Well, about four months shy of two years since I got a chance to spend a day training alongside Karun Chandhok, India’s second Formula 1 driver for a story for Autocar India. The resulting story was one I got plenty of flak for from the magazine’s editor in chief, Hormazd Sorabjee (creative differences). It still sticks in my mind as the assignment for which I prepared vigorously with mixed results. There’s a still a bittersweet feeling whenever I read it (published in the magazine’s September, 2008 issue) and I was reminded of it when I saw Overdrive and CNBC TV-18’s effort to do a training story of their own just two days ago. Here for the first time is the story behind the story.
Back in 2008 Karun was still just one rung below motor sports’ top echelon. He was racing for the iSport team in the GP2 series and had been doing fairly well (had won a race and scored two podium finishes). Not since Narain Karthikeyan (India’s first F1 driver) had an Indian driver managed to attract media attention in cricket crazy India.
Opinions were divided amongst the elite of India’s motor sport press regarding his talent as a racing driver but there was no question about the amount of work that Karun put into achieving the ultimate goal of breaking into F1. I was in the middle of my two year stint at Autocar India, the nation’s top selling motoring publication. Autocar India was and still is chock-a-block with motor sports enthusiasts and anyone who has ever read it will know that with the limited amount of pages set aside for motor sports coverage, the magazine does a solid job of giving readers their motor sports fix. I had returned to the magazine after a brief study break when a colleague who was in charge of motor sports coverage for the magazine suggested that we do a fitness related feature on Chandhok who had famously lost over 20 kilograms as a teenager in order to pursue a career in motor sports.
The importance of being fit is often overlooked by people with a cursory interest in motor sports but anyone with even a little experience in single seater racing at the highest level will tell you that it pays to be strong and have enough endurance to withstand the punishing beating that you get in a car with high cornering speeds, vice like brakes and extreme acceleration. Think about this little stat; an F1 car can accelerate from a standing start to 200 kmph (124 mph) and decelerate back to a standstill in at or under nine seconds. Imagine experiencing forces like these lap after lap for nearly two hours and then add to that cornering forces that can at times exceed four times the force of gravity. Then add factors like heat inside the car, seat belts so tight that when you breathe in you are pushed further into your seat and you get the idea of what it takes to be able to withstand such punishment.
A GP2 car while not at F1 levels was still a pretty mean machine. The 2005 spec car was capable of accelerating from zero to 200 kmph in just under seven seconds and could reach a top speed of 320 kmph (198 mph). The new car introduced in 2008 was an improvement over the preceding model. So suffice to say I would be up against a pretty fit driver. The colleague who suggested the story warned me that I’d better be prepared as Karun starts his mornings with an eight kilometer (4.97 mile) run.
But before I could start preparing for the story I had to get around the prevailing notion of what made a feature like this worth reading. The magazine’s, opinionated, motorsports mad, pudgy yet likeable deputy editor, Shapur Kotwal, immediately chimed in saying that he wanted to do the feature. I had feared someone pulling seniority on me (I was just a correspondent) but it was his take on approaching the story that got me really worried. He stated that it would make a great read and look good on TV too if he were to go there and start huffing and puffing and struggle to keep up with Chandhok. In other words, your usual stereotypical story of an average person being left in the dust by a well conditioned athlete who trains day in and day out. Well obviously that would happen, but what if the average guy had time to get himself in shape and then take on the athlete? I incessantly kept hammering this point home as I pleaded my case to be allowed to do the story. “Come on, he’ll still beat me”, I said. “I only have a month”. After much nagging he finally let me go ahead and do the story.
Determined to not show up completely at sea (if you keep reading you’ll get why its ironic I use that expression) I set the goal of being able to run at least 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) by the time I met him in Chennai around mid-August. I also started to look for articles in which Chandhok discussed the importance of fitness and his training regime to get some idea of what I’d be up against. I also knew that there would almost certainly be a weight training segment in his routine so I had to be prepared in that department. Weight training for racing drivers, however lays a greater emphasis on muscle endurance rather than outright strength. Hence the reason you don’t see any beefy F1 drivers. A “heavy” F1 driver these days weighs in around 80 kilograms (176 lbs). Diet too would have to be taken into consideration as I needed a fairly high-protein diet with ample carbs as well to have the energy to workout. All this would, however, have to be tailored to my typical workday which started around 9:30 AM and end anywhere from 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM if there were last minute print deadlines.
Fortunately I was able to leave the office no later than 8:00 PM during my training period and was able to get to sleep by 10:00 PM everyday. This was critical as I would get up at 4:00 AM to start stretching and warming up. Highly critical as the last thing I wanted to do was to pull or tear a muscle in the name of a story. By 5:30 I was out the door to start running. Having not worked out at all for a year prior to starting my regime I was understandably winded and could only manage two kilometers on the first day. It was not a terribly promising start considering I had just under a month to go before trying to keep up with a pro. Slowly but steadily though I managed to not only hit the 10 km mark but also follow the run up with a fairly intense weight training session too.
