F2’s Kush Maini on trying to make it to F1 as an Indian: ‘It’s a lot tougher’

Kush Maini has lived in the shadow of his older brother Arjun for much of his racing career, but in 2023, the 22-year-old will step up to F2 with Campos Racing – a move that just a couple years ago seemed impossible. Feeder Series sat down with the Indian driver earlier this year to talk about his career.

By Michael McClure

Next year’s FIA Formula 2 grid is expected to feature, for the first time ever, two drivers competing under the flag of India, the world’s second-largest country by population. F2 veteran Jehan Daruvala is likely to return for a fourth season, but already announced on the grid is 22-year-old Kush Maini, who will compete for Campos Racing after a season with MP Motorsport in F3 last season.

There are a number of racers in the Maini family, including Kush’s father Gautam, a single-seater racer in the 1990s, but the surname Maini might be especially familiar to Formula 2 fans. Kush’s older brother, Arjun, raced in Formula 2 in 2018 with Trident and again in 2019 for a few rounds with Campos – the very same team with which Kush will make his debut in 2023.

My brother was the reason for me getting into motorsport

Kush Maini taking inspiration from his brother, Arjun

“My brother was the reason for me getting into motorsport,” Maini says. “Obviously, having my brother who’s three years older than me, we started karting. With me being the younger brother, whatever he’s doing, I wanted to do it as well. I tried it, but honestly for the first few years until I was probably 11 years old, it was just a hobby for me, just having fun. I was into other sports as well.

“I think 11 is when I got seriously into it, and at the age of 12, I first came to Europe to race in karting, in the cadet class, and it sort of went from there.”

Maini’s career in India and Southeast Asia foretold of a driver who would go on to become one of his country’s brightest motorsport stars. In 2011, his final year solely in Asia, he won the micro class of the JK Tyre Rotax Max National Karting Championship. Arjun won the junior class the very same day at Bengaluru’s Meco Kartopia track. Kush took runner-up in that class the following year.

Arjun and Kush Maini at Meco Kartopia, Bangalore | Credit: Kush Maini

The brothers’ career paths would unfold similarly. As Arjun geared up for a move to single-seaters in India, Kush moved over to Europe, competing in the mini class of the WSK Euro Series among other championships. He finished second there in 2013 and then fourth in the KF-Junior class of the World Karting Championships in 2014 – beating the likes of Dan Ticktum, Jüri Vips, Christian Lundgaard and Felipe Drugovich.

In 2015, a year that included a win in the prestigious Trofeo Andrea Margutti at Italy’s South Garda karting circuit, Maini moved up to single-seaters in India, beginning with the JK Tyre National Racing Championship – the single-seater version of the championship Maini won in 2011. He had already scored a podium by Round 2 in September.

Maini loved the life he was living, but it came with plenty of sacrifice. India lacks the motorsport infrastructure of Europe, both in the number of racetracks and the level of competitiveness. Those aiming for Formula 1 or other professional racing careers have to head elsewhere.

I really didn’t have a home when I was a child because I was travelling so much

Kush Maini on leaving India to race in Europe

“Especially when you live in India, the other side of the world, you leave everything. You leave the life. I really didn’t have a home when I was a child because I would be travelling so much. But at the end of the day, I did what I loved doing, and I have no regrets.

“For sure, it was a lot of sacrifice. If you’re a kid from the UK, you just go on the weekend on the racetrack to drive, but when you’re in India, you’ve got to really commit to it early on. I left a lot on hold and [have] given up a lot, but I would do it all over.”

Single-seaters and dead ends

Maini continued racing in Italy in 2016 and 2017, finishing 16th and 8th in the Italian F4 Championship in two seasons. In his first season, he brought new team BVM Racing its first podium with third in Race 3 at Vallelunga, but his second season with Jenzer Motorsport, which had taken Marcos Siebert to the title the year before, was perhaps more disappointing for Maini, with still no wins to his name.

It was ultimately a move to the United Kingdom and the British F3 Championship in 2018 that reignited Maini’s form. He joined Lanan Racing, which ran his brother in the same series in 2014, as the team’s only full-time driver, with a strong first half of the season that included a reverse-grid win and six further podiums from the first 12 races. His form tailed off in the second half of the season, but his early-season results were enough to give him third in the standings – and crucially, a connection that would serve him later in his career.

