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India’s best rally driver talks about his switch from MRF to JK Tyre, plans for the 2019 WRC2 season, the advanced driving academy, a talent hunt with JK and his all-new Mahindra Super XUV300 for the INRC
India’s fastest, most accomplished and winningest rally driver stunned the motorsport community when he swapped his red cap for yellow, putting an end to a ten year partnership with MRF Tyres that saw him win three APRC titles and also graduate to the WRC2. His move to JK Tyre has spurred the former national champions to commit to a massive rally program that not only includes a 4-round WRC2 campaign but putting together a full plan for the Indian National Rally Championship including supporting drivers, unearthing talent, providing the right training and raising the overall standard of the sport. His performance and dedication to motorsport has also earned him the coveted Arjuna Award and is the only motorsport athlete to be nominated and awarded the same.
Here Gaurav Gill gets candid on why he left JK Tyre in the first place, his years at MRF, the reasons for switching back to JK and what the future has in store.
On chapter 1 of his rallying career
“It all started when I was with JK Tyre and they gave me the opportunity to get back into a rally car. I was ready to win the championship in my first year of rallying, and I was beating Naren, Vikram and everyone else. But I was forced to hold back. I clearly remember I was told that I have a whole career ahead me so, just for this one more time, let it be. And then on I was very frustrated. I knew that I had it in me to win and to do well, also in the international circuit.
“MRF then threw the opportunity at me with the APRC drive. I called up Hardy [JK Tyre motorsport boss Sanjay Sharma] and told him that this is what is happening and I think I should move on, and Hardy was kind enough to let me go saying, ‘yeah, why not’. At that time they could not do much about my international career because they didn’t have any plans.
“In 2007 I started the APRC year three rounds. In 2008 I won my first APRC rally. Basically after five rallies I took my first victory. I would have won the [APRC] championship in 2010. I made a small mistake of cutting a corner which destroyed my wheel and put me out. I had to just finish the rally to win the championship. Otherwise, my first championship would have come in 2010 and I would have four titles today.”
On the MRF years
“It was very good. The team management would be at every rally and take a personal interest to make sure that the tyres are developed well, make sure that there is R&D, and there is progress — for the tyres, team and drivers.
"I’ve always complained about one thing which I still do today. But this is the situation with us in our country and with me where I’m born — and that is I get very limited [rally] mileage. Whereas my teammates would to 20-30 rallies in a year I would just do 5-6 rallies in a year.
“The good thing about MRF was also they were eager to step up their game by getting the S2000 [Skoda Fabia] and R5 cars and I’m really lucky to have driven one of the finest rally cars the world has ever seen. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. Because of that I am performing and I have so much speed. I’ve always had super strong and the fastest guys from the world of rallying as my teammates, right from Chris Atkinson to Essepeka Lappi, and I’ve beat them and won against them.”
On switching from MRF to JK
“MRF’s goal was obviously to develop tyres that can capture the European and Asia-Pacific market, which I feel they have been able to successfully do. But a limited program for me driving at the peak of my career doesn’t really help as a sportsperson; as an athlete. I need to keep doing my job, day in day out, as much as I can. And, I need to find opportunities to help me gain maximum mileage from what I do. This year MRF didn’t really have a program in place and they were concentrating on developing the tyres. And I didn’t want to waste a yearbecause each year that I would sit out would set me back by three years. That’s the amount of damage not driving these cars does to a person like me at my level of driving. Every other competitor that I compete against is constantly driving and I don’t want be not driving, when I can drive against the best and win against some of the best guys in the world. And, I know, I belong in WRC now. I’ve got so much confidence, I’ve got so much dedication. I won 11 stages on MRF tyres so now I’ve shown my speed and now I can’t just wait to pounce back and deliver some top results this year.”
What’s in store in chapter 2
“This is not only my driving in the world championship or in the INRC. It’s got a lot to do with my academy where we are going to develop talent and find another Gaurav Gill, or make or manufacture one."
Four rounds of the WRC2 in 2019
“This year, since we all started pretty late and with all this drama happening, it was very difficult for Hardy to arrange funding for the WRC. But we’ve still managed to pull off a three round budget and, if all goes well, we might just include another one. We start with Turkey, then we go to GB and then Australia. I’m positive of having a really strong result in all these countries because we will be driving on a level playing field. Before Turkey we’ll do a full test in the UK with the new car.
