We would have probably known Gaurav Gill as a tennis star rather than as the racing champion he is now famous for. For this Delhi-ite grew up dreaming not of speed nirvana on the race tracks, but glory on the tennis court. A dream he was forced to quash overnight when he was just 14.
“I was topping the charts in tennis…(and) I wanted to play for India at the international level,” he reminisces. But then, he got passed over at the national tennis selections. “My coach’s son got selected because he was the coach’s son. I got so frustrated that I stopped playing tennis that day. I swore, ‘I don’t want to come up to a tennis court ever again’ - I was very angry.”
Tennis’s loss was surely a gain for Indian racing. The teenager was already an inveterate driver of cars and bikes even as early as when he was nine years old. For a Punjabi business family from west Delhi with a track record of sportsmen and racers (his uncle Dickie Gill was a national-level champion during the eighties and nineties while his grandfather Balraj was a national diving champion), this was nothing unusual. In fact, he says “my mother taught me how to drive a car around our big backyard in Delhi.” Taking the car in and out of the driveway was his practice! Also, with his uncles taking him out on drives on sports cars and heavy bikes right when he was a kid, Gaurav grew up with heavy machinery around him, something which was to come in handy when he began thinking of a career switch after the tennis incident.
But then, age was a problem. To drive cars and compete in rallies, he had to be 18 with a driving licence. His way out? Riding bikes. “I straightaway won the National Motocross championships in Chandigarh in 1999,” he says.
I always live around speed. I like getting into stuff that is challenging, which is beyond my control. I have a thing about challenging myself - it’s like there are two people within me. One is challenging the other one, who then says, yes, I can do it!
His mother gifted him a racing motorcycle as a gift, though she made it clear that it was the only investment she was going to make in his career. The belief was that this would be a teenage hobby he’d pursue for some time, before taking a degree and settling down with the family business. “She obviously did not want me to pursue it too aggressively,” he laughs, “Like all parents in India, she wanted her son to be an engineer or a doctor.”
In the winter of 1999, Gaurav crashed his bike while leading in a race in Kolkata. “I was badly hurt and had to go through multiple surgeries. Being a single parent, she got very scared and said, enough of this.” A compromise was soon reached. “(Finally) she said, if you want race, race cars. At least it’s safer!” he chuckles.
Spotted and signed up by JK Tyres, Gaurav won the first ever rally they sent him for, the Formula Maruti in 2004, followed by the Formula Roll On two years later. A year later, Gaurav switched to MRF as the tyre giant offered him a chance to race internationally - to take part in the prestigious Asia-Pacific Championship (see box). The rest is history - in 2008, he won the Indonesian leg of that rally, and then became the first Indian to win the entire series in 2013. Gill repeated the feat in 2016 and is presently ranked second in this year’s races, with the final scheduled for Chikmagalur in Karnataka next month on the 28th.
But this speed junkie is already aiming for his next fix. In March this year, Gaurav tried his hand at racing boats (after a crash course in London), at the Nexa P1 Powerboat event in Mumbai for team Pro-Cam. A whole new rush, Gaurav is hooked (“Everything happens in slow motion…when you are racing cars, the ground is not moving, but when you are on a boat, the sea is constantly changing and moving,” he points out the fundamental difference!) and can’t wait for the next race this winter, after APRC (Asia-Pacific Championships) is over.
“I always live around speed. I like getting into stuff that is challenging, which is beyond my control. I have a thing about challenging myself - it’s like there are two people within me. One is challenging the other one, who then says, yes, I can do it!”
Not surprising, that next in his crosshairs is learning to be a pilot. “Me and my friend are going to train flying planes in Canada, hopefully later this year,” he says. But like his mother earlier, it’s his wife Shilpa, a dermatologist at Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, who is now putting her foot down on this new target of his!