Maini then returend to mainland Europe in 2019 for a campaign in Formula Renault Eurocup, racing with Belgian–New Zealander team M2 Competition in their first Eurocup season. Maini once again got off to a strong start – a characteristic of his career – with third and fifth in the opening weekend of the year at Monza. But no more podiums came his way, and he finished sixth, with less than half the points of fellow rookie and future teammate Caio Collet in fifth.

Kush Maini in the first round of the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup at Monza | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency

Maini expected to return to Eurocup with reigning champions R-ace GP for a second season. But while R-ace’s Collet ended up fighting one Victor Martins for the 2020 title, Maini never raced in the championship again.

“We ran out of money, basically, and sponsors pulled out because of the whole COVID situation, so we were done. But then two days before I was getting on the plane to go back home, Hitech gave me a call.”

That call, as it turned out, would change the course of Maini’s career. Hitech asked him if he could take one of their seats for their new British F3 team, to which Japanese-American driver Reece Ushijima was already signed. Maini obliged.

He ended the year second overall with three wins and 12 total podiums, 51 points behind Kaylen Frederick. “It went quite well for a new team,” Maini says of what he considers his best year in single-seaters.

“That seat was completely on merit. Having no racing versus that and we still had such a successful year,” he tells Feeder Series. “I was ready to pack up and go home.”

‘Down in the dumps’

Hitech’s lifeline to Maini helped him through 2020, but it didn’t do much to help his prospects for 2021 as the pandemic lingered. A campaign with the all-Indian Mumbai Falcons team in the Asian F3 Championship gave him something to do for winter 2021 – Maini took 11th with one podium in the final round – but his only other car race that year was in the World Endurance Championship’s 6 Hours of Bahrain, in which he raced for LMP2 backmarkers ARC Bratislava.

“I would have had two years off, but because Hitech gave me the drive, I just had a year off. 2021 was a really tough year for me mentally as well. I think after so many years of trying so hard and leaving everything, not being able to race hit me quite hard and I was down in the dumps for like six months. I had to really fight back to get into the position for this year.”

It all came about so last minute, but I was super happy to do this

Kush Maini on his FIA F3 seat going right down to the wire

Maini admits that he “was projected to be done in single-seaters” after an empty 2021. But, as in 2020, another late opportunity got him onto the next step of the junior ladder in FIA F3, where former rivals Collet, Frederick and Ushijima had already embedded themselves.

 “At the last minute, we got the budget through sponsors to do FIA F3, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to give it another shot, and we basically called around and MP said they had the seat,” Maini says.

“Obviously, I know MP from when I did Renault. We get along really well, and that sort of clicked from there and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It all came about so last minute, but I was super happy to do this.”

That deal was announced 22 February, just over a week before pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit and more than a year after his last single-seater appearance. Compared with the majority of the grid, who had done post-season testing in 2021 or even raced in the category previously, Maini had lots of ground to make up ahead of the first round from 18–20 March.

In his first F3 qualifying session, Maini took third out of 30 cars.

Capitalising on MP’s combined wisdom

The result was cause for celebration – at least for a few moments. Minutes after qualifying finished, Maini was summoned to the stewards for allegedly missing the weighbridge. The infraction was confirmed a few hours later. Instead of starting the sprint race 10th and the feature race third, Maini would now be starting both from the pit lane.

He recovered to 15th and 16th in the races, but it was a case of what could have been for the then 21-year-old.

“After being a year out, that first round just caught me off guard,” Maini admits. “We qualified third but basically didn’t even take part in the weekend because we got zero points from that, so that was a bit annoying. And then straight after that [at Round 2 in Imola], I made a mistake with the grid box when we were in P3, so I lost a lot of points early on. That was quite hard to get over.

“But I think this is where the maturity comes in. I could get over it and keep pushing on from there. It’s something that always bugs me in the back of my head, but I’ve learnt now to just get over it and move on.”

Few on the 2022 F3 grid have as many years in single-seaters as Maini, and all but four full-time drivers are younger than him. But while his older age might be perceived as an obstacle to his F1 prospects, Maini believes his maturity – along with the wisdom of experienced teammates in second-year Collet and third-year Alexander Smolyar – eased his adaptation to F3.

“It helps me in decision-making or just when it comes to set up of the car and keeping my emotions in check. But obviously, to have teammates in their third and second year was a big thing for me because I think whatever your age is, when you come in as a rookie, you are a rookie,” Maini says.

“Many of these tracks, I only last raced in 2019, and all the drivers here have come through the ladder so they’re very fresh on the new tracks and stuff. So for me, to have two experienced teammates really helped me out to get up to speed.”

