey, the formula one chief was in Vietnam, evaluating the situation there for the inaugural Hanoi GP. While the FIA head Jean Todt was in Europe.

For the local promoters, the commercial aspect had to be looked at and there was a lot of money to be made. They also had to look at their relationship with the australian government, so the due process had to be followed. So overall it was the perfect storm. But the issue which wasn't handled well by the authorities was that of communication to the fans. Even on the Friday morning, there was news on the radio, urging fans to head to the track and people were cueing up outside the gate. So that was an error on the part of the F1 bosses.

So the rest of it is hard for us to judge as there are so many layers that need to be considered. So the only thing I would fault the F1 for is the lack of communication to the fans.

DSD: Let’s look at the scenarios. Bernie Ecclestone the former supremo of F1 feels the season is a write-off. Liberty says they can still salvage a season. With Canada now gone and with France looking unlikely as well you are looking at no races till the end of June.

KC: There have to be at least eight rounds in a season to constitute an FIA World Championship. So if we start in August and continue the season till the second or third week of December, I think it's logistically possible to manage 12 or 13 race weekends.

I think the biggest question is that of when can we start. There are enough European venues which will be willing host races if the world health organisation and the various governments clear it. I think all the European Grand Prix can be held. The Bahrain and Abu Dhabi races can be held towards December. I don't think the Singapore race will be possible as it is a street circuit and they will have to prepare the track. So for the Singapore GP to take place, they need to be told at least three months in advance, so it could happen maybe in December, but they would need to get the green light in august. So it is a slightly complicated situation.

Exclusive | Karun Chandhok in conversation with WION

But the Chinese Grand Prix could take place, as the Shanghai track will be open in June. That would be an amazing story since china is where the crisis started. And finally, a quick North American leg can also happen depending on the pandemic situation there, with races in Texas and Mexico. So potentially a season could take place, but the main question is when it will be able to start.
DSD: I spoke to Rohan Bopanna the other day and asked if he felt tennis season should resume under closed doors. F1 is thinking of the same as well but Bops said you forget about players and everyone flying in, quarantine regulations etc.thats a problem every sport is facing and unless we have a private island like the one UFC is proposing I find it difficult to believe that these restrictions will be lifted

KC: As I said before, travel needs to resume, quarantines need to be wavered and various restrictions have to be lifted globally for the formula season to kick off.
DSD: Economically, Karun, what is  the hit we are looking at for the sport if there is no 2020 season.not just about drivers and teams there are others including possibly you not getting salaries
KC: I think the reality is that the whole world is taking a hit. Regardless of the scale of the business, whether it be a local grocery store or a multinational corporation, each and every establishment of any sort is suffering.

So Formula One is no different, everyone is in the same boat. The survival of F1 depends on how the sport reacts to this crisis. But there are changes being made, for example, there were rule changes that were going to take place in 2021, which have now been pushed back to 2022. That was going to be extremely expensive as the whole concept and designs of the car was going to be modified. The rules change might even get pushed back to 2023, so that is a big cost-saving strategy. Other measures are also being taken, a rule might be passed which means that the same 2020 cars will be used for the 2021 season.

So that saves the cost of building and designing another car. Owners of the sport- the liberty group are very aware of the problems that are facing formula one, so I believe they know what needs to be done to help teams survive. Think of like a government, every government is trying to put together a package to help industries and businesses. So the F1, on a smaller scale is trying to do something similar. So F1 has to ensure that teams are provided with aid, but it is also difficult for them as the sport is also losing out on a lot of money. The rights fees for races aren't coming and there is no sponsorship money because the season is not on. In simple terms, if there are no races, there is no money flowing in.

DSD: Mclaren has already come out and said two to four teams could fold. How significant are the operating margins? And I ask you this as you are closely involved with the sport and have a better understanding than us.

KC: I think in terms of the top teams- Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari- as long as the parent companies and the factories continue to support them, they will be able to manage.those three have got enough financial muscle to survive the crisis. But the question mark remains over manufacturers like Renault, the automotive industry has taken a hit worldwide. So I'm sure their board is wondering what cutbacks they need to make to their F1 expenses.

Now, these four are the manufacturers, then you have six independent teams. These independent teams spend about 100 million pounds a season to operate and compete in formula one. That sum is for a full season of 22 races. If there are fewer races, obviously less money will be spent. But the overheads of the teams are still the same, Racing Point, Williams and McLaren have announced that they are furloughing some of their staff. But as I mentioned before, the overheads of the infrastructure are still high for a team. 

So these teams need to figure out a way to spend I would estimate around 60-70 million pounds in the year to survive. Now a huge portion of that money comes from tv right, media rights and race hosting rights. All of this rights money constitutes a formula one pot, the teams share 65 per cent of the sum, while F1 keeps the rest of the money. Now in order for the sport to survive and for the teams to survive, the F1 could make an exception and change that equation for this year. The MotoGP have done that, they have given more money to the independent teams this year to help through this financial crisis.

Exclusive | Karun Chandhok in conversation with WION

DSD: There also the power struggle going on about reduced budget caps. I find merit in the argument of the big teams, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull that we also sell parts to other teams so you have to factor in higher research and development costs for us.

