Rising Stars: Interview with Arjun and Kush Maini
Racecar drivers and brothers Arjun and Kush Maini are a study in contrasts.
Arjun, the older of the two, comes across as reticent, soft spoken and measured, the 16-year-old keeping that steely edge all racers possess sheathed, and displaying a maturity belying his years.
One of the brightest young talents in India, he has achieved much success so far in his relatively short career but exudes a quiet confidence and seems almost shy and apologetic when showing off his trophies.
Kush, on the other hand, openly brimming with confidence, seems to be in a hurry, eager and, perhaps even impatient, to use the momentum from an immensely successful year of karting to propel his career forward as he stands poised to make the step up to single-seaters.
But as different as they may seem, the siblings have one thing in common – they’re quick and, in the future, could well be India’s answer to the Schumacher brothers.
Arjun and Kush were always going to race cars. Racing runs in the family with their father, Gautam, very much a racer in his own right, and watching their dad going wheel to wheel with Narain Karthikeyan around Sriperumbedur and Kari inspired the siblings to follow in his footsteps.
“Yeah, that’s where it initially started. But when we started off it was more of a hobby than as a profession,” Arjun, who first sat in a kart when he was only five, explains.
“It got more and more serious over the years. By the time I was aged ten or eleven, then we started taking it more towards a career, but still not fully into it, we weren’t taking it very seriously, going abroad and racing.”
“But as soon as I turned twelve or thirteen then we went all out, and getting the best experience we can from all over the world and just getting all that experience together, obviously collecting a lot of wins, that comes along with it.”
Like his brother, Kush also started karting at a very young age but struggled early on, leading to doubts about whether he had the talent to cut it at a competitive level.
“It started off when I saw both the people in my family driving and I said why can’t I do this? If they can do it, then I can do it,” the thirteen-year-old said.
“But then definitely for the first three years I struggled. I didn’t feel that good because everybody was beating me, I was really slow compared to them.”
But, after that early struggle, the floodgates opened with Kush scoring his maiden win in a race in Malaysia in 2010 followed by even more success in 2011 when he swept the JK Tyre Micro Max championship with a dominant performance that saw him win all six races in the category.
“I have the record in that championship – six out of six, all the heats, all the pre-finals, there’s two heats every round, so every heat, every pre-final, I didn’t even lose once.”
“All the races I won,” he emphasises proudly.
Meanwhile, Arjun too had been making his mark on the karting circuit, winning the MRF Mini Max championship in 2007 and the JK Tyre Junior Max championship in 2011 with victory in four out of the six races.
That same year, he was thrust into the spotlight when he was announced as the winner of the Force India Formula One squad’s ‘one-from-a-billion’ talent hunt, impressing a jury made up of the likes of Anthony Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg and Eddie Jordan.
“There was a lot of pressure but I enjoyed it,” Arjun said of the experience.
“I used the pressure in a positive way and I think that’s what helped me become the one-in-a-billion because I think everybody else was getting very affected by the pressure but I used it in a very positive way and I enjoyed my time there and I loved every minute of it.”
“Anthony Hamilton was really nice with me and so were Nico and Eddie Jordan and just a really fantastic experience to visit the Force India factory and see how everything works in the Formula One world and, yeah, I managed to win in the end.”
Being picked up by a development programme is vital to a young driver’s career as the modern racing driver’s craft involves so much more than just the driving.
A development programme grooms drivers, guides their careers to make sure they are racing in the right categories, trains them in the off-track aspects of the job,but perhaps, most importantly,it gives them access to people who have the connections that can help them progress up the motor-racing ladder.
With his one-in-a-billion win, Arjun was now part of just such a programme and his career was being looked after by the Force India Formula One squad who entered Arjun and the second and third placed drivers in the talent hunt in the British karting championships.
But, racing on circuits unfamiliar to them and often in the wet — something they weren’t used to — the three young Indians initially struggled to adapt.
“Obviously, the weather in England is really terrible and we didn’t have much experience in the rain, all of us three Indians who went there,” Arjun said. “We kept getting better towards the end of the year and then it got a lot better.”
“But, yeah, they (Force India) supported me throughout and I managed to come, I think, fifth in one of the English finals which isn’t bad.”
However, the association ended and Arjun and Force India parted ways as, with a significant amount of karting now under his belt, he was keen to make the step up to single seaters in 2013, even if a return to the Force India fold in the future cannot be ruled out.
