In his first column for Crash.net, GP2 front-runner and Red Bull junior programme star Karun Chandhok reflects on a frustrating inaugural GP2 Asia Series campaign, and looks ahead to what he anticipates being the busiest season of his career over the remainder of 2008...

Being made a member of the Red Bull junior programme has made our association stronger. Red Bull have really been awesome to me since the start of our partnership. They were pleased with what I did in the F1 car at Barcelona in my first test, and I look forward to being a test driver for them again in 2008.

I always said that my ideal scenario for 2008 would be to race with a top GP2 team and test for a good F1 team, and this has worked out well. Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and everyone involved with Red Bull Austria and the F1 team have given their blessing to my deal with iSport International.

After my first F1 test last year I stayed on in Europe until the middle of December for an extended period of negotiation and finalisation of my drive for 2008. Ever since the middle of last year iSport was the most sought-after drive on the grid. I know they had nearly every GP2 driver chasing them for the drive, and for them to have taken up the option to run me was a huge confidence boost.

I enjoyed my time with Durango last year, but when I tested with iSport soon after the last race of the season, right from the first few laps I knew that this was the team I wanted to be with. For a while I was in a fortunate position of having the possibility of running with almost every top team from last year and even got quite some way down the road with a couple of others, but all along it was on the basis that the iSport deal was my prime option.

It took a while, but finally iSport boss Paul Jackson and the rest of the team were able to come to a deal with my dad and me which worked out well for all of us. I must admit it looked shaky on a number of occasions, but I finally got a call from Paul when I was on my way to Heathrow airport to go back to India! The most important part was to get the deal sorted for the European series, but to be able to also do the new GP2 Asia Series with the team was a real bonus and gave us a chance to all get a good understanding of our working methods before heading to Europe.

The guys in the team are real racers at heart. The pre-season tests were reasonably good - we had a couple of good days and a couple of not-so-good days - but I built up a good working relationship with the engineers and my team-mate Bruno Senna in a short space of time, and I think that is helping us as a team. Everyone has been very welcoming, and we all got along very well right from the first day.

I'm getting along really well with my engineer Richard Selwin, and it's also good that Bruno and I seem to want similar things from the car. That has been very useful in developing the new car for the GP2 Series, because we can be quite sure that whatever set-up changes work on one car will generally work on the other one too.

The first round of the GP2 Asia Series in Dubai was a good start to the campaign. Ok, having Romain Grosjean win both the races wasn't really part of the plan, but both Bruno and I were competitive and our pace was ultimately not that far away from Romain's. Testing was a bit up-and-down with a few car problems, and then my big shunt on day three made a bit of a mess of our plan, but the boys did a great job getting the car going again the next day.

The biggest problem I had over the race weekend was that I felt really ill with a fever. It was the first time I had been unwell at a race meeting, and I have to say that paracetamol and adrenaline are a great combination. Most of the time that I wasn't in the car I was flat on the garage floor, which really isn't the best way to prepare yourself to compete with some of the best drivers in the world!

Still, we had good pace in qualifying, though I dropped a tenth of a second at the final corner of my best lap. If it wasn't for that, I'd have been on the front row for sure rather than fourth. The feature race was just frustrating - so many things didn't work out, and I just missed out on taking the point for fastest lap too.

When I had Romain behind me in the sprint race, I weaved about as much as I could behind the safety car, but there was just no grip when I needed it to defend my place. After that I was a bit irritated to be stuck behind Hiroki Yoshimoto again considering he had caused me to spin the previous day, so when he defended the inside I went for the outside. I was pleased it came off, and I believe it looked good on the TV as well! I don't know if we actually touched or not, but it was close...

I then started closing on Fairuz Fauzy for second place, but I was missing second and third gear in the closing stages, so I just wanted to bring it home and get on the podium. It was a shame because I was easily half a second faster than Fauzy, but every time I started to close I would miss another gear and it would drop me back again.

It was a tough week for the team with the heavy schedule of testing and the race weekend, but Bruno and I worked really well with the engineers to move forward and in the end we were both very competitive. The cooler winter weather and surface in Dubai wasn't really suited to our car as much as ART Grand Prix's, so to get a podium out the weekend was a good start to the season under the circumstances.

The second round in Sentul was a bit of a disaster for us in terms of results. The track conditions created some of the most difficult driving conditions in GP2 history, due to a mixture of the surface breaking up and heavy rain showers. The car was quick in all conditions but I got messed around fighting with people who were slower than us in both races, and ended up in the gravel both times which really frustrated me and the team.

In the feature race there was a problem with the pit wall monitors when the safety car came out, so the first the team knew I was coming in was when I appeared in the pit-lane! It wasn't their fault that the information wasn't on the screen when it should have been, but it was really unfortunate for us as it made a mess of the strategy.

After that I made five places in two laps, but then two cars braked ridiculously early in turn three and it caught me out. I had a choice of picking one of three cars to hit, or spinning to avoid them. As soon as you get off-line and lock-up there, you spin anyway. I got stuck in the gravel, and that was it. Then I was taken out in the sprint race too.

It was a terribly frustrating weekend. I had front-running pace again, just like in Dubai, but it was running in the slower traffic that really cost me points in Indonesia in both races. If they hadn't messed me about, I'm sure I would have scored good points again.

It was a real empty feeling to go through a weekend where the weather and track surface was creating havoc and come away with no points. The only thing that kept me positive was that we proved again to be quick enough to be a real contender at the front - it would be worse to be slow and score no points!

