Know your Indian racing star: Vishnu Prasad
There's a second-place trophy in his hand, but the little lad in the overalls isn't happy at all. Second-place is hardly any sort of consolation. Instead of attempting to smile, he lets his real feelings show through. What's that, you ask? Why he simply sits right down and cries his eyes out, bitterly shedding many a tear for that win that ought to have been his but wasn't.
It's many years since that day. That little boy has now grown up a good bit, so much so that I have to crane my neck all the way back to look at him properly and even then it seems like Vishnu has his head in the clouds. Of course, I mean that literally and not metaphorically. "I thought my career was over," laughs Vishnu at the recollection. You see, Vishnu Prasad was so used to winning races, having taken victory in every single event he'd competed in over the course of the first year-and-a-half of his career, that finishing second was simply unacceptable to him. But he really hit rock bottom a little after that, when, in one fateful race, he finished on the third step of the podium. "That was a whole new low for me," Prasad says of that time when he sat himself down and cried again. "I didn't know how to lose. I couldn't be a sportsman about it," Vishnu says, still laughing. Of course, a lot has changed since then. "I guess I've lost enough to understand how it works now," he gamely admits.
Vishnu's first tryst with motorsport came along thanks to his father, VSR Prasad, who was a rally driver himself. One fine day, when Vishnu was all of six-years-old he was taken to a go kart track and given his first taste of what it was like behind the wheel of a race machine. He loved it. All of it. From the sensation of speed when behind the wheel, to the adrenaline rush it gave him. There was simply no getting motorsport out of him after that. Every day since that day that probably changed the course of his life, Vishnu's father would pick him up from school, take him to the karting track where he'd teach him racing lines and give him pointers as he practised. Two years later, at the ripe old (in motorsport terms) age of eight, Vishnu was set for his first competitive karting event. Needless to say, he won.
Parth Ghorpade (left) with a very young Vishnu Prasad on the top step of the podium
Armaan Ebrahim and Rayomand Banajee with Vishnu, outsized by his trophy
Back in the early 2000s, he set about making his mark on the Indian karting scene, placing 3rd in Danny's Karting Championship, the MAI MRF Cadet Championship and the MAI MRF Mondiale Championship. But Vishnu's karting career really took off in a big way between 2004 to 2007, when he won six championship titles. By then, the young driver was already under the tutelage of Akbar Ebrahim, who has had a hand in training nearly every young karter worth his racing overalls. And he was already firmly establishing himself as one driver to watch out for, honing his racecraft with every event and developing a rather characteristic style of driving that we've now become accustomed to watching at the races - something of a 'take no prisoners' attitude.
Vishnu in his first year in the Junior Class of the National Karting Championship
"I like letting them know I'm there," Vishnu says of what it's like to trail behind someone, waiting for the opportune moment to overtake. "It's a mindgame, you have to get in their heads. So I nudge them, nothing unfair, just a tap here and there, try and out-brake them," he says. And he certainly does succeed in getting under their skin. Back in 2010, I remember a guest driver at the Polo Cup races telling me how nervous he was when he realised that the reverse grid had put Vishnu Prasad just behind him for Race 2. "I could see him all through in my mirrors and that gave me a case of the nerves," he'd remarked. But some of the other pro drivers haven't been as easy to intimidate. Chittesh Mandody, who has raced alongside him for the last eight years or so, declares that it's always fun to race against Prasad. "We give each other a hard time on track, and we race hard, but we don't hold any grudges against each other after the race is over," says Kolhapur-based karter Chittesh.
And it was at Kolhapur that things once came all undone for Vishnu. It's a moment in his career that he recalls as being his worst and it's a time when he realised that it's all very well to be gritty and determined as a racecar driver, but sometimes you need to know where to stop. When he was competing in his first year in the Junior category of the National Karting Championship, Vishnu remembers going into the last round of the championship with a lead that meant he only needed to finish fourth in the finals to win the race. "But no, I had to win!" he says. With Chittesh on pole, Vishnu started the race second and decided that no matter what, he needed to get past him at the very first corner. The move didn't stick, and everyone ended up passing him until he was last on track. A gritty drive put him back in fourth place. But in his own words, that wasn't enough. He needed to get ahead. And he made a move on Parth Ghorpade. A move that didn't end so well for him - Vishnu finished last and effectively handed the championship to Chittesh.