And so, after starting 2013 racing in karts Arjun made the switch to cars at the start of the single-seater season competing in the JK Racing India serieswhich uses the Formula One inspired Formula BMW slicks-and-wings cars.
He combined his campaign in India with a campaign in the AsiaCup series which also uses the Formula BMW FB02 cars and, despite it being his first season in a proper slicks-and-wings car Arjun impressed, finishing second in the overall standings in the India series behind Vishnu Prasad and winning the AsiaCup Super6 title.
“I have adapted to Formula cars even better than I had driven go-karts and that’s a good point for me because normally not all drivers who have come from karts to Formula cars are good,” Arjun says.
“Even the best karter can struggle in Formula cars. But I managed to adapt really well. I might even be better in a Formula car than I was in a go-kart so I’m happy with that.”
Kush, meanwhile, was enjoying success of his own over in Europe, becoming the first Indian to finish second overall in the and Euro Series category and third in the Masters category of World Series Karting, a closely watched and intensely competitive hotbed of talent where many future F1 stars hone their skills.
“Yeah, I was the first ever Indian in Indian motorsport history, to ever have gone there and picked up two trophies,” Kush said.
“Three is the maximum you can pick up there but I didn’t take part in the third one so I took part in the two, I got it and I’m really proud because I was the only Indian to do so.”
Following the success the siblings achieved out on track in 2013, the two now stand on the cusp of what is likely to be the most defining season so far of their relatively short careers.
Kush is making the switch to cars and will be combining a campaign in the LGB Formula 4 category along with an intense season of karting while Arjun is setting his sights on an international campaign with the Formula 4 Championship in the UK.
Europe is of course where Arjun and Kush will eventually have to race as the junior series there are not just a lot more competitive and professionally run, but give a driver a better chance of catching the eye of the Formula One community.
But, taking too big a jump up the motor-sport ladder can prove fatal to a young driver’s career, and therefore, Arjun has tested cars from different categories, including a Formula 3 car, a category he admits he isn’t ready for yet.
“I drove different cars as well just to get the feel because you only have one shot at a career, you can’t just go straight to a very high level and not do well,” he said.
“It’s very important to make the right decision and, yes, it is important to get to Europe first but it’s also important to keep your confidence level high so that’s why I think just to do a lot of testing so that when I’m racing I’m at the top and not come at the bottom and kill my confidence really badly.”
“You have to learn from the European experience but at the same time not kill your confidence too much.”
Now, there is no doubt that the Maini brothers are extremely talented. But it is equally true that that talent has been allowed to flourish thanks to the support of dad, Gautam, who after having to give up on his dream of making a career out of racing has spared no effort in helping Arjun and Kush live theirs.
And because he understands racing, Gautam has made sure that Arjun and Kush have been exposed to competition at an international level from a very young age, exposure which has helped refine their driving.
“That’s partially what he’s trying to do because he didn’t have the chance to live his dream of spending his lifetime in a formula car,” Arjun says.
“He retired from formula cars at an early stage — he wanted to continue I’m pretty sure about that – just to help us, help us achieve what he couldn’t achieve due to the circumstances when he raced.”
The fact that the family is financially very well off has also helped but both know that as they climb higher up the motor-racing ladder, they are going to have to increasingly rely on external funding and Gautam has schooled them in raising sponsorship from a young age.
Arjun became the brand Ambassador of Kappa early in his career and was also backed by Red Rooster Racing for a couple of years. More recently, JK Tyre and Kirloskar Electric have also chipped in to help his career along. Kush, too, has been backed by Red Rooster Racing and Dark Don.
It would therefore be wrong to assume that the Maini brothers have been able to buy their way up the motor-racing ladder. They’ve delivered the results that they have by dint of their talent and drive, and if the financial resources that the family has at its disposal mean they’ve had it easier than some,they certainly don’t take it for granted.
“It’s a really big advantage because maybe all the families don’t do this,” Kush said. “So we’re the special ones. He works a lot for us. Mom and Dad, they both work a lot for me.
“My whole family, the Maini family has been very supportive, especially my dad because even he loved racing but he didn’t have this chance because in those days you know how the conditions were.”
“For us it’s coming a lot easier than others but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to reach the top, which is Formula One,”Arjun adds.
“So we know we’ve got it easy, but we still have to work almost as hard as the others to show our parents that what you’ve done for us, we’re going to give it all back to you and we’re going to make it there thanks to all your help.”
Images courtesy Gautam Maini.