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G force on track!

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It’s late in the evening at the Buddh International race track at Greater Noida. The shadows are getting longer, the wind is turning nippy. Gautam Hari Singhania, the chairman & managing director of Raymond, is taking journalists on a spin in a red Ferrari after they have filled an indemnity form. If you thought Vijay Mallya’s troubles with Kingfisher Airlines would make flamboyant businessmen lay low, you need to be here. Singhania is in his elements, doing high-fives with his team members, greeting friends, giving bytes to television, driving like crazy.

The car has been modified for racing at a workshop in Silverstone, the Mecca of motorsport, which includes striping its cockpit to the barest of bare essentials. It’s left-hand driven, the engine is mounted on the rear, the ground clearance is not more than a couple of inches, the Pirelli tyres are untreaded and it uses special petrol that has been flown in from the US. Singhania did 98 rounds of the 5.1-km track yesterday and 109 today. That’s over 1,000 km, enough to reach you from Mumbai to Mysore. In the last lap, Singhania breaks the two-minute barrier and clocks 1:59:44. Singhania, in red overalls and helmet, clenches his fist. A few moments later, he changes into a red T-shirt, grey slacks and loafers, and is ready to leave for the airport from where he will catch a flight to Mumbai.

“That was reasonably quick,” says Singhania six days later, sitting in his office at Mahindra Towers in Worli, Mumbai. He is wearing a light blue shirt with broad collars and dark trousers. His iPad has a red cover with the unmistakable Ferrari logo: a black prancing stallion on a yellow shield. Formula1 drivers have done a lap of the Greater Noida track in lesser time; the record is 1:24 minutes and is held by Sebastian Vettel. But F1 is not what Singhania, 47, is aiming for. “I am too old for F1,” says he. “I can’t be that competitive, though I can tell you that I won’t be so far off either.” Singhania has been practicing at Greater Noida to test his chances at another race: the upcoming season of the European leg of the Ferrari Challenge, a series of seven races in which only Ferraris can participate.

 

Singhania hopes to finalise his race calendar soon. Alistair Woodham, an ex-racer who heads Team GHS, Singhania’s motorsport unit, feels Singhania was good enough at Greater Noida to be amongst the top three at the race. “He could even win,” he says of his friend-turned-boss. You could call it manager’s optimism, but Singhania does know a thing or two about races: he holds the Indian record (9.2 seconds) for drag (quarter mile) racing and in September last year won the amateur title of the European Drift Championship (it involves oversteering; as a result, the rear moves in a different direction as the nose of the car) in Malta, beating 29 others.

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The Singhanias are Marwaris. In the 1930s, they bought Raymond from the Sassoon family. Singhania took over the reins of the company from his father, Vijaypat Singhania, in 2000. He got rid of the steel, cement and synthetics businesses in order to focus on apparel and textile, acquired Color Plus, and has expanded the prophylactics business from condoms (Kama Sutra) to deodorants and now energy drink (under the KS brand). Today, Singhania says, Raymond is the largest producer and retailer of worsted fabric in the world. There have been misses too. Singhania, for instance, decided against investing in budget carrier IndiGo in the eleventh hour in 2005. Over the years, IndiGo has become India’s most successful airline. “At that time, for whatever wisdom I had, I chose not to do it,” says he. “Rahul (Bhatia) has done a fantastic job, but I don’t regret it.” In 2006, Singhania had told Business Standard that Raymond was on an upswing and needed all the time he could spare, and therefore he followed his head, not his heart.

 

Those who have known Singhania describe him as an adrenaline junkie and an adventure seeker. That’s perhaps in his genes. Vijaypat Singhania holds the record for flying a microlight aircraft from the United Kingdom to India in 1998. In 2005, when he was 67, Vijaypat Signhania flew past 69,000 feet in a hot air balloon and created a new record. “Very high energy is in my DNA,” says Singhania. A journalist who had a meal with Singhania some years ago remembers that the businessman was on his second bowl of soup while he was not even halfway through with his first. Like his father, Singhania too is fond of taking to the skies, though he is far less daring. He has a helicopter pilot’s licence, owns a Bombardier Challenger 604 business jet and has flown in a Sukhoi 27 and L-39 Albatros in Ukraine. In the flight, Singhania, remembers, he was given a bottle of morphine. “You had to inject it if you had an accident and were in great pain.”

