Rising Stars – Going for broke: Interview with Advait Deodhar
Advait Deodhar is a man in a hurry. That is the over-riding impression I’m left with after meeting with this 23-year-old hotshoe. I suppose the same can be said of all racing drivers but, as we chat over a cup of coffee sat in a seaside café in Mumbai, there is a sense that it is especially true of Deodhar.
Fresh out of just his second season of competition and having only started racing competitively in 2012 at the age of 22 with no karting career behind him, it is perhaps because is eager to make up for lost time as he races towards his dream of making it as a Formula One driver.
“I only did my first bit of karting, I think, when I was in the eighth standard (age 13) and that too it was just at the local go-karting track,” Deodhar says.
“I had just gone with my family and that’s when I knew. I was quick, I was quicker than my entire family and I knew that I had some speed but that was just the fun go-karting experience.”
“And then apart from that I just did some karting here and there but I never actually competed.”
In fact, when he first stepped into a LGB Formula 4 single-seater in 2012, all Deodhar had under his belt was one competitive karting event and a couple of autocross rally events.
“I did one, one-off karting event with MRF – that time they had the MRF championship with the mondial karts – and I actually got a podium on my first ever outing. I was in seventh-heaven then! And those were in the 13.5 horsepower mondial karts,” Deodhar, who is also a skilled sailor, recalls.
A further podium on his maiden outing in an autocross rally followed and it was clear that Deodhar had the talent behind the wheel to cut it at a competitive level.
However, motorsport is an unforgiving business and there are long years of financial struggle before a driver actually makes it. We’ve all heard stories of Nigel Mansell mortgaging his house to raise the money he needed to fund his racing or of Mark Webber fighting to keep his career alive when he first moved to England from Australia.
In fact, the harsh reality is that for every driver that hits the big time, far more fail and fade into anonymity, resigned to a career spent on the fringes of the sport, driving around in circles because that is all they have ever known.
And so, now out of high-school, Deodhar – who had been accepted by a prominent university in Turin, Italy to study automobile design — had a choice: commit himself to becoming a racing driver and accept all the risks of failure that go along with it, or get himself a ‘real’ and potentially lucrative future. He chose the latter.
“See, now you know motorsport requires a lot of money and it may sound like I have a lot of money that I went to live in Italy and this and that. It may sound like that, but don’t get me wrong,” Deodhar says.
“My parents said that, ‘Okay, you want to do this, you want to be a racing driver?’ And I tried at that time to raise sponsorship.”
“So they said, ‘What else would you want to do?’ And at that time I thought of architecture, I thought of automobile engineering and I thought of design. And in 2008 I went to Italy because I didn’t have any money to race.”
But as it turned out, spending four years away from home, learning to fend for himself in a country steeped in motor-racing heritage that has spawned such legends as Ferrari, Ascari, Nuvolari and Villoresi to name but a few, only further whet Deodhar’s appetite for racing.
“I’ll tell you now that I think that is the best decision I have ever made,” he says. “Because I had lived in Mumbai, I had lived at home my entire life. And okay, I had that idea that I wanted to race cars but I didn’t have the drive, I wasn’t driven enough to actually want it that bad.”
“And spending four years in Italy, studying car design, being on my own, being away from home for nine months at a time, being in Italy, the country, I mean there was motorsport all around me. And that really made me realise that I don’t want to be drawing cars for the rest of my life, I want to be driving them.”
And so, in 2012, after graduating with a degree in automobile design and having turned down several lucrative employment offers, Deodhar returned to India.
While still in Italy, he had been actively building up his network and managed to land a drive with Dark Don Racing in the LGB Formula 4 category, the most affordable class of racing in India and the lowest rung on the motorsport ladder in the country.
Everything had fallen into place perfectly so far and Deodhar was now ready to see his dream take flight. Characteristically impatient and riding a wave of optimism, Deodhar was confident he would blitz the competition in his debut year and was even thinking about competing in Europe in 2013. As he candidly admits, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I came into the season thinking I’m going to kick ass, I’ll be very honest with you,” Deodhar says. “I thought I’m going to rule everyone and I got it handed to me. Very frankly, I got it handed to me and it took me time to get up to pace.”
“It’s not very good because you think your entire life has been building up to this moment and when you come there and you’re a few seconds off the pace, you’re not able to beat anyone, you can’t overtake, you can’t do anything, it’s a massive jab to your self-confidence and it was pretty intense for me, I’ll tell you that.”
However, Deodhar worked through the self-doubt to turn his lacklustre early-season form around and by the end of the year, he was taking on the established order, ending the season at the top of the rookie standings.
Deodhar’s strong end of season form carried over into 2013 and he scored five podiums over the course of the year, during which the soon-to-be-24-year-old combined his season in LGB Formula 4 with a campaign in the MRF Formula Ford 1600 series, his first in a proper Formula One-inspired ‘slicks-and-wings’ car in which he was up to speed right away.
But no matter how well he does on the local circuit, if he wants a serious crack at Formula One Deodhar needs to be competing in junior series in Europe which are not only more professionally run, but are also a lot more competitive and give a talented young driver a greater opportunity to prove his worth and catch the eye of the Formula One community.
Deodhar acknowledges this, but for 2014 his sights are firmly set on the Formula Masters series in China, his first international campaign which he plans on using as a stepping stone to Europe. The stakes are high though.
“It’s either first or second, nothing less. If I don’t win it then I’m evidently not ready for Europe.”
“So the way I’m looking at Masters is I have to win it or finish second at the very least.”
However, his progress up the motorsport ladder is very much dependent on how much money he can raise and Deodhar, like all racing drivers fighting their way up through the ranks, needs to cobble together the budget required for a campaign in the Masters and fast.
He has been working on ways to raise money and has hit upon an unconventional if not unique idea where rather than sponsors handing money out to drivers in return for stickers on the car, investors can invest in a driver’s career and see that investment generate returns when the driver starts earning.
For example, say a group of investors invests in Deodhar’s career now and helps him progress up the motor-racing ladder, they will be entitled to 35 percent — a number that is negotiable — of his future earnings for a period of ten years.
So, rather than backers getting their returns in the form of something as intangible as brand mileage, they will actually have hard cash returned to them.
“Racing drivers are among the highest-paid sportsmen in the world. So this is a passion investment at the end of the day.”
“It’s like buying a painting — let’s call it a high-risk passion investment which if you’re a motorsport fan and you have money, I think it’s pretty exciting.”
Without a doubt, and as he himself concedes, the odds are stacked against Deodhar making it to Formula One. But undeterred, and true to the spirit embodied by racers and indeed everyone involved in motor-racing since the dawn of the sport, he is giving it his all. Quite simply, Deodhar is going for broke.
Images courtesy Advait Deodhar