After qualifying on the front row again in Sepang, my ECU lapsed into 'safe mode' at the start, which meant the engine would only rev to 3,600rpm when I needed at least 5,000rpm to pull away for the warm-up lap. It just left me stranded, looking stupid like I had stalled or something, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Then after fighting back up through the field my right rear wheel jammed on at my pit-stop, so I was delayed by over 30 seconds there too. Despite that I fought back again, and had just set three consecutive fastest laps and was about three seconds per lap quicker than Armaan Ebrahim when I caught him with a few laps to go. I sat behind him for a lap and had a look into the last corner, but unfortunately for both of us I just locked a wheel on a damp patch from the earlier rain shower and slid into him.

In the sprint race I felt like Lewis Hamilton getting stuck behind Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli in the grand prix. I was quicker than the cars ahead, but it was just impossible to pass on that track. We were quick all weekend, but I was really irritated that technical problems, a bad pit-stop and a mistake from me meant I didn't score points.

Being the first weekend of the year with F1, it was important to show that I had the speed, though. I had a chance to interact with a lot of people in the F1 paddock during the weekend, and it was nice to hear that they had seen the qualifying performance. The races were a bit of a lottery with the weather, but qualifying is a more pure display of our potential.

After getting straight into the lead from second on the grid in Bahrain - the fourth time I had qualified on the front row in four meetings - the safety car coming out really messed things up for us. When leaving the pits I made a mistake, but I was determined to make up for it once I'd got the car going again.

I was passing cars left, right and centre - it was very exciting! There were a couple occasions where I was passing two or three cars in one shot as I came back from 22nd to eighth to grab the final point.

That put me on pole for the sprint race. At the start I squeezed Diego Nunes on the straight and he backed out of it, so I was clearly ahead turning into the corner. Suddenly, he just drove into me out of nowhere. I was keen to get ahead into turn one, because I knew he would hold up the quicker guys behind him, but the next thing I knew - bang! He ruined both our races...

Nothing went right in the final round in Dubai either, leaving me down in 13th position in the final drivers' standings. Looking back over the GP2 Asia Series, everyone knows I'm quick, but that didn't result in points for a variety of reasons and we didn't get the wins and podiums we deserved. I'm still quite optimistic for the rest of the season, though.

It was hard work for all the teams and drivers to be shuttling between Europe and Asia, but the six test days we had with the GP2-08 car were very important to determine who gets the set-up right and who doesn't. You know things are kicking off in GP2 when you are on good old Easyjet flight 2121 at stupid-o'clock in the morning from Luton to Nice to go to Paul Ricard - again!

The new car has proved to be quite a bit different to the old one. The aero package is really awesome, and I think that if we were allowed to use the full downforce levels we would be a worry to the back-of-the-grid F1 teams. The suspension designs are quite different to last year and that has really proved to be quite tricky to get sorted out.

As a team, Bruno and I have both had up-and-down days. We were pretty even in the first test at Ricard and right in the ballpark for pace. I then had a nightmare at Barcelona with all sorts of reliability issues, while it was his turn to have a similar mess at Ricard at the third round of tests.

The last test at Ricard was really good for me and Richard. We had been pulling our hair out (Richard more than me!) with really irritating things in the first two tests, but finally we were able to have a problem-free, productive couple of days and actually test different set-ups. The team and I worked hard to fix the problems we had, so that was a big relief. It was the first time I really started to get confidence in the new car, and to be first and fourth on the two days of the test was a good way to end the winter programme. I always believed that I would be on the pace once we had ironed out our teething problems, and I finally got to prove it.

Richard and I worked through a good programme which gave us a better understanding of the new car for the main series. We got through a great amount of work, including some qualifying and race simulations as well as some pit-stop practices, and the two days put us in a better position ahead of the season-opener in Barcelona.

The 2008 GP2 Series is going to be the biggest challenge of my career. The aim is to have podiums, win races and finish in the top six in the championship. There are some very quick guys here including Romain, Luca Filippi, Adrian Valles, Andy Soucek and of course my team-mate Bruno. It looks like there's no one really who's head-and-shoulders above the rest. In every session the sharp end has a new look about it, with at least 15 drivers getting themselves into the top five at some stage during the six days. This really looks like being the most competitive year yet in GP2, where it's not just five or six drivers who can win but 15.

It's going to be a long and busy season with a total of 31 races plus all the testing in-between. I'm optimistic that there will be more F1 testing with Red Bull Racing later in the year as well, which will certainly make things very, very hectic.

I've never had so much activity in a season before but I'm really looking forward to it - a season like this will be a great way to prepare myself to push for a Formula 1 seat for 2009. That is for the future, however; for now it's 100 per cent effort into 2008! I know the team and I both have the potential to do it.

I really feel like I've settled in well with the team now, and I'm really delighted and proud to be an iSport driver. We've built up a good relationship both personally and professionally over the last couple of months, and it's great to see the mechanics and engineers all so hungry to do well. They work really hard but then also know how to chill out, as the table-tennis matches in the workshop show.

The only downside for me is that Paul, Richard and Gavin (Bruno's engineer) are all really good table-tennis players and take great pleasure in thrashing the daylights out of their drivers whenever we go to the workshop! Still, I got my own back when I got GP4 (the best F1 game ever!) out on my laptop...

Catch you later,

Karun

To keep up-to-date with Karun's latest career news and results, visit: http://www.karunchandhok.com

 

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