As the assignment approached, this was how a typical day looked for me:
4:00 AM: Wake up begin stretching and warming up by spot running.
5:00 AM: Drink water and eat a banana.
5:30 AM: Start of 10 km run.
6:30: End of 10 km run. Drink a glass of coconut water.
6:40: Start of weight training which consisted of spot jumping with 10 kg (22 lbs) dumbells held with arms slightly bent just above waist height. Three to five sets of one hundred repetitions. This was followed by shoulder press jumping jacks. Pretty self-explanatory, an exercise where I would do shoulder presses with the 10kg dumbells while performing jumping jacks, five sets of 20 repetitions. This was followed by the steering wheel exercise in which a 10 kg dumbell was held up as a steering wheel and turned to simulate a lap of the Monte Carlo street circuit (one I knew by memory after years of watching F1) and done in the time it would take a GP2 car to complete the circuit (one minute twenty seconds). The exercise was performed while sitting on an inflatable balance ball so that my core would get a workout along with my shoulders, forearms and wrists. The weight training segment was followed by crunches (three sets of 20) and push-ups (three sets of 20).
7:30 AM: End of training, start getting ready for work.
Wanting to make sure that I kept to a low-fat, high protein diet, my breakfast consisted of three boiled eggs (white only), three slices of whole wheat bread, muesli, a glass of protein shake and whatever fruits were in season. Lunch was cottage cheese, three boiled eggs (again, white only), some sort of vegetable and whole wheat bread. And frequent trips were made to a juice stall near my office to get a glass of carrot juice. And of course I drank as much water as I could throughout the day. More stretches would follow just before lights out at 10:00 PM.
And then came the bombshell. With three days to go I finally called up Karun to discuss the logistics of the story and also asked about the workout. He confirmed that he ran 8 km (evil chuckles in my head ensued when I heard that), but only every other day (??!!) and that on the day we would be meeting he would be swimming 2.2 kilometers to start the day. WHAAATTT???!!!!! Where on earth did this come from? Why didn’t the guy who suggested the story to me tell me in the first place? He chats with Karun on Gmail and on the phone practically every day for crying out loud! I could swim but not two kilometers! I haven’t swam for over ten years!!
Ultimately I knew I had only myself to blame for not researching properly and not calling Karun much much earlier than I did. I resigned myself to my flop show to come but vowed to swim as much as I could and not stop until Karun left the pool. The day finally arrived and after filming the first interview with Karun (the story also ran on UTVi News’ Autocar India Show) I got ready and sure enough after the first two laps of the 22 meter pool started to fall behind. Plenty of breaks followed but I kept going even though I was out of sequence with Karun. I think I only managed just under 500 meters while Karun did the full 2.2 kilometers. Fuming at myself I waited until the afternoon when we would start the weight training segment in the gym.
And thankfully the cameras were there to catch me making up for earlier by matching Karun rep for rep during his circuit training segment. Although even there lay a couple of stumbling blocks. The shoulder dips and sitting on a fitness ball with out any support whatsoever were out of my league but the only two blemishes in an otherwise perfect performance. I was able to leave pleased with myself and even managed to get Karun to sheepishly admit on camera that overall I did a good job especially in the gym. I wrote the story as a blow by blow account of my day of trying to keep up with a professional fitness freak. It did the usual editing rounds, was approved, layed out and sent to the press. Job done.
Or so I thought until I got a call from Hormazd while I was returning from one of the rare occasions that I accompanied the magazine’s road test editor for performance testing (the automatic transmission variants of the Hyundai i10 and and the Mahindra Scorpio). “How could you write that story Vinayak?!”, Hormazd fumed. “It sounds like you’re trying to beat him, and by saying that you used heavier weights than he did to train you’re implying that you’re fitter than him!” I pleaded my case by stating that ultimately I fell short (very badly at that while swimming) and that it just proved that an average person can’t keep up with a pro. “But you’re not average Vinayak, you’re fit!” (well anyone would be if they trained as much as I did I wanted to tell him). “You shouldn’t have gone for the story at all, someone out of shape should have gone, it would have made for much better reading then!”. It was hopeless arguing my point with with him and as the road test editor pointed out, since the story had already gone to press, nothing could be done anyway.
As if by magic, however, the next morning Hormazd had mellowed and said the story came out well on TV and didn’t bring up the magazine article. People around the office asked me in jest if I was planning a career in motor sports. I started to daydream on a grand scale of one day beating not only Karun but every other driver at their own game but eventually reality and lethargy got the better of me. I continued on the training regime for another two weeks before slipping back into a sedentary lifestyle.
It was a rare glimpse into the hectic life of a professional racing driver and while I rued the chance to spring a surprise on him I ultimately thanked my stars that I got to do such a story in the first place. And since one of the pictures of me got a female colleague to ‘notice’ me, it wasn’t a complete loss!