KC: I don't think that should be the case. The devil is in the detail. These are all arguments that carry on in the political world of F1. But actually it's quite simple, if you take engine development out of the budget cap, making it an operational cap for the race team, then it becomes the same for every competitor a separate engine development cap can stop the manufacturers from needing to spend more.

So everything is workable, it's just that unfortunately the people associated with F1 are wired in such a way that they think of themselves sport. But I guess that is the nature of sport, you have to be selfish to a certain degree to be successful. But at this point F1 needs strong leaders, they need Chase Carey and Jean Todt to step up and come up with a concrete plan to deal with the crisis.we are at a crossroads, where F1 could go back to having more independent teams, which means the manufacturers would become engine suppliers. That was the model that existed for a long time till the early 1990s, when you had independent teams with an engine partner.

So if the auto industry doesn't recover and the manufacturers feel like they need to cut back on their expenditure, maybe they will go back to being engine suppliers. For example, that is what honda are doing right now, they are not a full team, they're just partners with red bull and there's nothing wrong with that, it is actually part of the DNA of the sport.
DSD: Trust is a huge part of the problem. Team dynamics aren’t exactly the greatest  at the moment. The Ferrari settlement with the FIA didn’t go down well with the teams. Are teams entitled to want more transparency and is the perceived lack of transparency hurting the sport?

KC: I think I can understand why the teams are not happy about Ferrari's settlement with the FIA. If I'm honest I'm a little surprised that the FIA announced that there was some sort of settlement with Ferrari. In the past, when Bernie Ecclestone was in charge, I'm sure there were many deals done that none of us even knew about since they happened behind closed doors.

For whatever reason, the FIA announced they had made the settlement and that upset all the other teams. But because of the coronavirus crisis, that issue has been shelved for the time being.

DSD: I want to also understand how do drivers stay fit. Most have gyms and simulators at home. Other sportspersons around the world like a tennis player do not have access to say a tennis court. Do F1 drivers then have an advantage or they need to spend time in the car?

KC: Nothing beats being in an actual car, but I think it's the same for every sportsperson at the moment. I think most people have some sort of training set up at home. I, for example, have a rowing machine, so I've been spending about an hour every day on that. Some people are going for a run outdoors if it is safe to do so. They are finding ways to maintain their fitness levels.

Mercedes driver Valterri Bottas has gone to Finland, where the population is very low and he's skiing to stay fit. Mclaren driver Carlos Sainz has gone back home to Madrid where he has a gym set up. Everyone is just trying to make it work somehow. It's harder for the Olympic athletes because they spend four years aiming to peak at a certain point. So I feel bad for track and field athletes because they would have prepared to peak for Tokyo 2020, and now it has been postponed by more than a year. So it must be a huge challenge for them to adapt to the new schedule.
DSD: Pankaj Advani says when sport resumes there will be a level playing field for initially a few months as most will be rusty due to lack of practice.do you see that happening in F1 considering that no development has been going on since Melbourne?

KC: This where the organisational level of a team or a federation comes into play. For example, as soon as the lockdown happened, Red Bull sent their driver Alex Albon all kinds of equipment which would help him train at home. So various simulation tools were sent to ensure that he kept sharp and kept training. So the preparation of the teams who are managed well will not be affected greatly at this time. Pierre Gassly is living with his trainer at the moment, so essentially they live like a family.this is when the well-run Olympic or sporting federations will be able to help their athletes because that's what the job of any sporting body is.

Exclusive | Karun Chandhok in conversation with WION

DSD: Now at the beginning, I did say that F1 sort of is acknowledged as a snobbish sport but teams have been working to produce breathing kits and other equipment to battle pandemic.

KC: There are many ways in which the F1 is helping. Seven of the teams in the UK have come together for an initiative called 'project pitlane' which has been set up to manufacture medical equipment. Mercedes have manufactured a C-Pap machine, which helps coronavirus patients with lung infections breathe more easily. But what is really great that Mercedes have made the design and specifications available on an 'open source' basis. So that means that anyone can take the design to medical equipment manufacturers anywhere in the world, and they can produce the same machine, which will hopefully help those in need. I think this is a fantastic initiative by Mercedes.

The other teams are working on creating ventilator systems. I was speaking to one of the engineers the other day, and he said that British military was actually working on the design for these set of ventilators for two years, but they were not able to put together a final product. But the F1 engineers have been able to turn that working design into a product that is ready for testing on patients, in just two weeks. So that gives you an idea about the speed at which these F1 engineers work. They see a problem at one race and that has to be solved in two weeks time for the next Grand Prix.

So when you get the heads of engineers from the seven teams together, that is what they are capable of.
DSD: Want to end this by asking you what you think about the virtual races and do we get to see you competing in one of them?

KC: The virtual races are fun, but what you will notice is those who are participating either have no children or have children who they can keep occupied with toys and other activities. I, on the other hand, have 16 month old- whose nickname is captain chaos and doesn't sit still for a moment. If I had a gaming pod, he would be grabbing at it and not let me complete the race. So I think I'll have to wait for at least a couple more years before I can take part in the virtual races.