He’s a man who lives his life pedal to metal and marches to a beat all of his own. However, racing champion Gaurav Gill is more than just fast bikes, fast cars and living in the fast lane!
I first met Gaurav Gill 18 years ago, fittingly enough in the heat and dust of a motorsport event. The rallying bug had just bitten me and I had been invited by the Rally of the North organisers to get an insider’s perspective. Gaurav, on gardening leave after his team had pulled out of rallying two years ago, had been invited to drive around this young journalist in a rally car.
Long story short by the end of the day I’d branded Gaurav a stark raving lunatic. I’d never sat in a Gypsy before, never ridden shotgun with a rally driver, never experienced what a rallyist driving the pants off a Gypsy can do to the bowels and blood pressure of an unsuspecting passenger. Gaurav, sunglasses still firmly welded to his nose, couldn’t fathom why I didn’t want to go to a party that evening.
It sums up a guy who has lived his entire life in the fast lane. Gaurav didn’t need to drive that Gypsy to death but he literally doesn’t know how to slow down. “You put me behind the wheel of a rally car and ask me to go slow? That’s just unnatural,” he says when I remind him of our first meeting. “Taking it easy is not for professional rally drivers.”
To us in the automotive community Gaurav Gill is an inspiration; a guy who deserves to be nominated for the Arjuna award except that our government still thinks motorsport is entertainment, not sport; something for the rich to pass time over. Shame, because as an ambassador for any kind of sporting endeavour Gaurav is terrific. He’s of a rare breed, a racing driver who can pull off a suit as well as a save from behind the steering wheel; whose gift for wheelsmanship is rivalled only by the genes inherited from his gorgeous mother. No wonder he’s always been rather popular with the ladies! “I don’t do this to get attention. But, why not? The attention one gets is good!”
Yet there’s more to this book than the cover. His focus, his dedication to the task at hand, his commitment to drive the wheels off anything – even if there’s a journalist frantically gesturing at a ditch the Gypsy is barrelling head first for! – is unparalleled. When Gaurav Gill dons his helmet, his rivals know that unless something goes terribly wrong they’ll all be fighting for second place.
Back to those early days. You’re either born with talent or you work bloody hard to match up to people who have talent. Gaurav was born with a gift; plainly obvious over the few rally stages that he’d set on fire before running out of talent and crashing in increasingly spectacular fashions. I’ve seen team bosses on the verge of killing him – for crashing when he could have settled for an easy second place; for not listening to team orders and nearly causing his teammate to crash; for ending on the roof within the first five kilometres of his international debut.
“That was the biggest fuck up,” he says referring to the crash on his international debut at the APRC event in New Caledonia. “I was pissed off. Embarrassed and disappointed. The team thought I was a driver who could drive but didn’t know how to drive.”
His team punished him but also knew when to draw the line for it was obvious Indian motorsport had yet to see a talent like Gaurav. Two events later Gaurav was on the podium and all was forgiven. No matter what the repair bills were, one always knew that Gaurav could and would pull a rabbit out of the hat on the next event; win it in such emphatic fashion that the rest of the grid would be forced to contemplate retirement.
He forced many drivers into retirement. He also forced many teams into retirement. Despite budgets running into tens of crores of rupees, teams have pulled out of rallying because of one reason – if you don’t have Gaurav in your team you’re not going to win. No matter how much money you pour into the car, the workshops, the tyres, ultimately it’s the man behind the ’wheel that makes a difference and there’s nobody either in India or the wider Asian region who can challenge Gaurav. And he’s used that skill to make a career out of motor racing.
Starting his career with bikes (until a nasty accident led to shattered bones and a move to cars) Gaurav was one of the first riders to get a racing contract with serious monies scribbled on it. He then made sure his teammates also got paid. Got to fly to events and not slum it out in trains. Got to stay in proper hotels, not railways lodges.
“I always saw this as a profession. The best way to do it is to tell the team that I can perform at a level that you will be impressed and the team will benefit. In return a driver gets paid. It’s not a hobby for me. I am here to win, not be a weekend driver.”
Nearly two decades later he still draws a salary out of rallying. After winning championships on race track as well as rally tracks he moved to the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, struggling big time in the initial years before settling down and winning the championship twice. Did he feel lonely, being the only Indian in the entire grid? “I never thought about all that; I had a job to do. But I definitely wanted to beat the white guys!”
He is the only Indian to have won an internationally acclaimed championship – be it racing or rallying – and he did it by cutting down on something he really loved. Partying.
But how much longer can Gaurav continue doing this?
“Have I shown any signs of slowing down?” he shoots back at me. Results speak for themselves and last year he won all six rounds of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship to win the title for the second time. No Indian has won it even once; no Indian has won a single APRC event, forget the championship. Last year I also rode shotgun with him during testing for the Maharashtra rally. He was trying out some new parts while showboating for the spectators who had come to see the champ in action. On the last run we thumped the sidewalk breaking the rear suspension, instantly bringing back memories of our very first outing together in that Gypsy. You’re still a lunatic I told him. Except Gaurav is no longer a lunatic. He had a job to do – test out the suspension – and the crash revealed an incorrect setup that could have prevented him from taking victory that weekend. It’s also where I saw a new side to his driving.
“I now have controlled aggression. Aggression is part of my nature, all I can do is control it. You have to learn how to do it, it has taken me years. But how one controls their aggression is the key to better results.”
Gaurav has been competing in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship for ten years, has won it twice, and I really can’t see any reason for him to stick around save for a sponsor paying him to go drive a fast car, very fast, in a very beautiful corner of the world (tough life, I know…). But Gaurav also harbours a dream, to compete on the World Rally stage, to go out to Europe and dice with the best rally drivers in the world. He also wants to do cross-country rallies. But in India we have very few sponsors for motorsport and that paucity means you’re at their mercy.
“It’s incredibly difficult, the biggest problem we have. We don’t have companies who will come forward to support drivers. Ask them for 90 crores to do a season of the World Rally Championship and they will start comparing with a cricketer who will dance in their undies for 20 crores for 3 years. Nobody can think of anything other than cricket.”
And so Gaurav has already started planning for the future. He runs detailing shops and a bike dealership in Delhi. He is training young driving talent, and to everyone’s surprise turning it into a business. He’s investing in nice cars and nice watches. He’s saving up for the day his young boys invariably will start racing. “The elder one is fascinated with bikes. I try to take him wherever I go and he enjoys it. I’ve just bought him a go-kart also.”
Being a father, has it slowed him down? “No! Never! You can’t be a professional then. In any case it’s not about being balls to the wall, it is about finesse. Doing the right thing at the right time.”
But he must have some fears. “My biggest fear is fear of failure. Do I get nightmares? I actually did. I won’t lie. That’s my life and you do go through those emotions.”
Is he worried that one day another Gaurav Gill will come and do to him what he’s done to many, many other rally drivers? “I’m not scared. I’m going to fight to the end. If I don’t win I can say I have had a strong career and I am very happy with what I’ve done.”
And with that he slaps the sunglasses back on his nose, throws his kit into the boot of the car and rushes off to test his new racing machine. Not a car, or a bike, but a powerboat for which he has just got his license and will be racing off the coast of Mumbai! There really is no slowing down for him.