An MRF Challenge-inspired series concluded its 2022-23 season this weekend, with Sai Sanjay crowned champion
Run from 2012 to 2020, the Asian series used two-litre cars that are comparable to Formula Renault in Europe. It attracted overseas talent due to taking place during the European winter, and 14 series alumni have reached single-seaters’ top level. India’s biggest motorsport names also cameoed in the series, including former Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan and Asia Pacific Rally champion Gaurav Gill.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the centrally-run series (operated and promoted by JA Motorsport on behalf of tyre manufacturer MRF) being cancelled for two seasons, although MRF Racing’s Formula 1600-spec support series did continue.
The ‘Formula 2000′ series, which is the highest level of junior single-seater racing in South Asia, returned last October as a new series with a four-round calendar based entirely at Chennai in India. Rounds two to four took take place in January 2023.
It was only publicly confirmed during the third round last weekend that MRF F2000 would actually be on the bill of four rounds of the Indian national car racing championships at the circuit rather than three and so the season would conclude a week later than many had previously expected.
Rishon Rajeev had started the season by taking pole by half a second over Sanjay, but it was the latter who won and took fastest lap in the first race of the series’ return.
Rajeev made an awful start from pole, falling down the order while Sanjay went straight into the lead and had to resist pressure from reigning MRF F1600 champion Shahan Ali Mohsin. Kyle Kumaran had to start from the pits, while Chirag Ghorpade spun on lap one.
Sanjay escaped Ali Moshin’s clutches by the race’s halfway point, while Rajeev stayed close to third-placed Yash Aradhya to the finish.
2022-23 MRF F2000
Mohamed Ryan lined up on reversed-grid pole for race two, with Sanjay back in eighth, but a slow start allowed front row man Chirag Ghorpade to take the lead and by some margin.
His lead was cut back by the safety car, after Divy Nandan spun from third, but he pulled away again following the restart and won by 3.576 seconds over Rajeev, who after managing his tyres pulled off a great dummy move – diving inside then driving around the outside – on Ryan to take second on the last lap.
Race three was cancelled due to heavy rain, and added to round two where the grid shrank from nine to six cars and Sanjay claimed pole.
Sanjay was passed off the line in race one by Nandan and Ryan, setting the order the race would finish with, while Ghorpade stalled from third on the grid.
The grid was reserved in full for race two due to its size, and poleman Ghorpade bogged down again. Amputee Chetan Korada took an early lead ahead of Dillon Zachariah while Sanjay defended hard against Ghorpade.
Sanjay went around the outside of Zachariah mid-race to take second, and was gifted the lead by Korada who dropped to the back upon being noted he had a drive-through penalty for jumping the start. Ghorpade inherited second, and Nandan fought to third.
Nandan should have started second for race three but lined up at the back, enabling Ghorpade to attack poleman Sanjay and pass him out of turn one.
Halfway through the race Sanjay tried getting back past, but Ghorpade had it in hand to win.
The death of a driver in another series led to track action being stopped, and meant MRF’s rescheduled race got moved into round three which also only attracted six starters.
Former Formula 4 driver Sohil Shah [pictured above] joined for the third round and comfortably took race one pole and victory. Ryan and Sanjay completed the podium, and Zachariah finished last after a car-damaging spin.
That put him on race two pole, and he turned it into a 3.404s win ahead of Nandan, while Ryan resisted Shah to finish third.
Shah had been fifth, and made contact with Ghorpade while trying to pass him before eventually getting by when Ghorpade ran too deep while defending. Sanjay finished last.
Race three’s grid was set from the second-best qualifying laps, and Shah had pole. It was Ryan who led into turn one however, darting through from fourth. The safety car appeared on lap two after Ghorpade crashed exiting turn one, and Ryan went on to win after racing resumed.
Shah battled severe stomach pain and several errors to come second, and Nandan beat Sanjay to third.
Sanjay won the finale, building a lead approaching 7.1s before Shah passed Zachariah for second and managed to claw Sanjay in to finish less than a second behind. Ryan finished fourth.
The final round featured seven drivers, as Korada rejoined the grid, and Shah was the driver to beat. He claimed race one pole by 0.427s over Sanjay, and converted that into a comfortable 4.71s win which he credited to improving how he conducted his race starts. Sanjay extended his points lead in second, with Nandan third and Zachariah a penalised last after getting a drive-through for jumping the start.
Shah started seventh and last on the reversed-grid for race two (which Ghorpade skipped) but still came through for another big win ahead of Ryan and Zachariah while Sanjay wrapped up the title with a race to spare in fourth place.
The final race was another lights-to-flag display by Shah ahead of the new champion, with Shah’s fourth win in seven races lifting him to third in the standings, while Korada achieved a historic feat by making the podium. The last time a driver with similar disabilities took a podium in single-seaters above the entry level formulas was Billy Monger’s famous 2019 Pau Grand Prix win.
1 Sanjay 201 2 Ryan 165 3 Shah 148 4 Nandan 148 5 Zachariah 146 6 Ghorpade 122 7 Korada 51 8 Rajeev 30 9 Aradhya 27 10 Ali Moshin 24 11 Kumaran 2