Race weekends are always a mad rush, crazier still inside the racing box. Riding Fast and Flying Low takes you behind the scenes, into the world of the Mahi Racing Team, India’s first World Supersports Championship team. They are gunning for the 2013 crown this year with 2012 world champion Kenan Sofuoglu and 2002 world champion Fabien Foret.
There is a focused silence in the narrow racing box. All eyes are on the screen. Andrew Stone, Mahi Racing Team’s technical director is at a table watching the computer screen that’s rolling out reams of data, stealing occasional glances at another screen on the side to see how Fabien Foret is doing during the practice session.
It is turning out to be a wet and wild weekend at the beautiful and historical Italian circuit Autodromo Nazionale Monza, lovingly called The Temple of Speed. The 5.777 km stretch is a challenge in the best of circumstances with a long-standing tradition of battles and close finishes in the world of World Superbike championships. Throw in a bit of rain, or a deluge as the weekend is turning out to be, and the winner is far from decided.
Stone and Amit Sandill, the team principal and director, are not happy with the situation. There’s a race, nay a championship, to win. Monza is the fourth race on the calendar and this newly formed Indian team, in its first full year at the Supersports championship, is eager to extend its lead. The pressure is high for the folks at Mahi Racing Team. There is the need to stake their claim on the championship – no mean feat for a young team, backed by some of India’s biggest names – cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, actor Nagarjuna, and managing directors Nandish Domlur and Arun Pandey.
The season has started out well. The team is fresh off a fulfilling weekend at Assen with Kenan Sofuoglu and Foret taking 2nd and 3rd on the podium. They are now gearing up for another success story, this time at Monza.
Inside, the racing box is quiet, save for the low growl of bikes as they come in or leave the boxes next door. The commentator’s voice rises and falls in the background. Suddenly, the technicians break into a run. Tyres come out and there are hushed discussions as Foret and then Sofuoglu come in on the bikes. They get off and walk to their seats, grabbing a towel and a drink along the way. They wait while the technicians adjust the bike settings, listen as Stone barks out instructions, before getting up and heading out on to the track once again. “I have people standing in the right place,” says Stone, so that everyone moves in an efficient manner when the riders come in. As soon as a decision is made regarding bike setup, the team moves into gear. “There’s someone managing each area. Then, the rider is calm. He knows you are on it, and that we will sort out the issue as fast as possible. Every one knows what they are doing,” he adds. The aim is get the riders back out as soon as possible. “We can’t afford to lose track time,” Stone says.
Sandill is at the pitwall, watching the screens and the timings. He hasn’t moved an inch throughout. Meanwhile, out on the circuit, Foret is setting a formidable time on the screen, until another rider runs him off. The Frenchman recovers, looks back, raising his hand up irritably. It’s almost a, “What the…” at the rider responsible. It’s enough to break the tension in the box. The team chuckles, smiles all around, before its back to looking at the statistics being churned out.
Morning turns to afternoon and the Moment has arrived. It’s the Qualifying hour. The tension now, is enough to set everyone on the edge. The sun is out, though the weatherman has hinted at a touch of rain. It seems impossible; the sun is bright enough to hurt the eyes, but it’s cool and dark in the box. Foret and Sofuoglu are determined to extend get up right in the front on the grid – the best place to be on race day. But it isn’t to be. The promised drizzle begins as the team groans, almost in despair. If it rains on race day, it could mean a completely new bike setup. It could mean going back to the drawing board.
The rain is enough to ruin the Qualifying for the team. Sofuoglu manages a third spot on the grid. Foret has it worse though, taking a measly ninth.
“It means more work for him during the race,” Stone later says with a huge sigh, sitting in the team van, sipping a cup of coffee. It’s a small breather before a long night of analysing data, looking at the fastest lap, the bike measurements, and how the riders were doing at every section of the track. There maybe 20 minutes of riding on the circuit, but there is 6-7 hours of analysing data. “It’s time to forget the 9th place and instead see if the bike is capable of winning the race, or if it is a 9th place bike,” he says. “The aim is to give the rider more confidence and to plan for the race.” Come tomorrow, the bike has to be nothing short of perfect. The Qualifying may have not gone off as planned, but Stone believes that it isn’t over till the last bike crosses the finish line on race day.
“Aragon and Assen were proof that we have good, world class bikes. Now, we are focused. We want to win. We want the championship, and the harder you work, the more champagne bottles you get,” Stone says with a smile.
Sunday though is a different story. It is almost as if the past two days have been wiped clean. The bikes line up thrice, go on their warm-up lap thrice, the team runs from the garage to the grid and back thrice. The red flag comes out thrice. “Can we at least try and go for a second lap,” a team member grumbles. The third attempt though is a disaster for Foret. He moves from 9th on the grid to 4th before he is hit from behind and crashes. He is taken to the hospital for checks and SBK decides to postpone the race until after the second Superbike round. Sofuoglu has it just as bad. He’s almost a second ahead when the race starts up for the 4th time, but loses the front end and crashes.
There are no smiles that evening as the team packs up its computers and loads the bikes. Things just didn’t go as planned. But, it won’t always be like this, Sandill says later. There will be wins. There will be smiles. There will be podium finishes. Yes, there will be champagne. The team is determined. After all, the season has just begun and the championship is beckoning.
Behind the Scenes: Mahi Racing Team In Pictures
A special thank you to Andrew Stone and Amit Sandill for taking the time out to talk to me during a busy race weekend. They were also kind enough to allow me access to the Mahi Racing Team box on Qualifying and Race days.