Singhania is also fond of sailing. His collection includes yachts (one, made fully of Burma teakwood, was built by a village of boat makers in Gujarat), a dhow and speedboats. Some of them are named after James Bond movies: Moonraker, Golden Eye, Octopussy. But the vigilance mounted by the security agencies after 26/11 has caused severe restriction on sailors. Singhania admits it has become difficult. “I was on my yacht yesterday and I was told you can’t use it for the next three days because there is a visiting dignitary (British Prime Minister David Cameron),” says he. “Life comes to a halt. Had I planned a dinner on board, it would’ve got cancelled.” Motorsport is a different matter.

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Singhania owns 40 per cent of Raymond, which means his net worth is almost Rs 880 crore — a lot of money but not enough to find him a place in the list of the country’s top billionaires. A recent compilation of India’s top 100 billionaires done by Business Standard Research Bureau showed that one had to be worth at least Rs 1,700 crore to get onto the list. But his lifestyle could be the envy of many bigger billionaires. He finds the time for motorsport perhaps because he delegates work. People who work for Raymond say that the idea for the new energy drink (KS) came from him, though it was executed by the business team. “He knows the exact formula of the drink and knows in detail what’s happening, but leaves it to others to run the business,” says a Raymond executive.

Singhania lives in a bungalow on Altamount Road in Mumbai. (His new house, the 40-storey JK House, is under construction on Bhulabhai Desai Road, not far from Mukesh Ambai’s Antilla.) Those who have seen his garage say it is “every boy’s dream”. There are two Ferraris (a 458 Italia and a 348), two Lamborghinis (a Gallardo and a Superleggera), an Ariel Atom and a Lotus Elise, apart from sundry others. (He drives to work in a BMW 7 Series.) The Lamborghini Gallardo is a sleeper: if it stops next to you at a traffic signal you won’t notice anything unusual in it; you will feel the difference only once it takes off. Singhania sent it to a company called Underground Racing in the US which has turned the engine from 520 horsepower to 1650 horsepower. “It can do over 300 km per hour and is one of the fastest cars in Asia,” says Woodham. “It’s a difficult and expensive car to drive,” adds Singhania. “In the last 16-17 months, I have driven it 700 km in and around Mumbai.” Singhania selects his cars and then leaves it to experts to tweak or modify them.

 

Singhania says he has been passionate about motorsport since the age of four. “One day in Switzerland, I saw a beautiful Lamborghini and I knew I had to get one also. I was six or seven then. That car, that moment is etched on my memory forever,” says he. Singhania’s first exposure to racing was go-karts. One of his pals from those days is Hormazd Sorabjee, the editor of Autocar India. While Sorabjee drove as Botax, Singhania took on the name Gotax. “There weren’t too many tracks (for go karts) in the late 1980s; we used to go to the Juhu Flying Club,” remembers Sorabjee.

In 2009, Singhania, with help from Sorabjee, formed the Super Car Club. It started with 30 members and now has over 300 from across the country. Last month, it had organised a parade of supercars in Mumbai in which cars of over 350 horsepower were allowed to take part. Ninety cars came for the parade, including Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches, BMWs and Audis. Last year, Singhania took 17 members of the club to Arjeplog in Sweden for driving on ice. The tiny village is where car makers like Bentley, Porsche, Mercedes and Lamborghini take their vehicles for testing under extreme winter conditions. Temperatures there can drop to -40 degrees. Singhania plans to go there again next January. In August last year, Singhania had led a team of 37 CEOs from India and abroad on a drive from Srinagar to Kargil and Leh. The entire bandobast was done by his friend, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. (Abdullah grew up in Mumbai.) Next, Singhania plans to lead an expedition to Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in August. According to Dilip Joshi, chairman (events) of Super Car Club, 43 CEOs have already signed up for it. He has also driven in the Cannonball and Gumball runs. A week before practicing at Greater Noida, Singhania had gone off-roading with friends near Gurgaon.

For the drifting championship in Malta, Woodham says, Singhania had practiced for not more than a couple of days in England. He came to Malta, borrowed a car from a participant in the professional category, put the Raymond logo on it, and drove it to victory. “Everybody thought he was a professional,” says Woodham. “He was given a professional licence there and then. He is the first Indian professional drifter.” It is only after Malta that Singhania got his own drifting cars: a BMW E46 and a Nissan S13. These have been designed by professionals from the United Kingdom and Latvia. “Drifting,” says Singhania, “is all about keeping the car as off-balance as possible, and the track tries to keep it as balanced as possible. It’s a different car and technology and requires completely different driving skills. But it is extremely rewarding.” Singhania’s drag car is a Nissan Skyline and has been refitted by an Australian expert. For the Ferrari Challenge races, Singhania has taken on lease a Ferrari 458 challenge modified by FF Corse of England. When it is in India, the car is maintained by Bangalore-based Racetech.

In the European racing circuit, they have started to call him Gee.