While Vishnu might have spent a good measure of his career intimidating other drivers, there is one time that he remembers being intimidated himself, back in 2008. "It was my first year in cars, and all the guys that I had watched racing were there - Rayomand Banajee, Ameya Walavalkar, Saran Vikram..." It might not have been the easiest year for him career wise, but the learning curve was steep, with a couple of podiums as reward for his efforts. Unfortunately for him he lost momentum, having to sit out the 2009 season with a broken leg.
2010, the year the Volkswagen Polo Cup India was born, was probably one of the more competitive years of Vishnu's career. After all, the battle for the championship went down to the very last round, with Sailesh Bolisetti and Parth Ghorpade ultimately outdoing him. The next year, though, Vishnu was back and the title was his. Along with the opportunity to go abroad and contest a full season of the Volkswagen Scirocco R Cup. Unfortunately for him, as is the case so often with our racers, when it came time to crunch the numbers and actually cash in on the scholarship, things just didn't work out. But Vishnu's hardly one to give up, despite the fact that funding has been hard to come by.
Vishnu, all of 13 years old and getting ready for five laps in a Formula BMW
After winning the JK FB02 (Formula BMW) Championship and the Senior Category of the National Karting Championship in 20113, Vishnu was awarded the Most Promising Motorsport Personality of the Year Award by the FMSCI. The cash prize would help him fund his racing for 2014, and possibly also fund the Formula 3 test he has won as a prize for winning the JK Racing India Series. Something he hasn't cashed in on yet. "I want him to come and test with us," says Antonio Ferrari, owner of the Euro International Team that run the JK RIS in India for JK Tyre. There's another little anecdote that Ferrari has about Vishnu that goes some way towards measuring his racing prowess. "During practice, I made a change, a minor change on only his car one lap before I made the change on the rest of the cars. I just wanted to see if he'd know what I'd done," Ferrari says. "He was the only one who realised what had been done and could tell me about it," he smiles before saying, "And if he does prove himself in the test, there's always a way for us to find him a race seat."
Just to double check, I saunter up to Vishnu after he's won his third race of the first round of the JK Racing championship, well clear of the rest of the field. "They adjusted the alignment," he says. It checks out rather nicely with what Ferrari has already told me.
Vishnu has his first go in the Formula Swifts, a title he's still in chase of
But for 2014, Vishnu probably has other goals on his mind. It doesn't matter that he's racing a proper wings and slicks car like the F BMW, there's a championship that's been getting away from him on a regular basis and that's what he'd like to win. "I've never managed to win the Formula Swift (now the LGB F4) championship, so I really want to win it this year," he says. And so Vishnu's in pursuit of the title that got away. Amongst several others!
Name: Vishnu Prasad
Currently racing in: Formula BMW, Formula LGB F4, National Rotax Karting Championship
Competing since: 2001
First competitive race: 2003
A race series you'd like to take part in someday: 24 Hours of Le Mans
The race machine you'd love to get your hands on: F1, DTM
One thing you can't do without at the racetrack: My helmet
Your racing idol: Michael Schumacher
Favourite racetrack: Monaco, Spa
Your biggest racing opponent: Chittesh Mandody, Parth Ghorpade
The best overtaking manoeuvre you've ever experienced on track: 2009 World Finals. Saw a guy put two wheels in the mud going round the outside to pass someone else
The best overtaking manoeuvre you've observed in a race telecast: Ayrton Senna going past four cars in one lap, Donington, 1993
Best overtaking manoeuvre you have made: Volkswagen Polo Cup. Made up two places at once going into C1 from the outside at Coimbatore
Your best race till date: Winning the VW Polo R Cup race reverse grid from 8th to 1st. Same race where I made the double overtake
Your worst race till date: My first year in Junior karting. Threw my championship away when I had it in the bag
Words of racing wisdom from you to our readers: Keep working hard. Keep pushing and don't give up
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