Will she be India's first F1 racer?

Friday, 11 April 2014 - 9:04pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

IndiGo co-pilot and Formula 4 racer, Sneha Sharma, one of very few girls on the circuit, gives us a quick peek into her life, on and off the circuit
  • Sneha Sharma

“Speed thrills me,” says the 23-year-old Formula 4 racer, who has been driving at the national level, since she was 16. The only girl to win (placing second) at the JK Tyres 4-Stroke Karting Championship Season 2009, she also secured a podium finish in her first Rotax rookie race. More recently, in a Mercedes-Benz Performance Drive she was selected out of thousands to fill one of the top 12 slots, earning the opportunity to drive various Mercedes cars on the Buddha International Formula 1 circuit. Shortlisted to drive the E63 AMG at race pace, she made it to the top 5, and is thought to be the fastest girl in the country at 270 kmph.

Sneha describes formula racing as the rawest form of racing. “These cars were born to be raced,” tells us Sneha, who has also participated in the VW Polo Cup and the Toyota EMR. “Its one thing to push your body to the limit and a completely different thing to push a machine to its limit. You need tremendous focus, the ability to take split-second decisions and precision.” While she has considered rallying, she remains loyal to circuit racing, which according to her is “a very disciplined sport. You could almost call it a science”.

Not someone to do one thing at a time, Sneha, now a co-pilot with IndiGo, dived into motor-racing and flying almost simultaneously. At the age of 17, she was studying to become a pilot, whilst participating in the national karting championships. “The constant struggle to balance equally consuming passions, is worth it,” she believes.

“I didn't expect to reach where I am today,” she'll tell you outright. As a teen, Sneha was a regular at the local go-karting track and often clocked the fastest lap for the day. But go-karting and Formula 4 are miles apart. Or are they? For Sneha, as for a lot of other motor racers, go-karting tends to be the first corner they turn in their careers. “Karting is the basis of racing. Most top Formula One racers return to karting to refresh their basics. We currently don’t have a single karting track in the city,” Sneha tells us, highlighting the infrastructure deficit that appears to plague most sports in India.

And then of course, there's the inadequacy of opportunities to train and institutes that provide training. Sneha paid one of the marshallers to teach her the racing lines—the shortest route—along the track and basic cornering techniques. She then started participating in the events held on the track and secured several podium finishes. During one of the races, national championship team Rayo Racing, approached her to drive with them for the National Karting Championship. There has been no looking back. In the beginning, her family was not exactly thrilled about the idea of racing, but they have come around.

“It's an adrenaline rush once the flag drops. But before that its nerves, nerves and more nerves,” explains Sneha, for whom danger is not the draw. At the break-neck speeds she drives, one might imagine that meeting with an accident is what she fears most. Oddly, the racer, who has fractured her ribs in an accident, tells us that the scariest thing that she has ever had to do was to, “sneak out of my home to make it for my race (before my exam)”.

The predictably expensive FIA-approved racing gear, Sneha has to wear includes fire-resistant inners, a race suit, gloves, shoes and HANS (head and neck support), which add a lot of weight to the driver, making fitness an extremely important part of racing. As part of a 6-person team in a 24-hour race, she once drove for 9 hours at a stretch. “Fitness is the first thing a driver must work on,” says the girl, who shed 30 kilos to attain the right level of fitness for a driver, and invests 20 hours a week, on average, into fitness. She swims to build her stamina, core strength and lean muscle, but diversifies her workout with racket sports, power yoga, resistance and a lot of cardio.

“Upper body and core strength is crucial for racing,” she explains. “You also need to strengthen your neck muscles, because of the phenomenal g-force one is exposed to during fast cornering”. Luckily for her, she is and an outdoor person. When she's not driving and flying, you're most likely to find her swimming, playing badminton or fooling around with Snoopy her pomeranian. Aside from listening to music, reading novels, and practising yoga, when time permits, you'll find her reading up on racing techniques, watching racing videos, and of course studying about aircraft.

“Racing has given me confidence, as following one's passion would,” she tells us. “Yet, it has not changed me. It has BECOME me. I wake up with it on my mind and go to sleep with it. Once the helmet goes on, I am one with the car.” Her favourite machines at the moment are the Formula 4 LGB Swift and the Airbus 320, the aircraft that she flies as a commercial pilot for Indigo Airlines. While she loves to race, she's not a big fan or follower of fancy cars. “It's not the car you drive, it’s the way you drive it,” she insists.

Is there room for women in on the grid? “I have always believed in making room for my self,” emphasizes Sneha. “That’s what I have been doing since I entered this sport. I am the only woman on the grid. There is definitely room for women up there,” says the girls who believes that women can hold their own against men on the race track. So how does she deal with the inevitable comments, jibes or even downright sexism? “You meet all sorts of people on the track. Some are encouraging, some, and of course, some don’t like losing to you. I don’t let it affect me. Once the helmet is on, I am nothing but a racing driver.”

So why are there so few women on the track? “You can't be what you can't see!” is Sheryl Sandberg's mantra for creating the Lean In Getty Collection of images that features women in non-stereotypical roles. The thought rings true, when Sneha tells us she believes that there are so few women on the track, because motorsports has typically been male dominated, so there aren't too many women out there for girls to look up to. As intimidating as it may feel to be outnumbered, Sneha hopes that seeing her out on the track will inspire other young girls with a passion for driving to set off down this path.

“Determination, patience with one self and positive aggression,” are qualities that Sneha thinks will propel success on the track. Reality wise, “sponsorship is crucial. An annual season consists of 5 race weekends, 10 races, 20 warm up sessions and 5 qualifying rounds on average. Since racing is a very expensive sport, clocking hours on the track is not easy, unless you have the right kind of sponsors,” reveals Sneha, who has at times worked part time with a racing company to facilitate following her passion. But, at the end of the day, racing is about more than sponsors and infrastructure. “It's about you. Its all in the mind.” is Sneha's analysis.

A lot of motor enthusiasts may put Michael Schumacher on a pedestal, but Sneha believes, “Sir Ayrton Senna was the best F1 driver ever.” With him for an idol, you can bet she aspires to race around an F1 track. This far, five women drivers have entered at least one Grand Prix, although only two of them qualified and started a race, or so Wikipedia tells us. Will Sneha be the sixth? She certainly hopes so. In fact, she tells us that she was recently approached by sponsors for the ADAC Cup in Germany and Spain, as well as for the Asian Touring Car Series.

This year, she plans to drive Formula 4 exclusively in the national championships. Later in the season, she's hoping to take part in at least two MRF Formula 1600 races, to strengthen her platform for the international races she's scheduled to participate in next year. She's aiming at podium finishes, gaining good grid positions and maximum points in each of these events. Sneha intends to win the formula 4 championships this year. As far as long term goals are concerned, she quotes wise words she has heard before, “make your passion, your pay check. I intend to do that”.

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