Kush Maini racing for MP Motorsport in FIA F3 | Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

After the drive-through penalty in the Imola sprint race made him lose out on a potential podium, Maini recovered to take fifth in the feature race – his first 10 points in the category. The next few rounds were rockier, but a fourth place in the Silverstone sprint race gave him another significant haul of points before a breakthrough weekend at a wet Hungaroring gave him his maiden F3 podium in the sprint and seventh in the feature.

“I knew from the start that pace was not going to be a problem,” Maini tells Feeder Series. “I’ve normally been quick in everything I’ve driven, and I have that self-belief in myself that I can perform at the highest level. Obviously having two really strong teammates with a lot of experience, I have a lot to live up to every weekend coming in as a rookie, but I think most races this year we’ve been up to par with them, even ahead sometimes.

“For sure, Barcelona, Red Bull Ring, we had a tough weekend there pace-wise, but the rest of the weekends, I’ve been right up there. I’m always happy with my pace; it’s just fine-tuning the last few details, which comes with experience and more time on the track and with the car.”

India’s growing support network

India’s investment in motorsport has increased over the past two decades, building on F1 appearances by Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok. The Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit outside New Delhi occupied a spot in the calendar from 2011 to 2013, while Force India raced in F1 from 2008 to 2018. Arjun Maini even got his foot in the door at Force India by winning the team’s “One in a Billion” search for India’s next F1 driver.

My brother’s always been there for me when I need him

Kush Maini on his strong fraternal bond with Arjun

Arjun never made it. He won races in GP3, but his 2018 season with Trident was marred by controversy over claims of harassment by then teammate Santino Ferrucci and his father Michael – a situation that reached its nadir when Ferrucci deliberately crashed into Maini on the cool-down lap in Silverstone. Maini eventually pivoted to sports car racing in the GT World Challenge Europe and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters.

Nevertheless, Arjun’s wealth of experience has been helpful for Kush as he progresses through the same series his brother once raced in.

“My brother’s always been there for me when I need him. Obviously he has a lot of experience in this paddock, coming through the feeder series as well,” Kush says. “Any questions I have or any doubts, I give him a ring, and he’s always there to help me.”

When Maini was out of funds in 2021, he might scarcely have imagined that he’d have his 2023 plans sewn up by November – and that they’d be for an F2 seat with Campos, where his brother made his last single-seater appearances.

Maini began his 2022 campaign with sponsorship from JK Tyre, rekindling a relationship that stretched back to his earliest days in karting. But after the first three rounds of the F3 season, a new title sponsor stepped in: Mumbai Falcons, the Indian racing programme that, among other accomplishments, won the drivers’ and teams’ titles in the 2022 Formula Regional Asia Championship.

Jehan Daruvala and Kush Maini racing for Mumbai Falcons during the 2021 Asian F3 Championship | Credit: Mumbai Falcons

Maini had raced with the team on their first outing in motorsport – the X1 Racing League single-seater championship that ran in the 2019–20 off-season. The Mumbai Falcons are at the forefront of what Maini sees as a much-needed boost in interest and investment in Indian motorsport, both through direct support of drivers and through the construction of new tracks.

“The interest in the sport, I think it’s growing [more] now than what it was before,” Maini says. “There’s only right now, I would say, me and Jehan in F2 who are in this whole feeder series at the top level, and it’s a shame to see when we have so many people. But honestly, when I was younger, there was not many tracks and that’s why I had to leave to Europe really early.

“I think it’s changing now with the Mumbai Falcons, my sponsor. They’re helping out a lot in making a better pathway for us Indians, but definitely, it’s a lot tougher when you’re from a country like India to race at the top level and to win at the top level.”

The orange and blue Mumbai Falcons logo, emblazoned with the city’s Gateway of India monument, sat prominently on the top of Maini’s engine cover in 2022. Maini hopes that this visibility will pay dividends for young Indian racers.

“Back [in X1RL], I didn’t know they were so serious about getting the infrastructure back up in India for motorsport. They’ve done so much over the last few years. They’ve helped me out – without them, I wouldn’t be on the grid,” Maini says.

“They’re just trying to get the kids from a young age to get interested and give them the right tools to work with to make it in motorsport and start earlier. Me, Jehan and Arjun probably had a lot less of this. I think [it’s] just great to have them on the car and great to have a logo that is inspiring the next generation of Indian racers.”

Header photo credit: Campos Racing

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