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It’s going to be a first for Indian truck drivers at T1

MURALI GOPALAN | Updated on January 20, 2018

R Ramakrishnan, Senior VP, Product Planning & Strategy and Customer Value Creation, Tata Motors

There will be a dozen of them racing in Prima trucks on Sunday

There will be a distinct Indian flavour at the Buddh International Circuit near Delhi on Sunday when the T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship kicks off.

A brainchild of Tata Motors, the event will see Indian drivers participate for the first time making it even more special this year. No wonder then that R Ramakrishnan, Senior VP (Product Planning & Strategy and Customer Value Creation) of Tata Motors is particularly excited.

After all, he was involved in the entire exercise of driver selection which left him pretty emotional towards the end.

New participation

Ramakrishan recalls how the first two seasons of T1 largely had British drivers and large sections of the crowd naturally wondered when Indians would get an opportunity to participate. “We were not sure if we could do it this season and did not make too much of a noise about it,” he says.

Yet, Tata Motors was furiously working on a plan which began with reaching out to its fleet operators last November and discussing the idea with them. While almost all of them were excited, some were curious about what they could do on a track while others openly expressed their reservations.From a pool of about 200-odd fleet operators, applications were received from over 500 drivers. As part of the selection criteria, they had to be less than 45 years old, in good physical condition and should have driven a tractor-trailer for at least five years (and, preferably, a Prima truck for a year though this was not mandatory).

In addition, they should have driven on different terrain so that they were familiar with speeds and winding roads which could prepare them for a racetrack. “We were also keen on a relatively accident-free record with no major mishaps,” says Ramakrishnan.

By December, there were 132 drivers who fulfilled these criteria with a relatively larger number from the north and east. “They were excited yet anxious when told about what was in store at Chennai over the next few days,” recalls Ramakrishnan.

A different breed

The participants were taken to a 5-star resort as part of the programme.

Meanwhile, instructors at the Sriperumbudur racetrack were used to training car and bike users but never truck drivers. “We had to train the instructors first and prepare them for the haul ahead,” says Ramakrishnan.

Not surprisingly, the drivers said that they did not need to learn anything new from these young instructors. Worse was the prospect of driving a petite Xenon pickup first as part of the familiarisation process. Used to large trucks, this option was clearly below their dignity though the Tata team persuaded them “to humour us and drive around the track”.

It was only after this that the participants were suitably chastened when they realised that a racetrack was a different animal. First, an instructor took them through the routine before they drove around the track on their own to get a better feel. They were then put through a classroom session to better understand the finer techniques and rules of racing.

Next, the participants were given a larger truck and put through the same drill before they were finally put in a Prima. “Some were overconfident and a couple of trucks were damaged in the process which left them feeling embarrassed and guilty,” says Ramakrishnan.

Of the 132 selected, the numbers were brought down to 23 and then to 17. The ones who did not make it were still happy they got to participate. During the shortlisting process, the names were being announced in the video session. There was this particular driver who had crashed the truck and slipped the second time. Yet, he turned around and recovered to complete the race. This was playing on the screen and he was not sure if he would make it.

And when he actually did, emotions flowed free in the room even as Ramakrishnan struggled to keep his tears in check. “The driver pulled it off on sheer merit alone thanks to the spin he made to recover. He displayed the right instincts to succeed,” he says.

Local champs

Through January and February this year, the drivers went through three training levels in Chennai and the 17 who finally qualified for Level 4 raced around at Buddh last week. Eventually, 12 will debut on the big day less than 48 hours from now and will participate in two races of six trucks each.

“We are not going to race them against international drivers this time but do believe that there are three of them who come pretty close to global driving standards,” says a confident Ramakrishnan.

Apart from the two Indian races, there will be two international races of 12 trucks each. The vehicles have been made a lot lighter and more stable with better brakes.

For the crowds, it is going to be a memorable Sunday outing at Buddh.

Published on March 17, 2016

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