“M-Sport have agreed to give me the new Ford Fiesta R5 car [on Michelin tyres] and we’ll have some support, hopefully, from Ford India. We’re talking to them.”
“We also plan to get the [R5 Fiesta] at the AutoExpo. We’re getting the car in to do road shows and to create massive publicity.”
Mahindra Adventure in INRC
“I’ve got my commitments with Mahindra to develop and rally the XUV300 for the next couple of years. JK Tyre will partner with me and the team to develop tyres.
“The XUV 500 and XUV 300 are completely different. The 500 is built like an SUV and is built for completely different purposes and we were forcing it to go rallying. The 300 is obviously more of a car and more of a soft roader than an off-roader. But again, we’re trying to improvise on its current handling and chassis; make it change for our purpose.
“But at least I’m driving something that acts like a car. Driving the XUV 500, I had to completely alter my driving style, setup, everything had to be changed — to something that suits the XUV 500, not something that suits me as the driver. But at least now, I’m coming back to something that listens to me and understands what I’m trying to do and responds.”
A tough debut for the XUV 300
“I think we were using the rally as a test rather than a rally to win. Because our parts were delayed I drove the car without an LSD [Limited Slip Differential]. It was pretty much bonestock, like a showroom-condition car with just a little more horsepower and some Reigers [suspension], rally tyres and a roll cage, that’s all. Inspite of all this it was quite a big achievement to win all stages on Sunday.I think it’s a great car and it’s got a good future.”
On the petrol XUV 300
“It was a management decision, not my decision, to run the petrol 300. I don’t care. If I’ve been given a job to do, I’ll do it. But I think the petrol has a lot more potential because it has the ability to run R2-spec and I think by next rally it should be pretty much ready and should be almost a full-blown R2.”
On the switch of tyres
“I would say the JK tyres are very satisfactory as of now. They haven’t had any development in ten years, or rather twelve years, and right out of the box they are pretty quick. It’s an ongoing process to develop it and we’re already in talks with the R&D team. In Coimbatore, hopefully, we should have a tyre which will feel even better. Also now it has become a tyre war, especially within the team. [Mahindra Adventure teammate Amitrajit Ghosh is on MRF Tyres]. It’s imperative that we pull up our socks and get the maximum out of it. I’ve spent over ten years on developing and engineering tyres so I’m sure we can come out with something good.
“We will stick to these 15-inch tyres but in the future JK will build a full-blown R2 spec tyre, which will basically be of international R2 standards. People even on the international market can buy the R2 tyre. So that’s the whole agenda and it will be available for everybody. The R2-spec tyre is different from the tyre we have but we will start manufacturing that in the next couple of months.”
Gill Motorsport Program
“The next phase out of my life, chapter two, is also to develop talent and to run a team. I will be helping JK run a full-blown team with two cars next year onwards, and I’m already getting involved in the development as we speak. We are looking at a couple of drivers — Dean, Suhem, Younus, Karna — these guys are obviously quick but it could also be someone who is from the North who is absolutely new, who has no rally experience but has the right attitude and the speed to go for it.
“We need to see how they progress with cars which are faster, that’s the most important thing. It’s very easy to drive a car with 100 horsepower, 120 horsepower, but when it comes to R2 kind of cars with 200 horsepower, it’s serious business and serious driving skill is required. You need to seriously skilled and you should have the right mental approach and mental ability to be able to handle that much speed, stress and make pace notes according to your speed.
“We will start our hunt for the right drivers right away, and by next year’s championship we should have two guys ready to drive two fully-prepared R2 cars here.”
“I’m involved in the Cross Kart program with JK, where we build cross karts in India and we run a championship and again we will develop talent who drive cross karts. That will also be part of my academy, the Gill Motorsport program.
“The whole idea is to develop a sort of a championship, which is unlike a racing and a rally championship. Maybe position it like an IPL, or a league-like championship, where we can sell teams to states and stuff. There’s a lot more going and we’re yet to finalise which direction we are going to go with that. The stuff should be coming in ready by September-October.”
“I am elated to have been nominated for the Arjuna Award as a motorsport athlete. This award is not only for me but the whole motorsport fraternity.” said Gaurav Gill on being conferred the Arjuna Award by the President of India.