28 and 26. This is how old the two Indian Formula 1 drivers so far were – Narain Karthikeyan in 2005 and Karun Chandhok in 2010 – when they debuted at the highest level.

But Arjun Maini, all of 19, is already is part of the Haas F1 team as a development driver. For any young competitive racer, the dream is to be part of a Formula 1 team, confirmed seat or otherwise. And the Indian teenager has already got a lead.

Even before he could enter the F1 paddock, Maini gave a teaser of what he is capable when he became the first Indian to win a GP3 race, with Jenzer Motorsport in Barcelona, days after his development seat was announced.

“It was great to show the Haas F1 team what I am made of and hopefully there are many more in the future,” Maini told The Field. “Karun Chandhok took me through the paddock once I had won the race. Walking through the paddock as a race winner, even if it’s not F1, felt incredible. Everyone in the team was happy and I wish I can keep delivering for them,” he added.

The talented 19-year-old is determined to make the most of his head-start and is learning all he can – right down to the radio chatter.

“I learnt a lot from the radio chat during the race and free practice. Just being around teaches you so much more than what you already know, so that experience itself is preparing me for what could come in the future,” Maini said.

The victory in Barcelona, days after a F1 contract, is a good indication of not just Maini’s potential, but of his ability to tackle pressure. “My emotions were a bit all over the place because you can’t believe you are already part of a Formula 1 team. Of course, I still had to keep my head focused on the GP3 weekend because that is also very important. It was good but it was also difficult to keep calm and stop thinking about it as much,” he explained.

“You’re not really thinking when you are driving, it all comes to so naturally; but it’s difficult to get into the zone where you can perform at a very high level and that’s what I was worried about most, but I managed to do it,” he said, as he described the roller-coaster he experienced during that eventful week in May.

Celebrating on the podium at Barcelona. Image Credit: Arjun Maini

When he talks about his craft, it’s almost easy to forget that Maini is only 19 years of age – a teenager still. He says he has never really thought what road car he would like to drive, but knows which car he would like to race in – the scarlet Ferrari, of course. He admits it’s sometimes difficult to not be able to go out with friends or watch a movie or eat outside, but in the same breath, says he’s happy to make these sacrifices because he is living his dream life.

Maini moved to Europe when he was 14 and was living away from his family in England at 16, not knowing how to even make a cup of tea. Today, he prefers to cook for himself even when he comes down to India. When he talks about the hard work of the last three years, it is with a certain maturity that belies his age.

“It was difficult initially, a learning process all for the love of racing and the hope of making it to Formula 1 one day. What was really important during that time was to get out of my comfort zone – [which is] much more important than just being on contract. There are so many things that help you become the ultimate driver and good discipline off track is one of them as well,” said Maini. “Initially I was quite scared of moving to Europe, but then I got used to it, I started cooking and now I live alone and have no problem with it at all.”

“All my life I have had this one vision of being a Formula 1 driver, every moment of the day you keep thinking about it. Once you get out of your comfort zone, you realise that are actually not a lot of things that you can’t overcome and this confidence is what helps you on the track as well,” the articulate teenager added.

But when it comes to off-track factors, Maini is in a truly unique position. He comes from a family of racers – his father was one and his younger brother, Kush Maini, has taken to the tracks as well.

“My father understood the passion involved and what it means, he couldn’t make it so he wanted to see his dream fulfilled between myself and Kush. I’m grateful to have a family that support me and have put me through the right stepping stones and I hope a lot of parents learn this lesson,” he said.

The initiation into racing also gave Maini his biggest advantage yet – the guidance of Karun Chandhok. He set up the talks with Haas, accompanied him at races and has been there since the start of his single seater career. “He is someone who has been there and done it and he knows, what the mistakes he has made and he stops me from making the same mistakes,” Maini said of his mentor.

“My father and Karun raced together so we had the connection from early on, but that became even more important after I moved to Europe with Formula 4 around 2014. Initially, it was a lot of on-track help but lately has become a lot of off-track help. The learning from him is invaluable, the amount you can learn from a Formula 1 driver is much more than you think you know,” Maini said.

And the impact shows, be it Bangalore, Barcelona, or the Haas paddock. Maini is a singularly focused athlete and on-track, possesses a set of enviable skills and a potential Formula 1 seat. But off track, the 19-year-old is very self-aware, a quality that will serve him well, especially at this stage of his career.

“I’ve got the Haas deal now and I got to keep pushing, it’s not far away if I play my cards right,” he said. If he follows through with his current level of perseverance and performance, it’s hard not to see him at the top level of the sport, perhaps as only the third Indian at the big stage.