Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Karthikeyan's return to Formula One is uncertain

CHENNAI: Kakarla Kumar Ram Narain Karthikeyan would have been pleased as punch to finish the A1 Grand Prix season on a winning note at his favourite race circuit, Brands Hatch, England, last Sunday. But, after becoming the first Indian to drive in a Formula One race in 2005 when he signed up with Jordan, Narain seems to have lost his plot.

He spent the last two seasons in racing wilderness as a test driver for Williams, a role that increasingly became decorative, and the decision to move to A1 GP as the Team India driver, has not helped his cause any better.

Now, at 31, the road ahead for Narain is unclear. He appears well entrenched in A1 GP driving for Team India. Two victories this season, at Zhuhai and Brands Hatch, came after a string of failures as he grappled with a poorly equipped team in terms of quality race engineers.

Although Narain did not admit as much, he did hint that Team India was in need of an overhaul by way of hiring top notch engineers who could turn things around. Thus, driving a car lacking in pace in the A1 GP was no different from his days at the cash-strapped Jordan that was eventually sold twice in as many years to become today's Force India.

However, few could visualise the downturn in his career a decade ago when during his three seasons in British Formula 3 series between 1998 and 2000, Narain held out promise and potential.

He had the pace and was daring. His wins at Spa, Brands Hatch and Korean Super Prix besides a few pole positions and podium finishes were creditable achievements that were expected to provide him the leg-up to the next level of racing. Unfortunately, the Indian Media was not yet up to speed in its motorsports coverage and his results barely attracted attention at home.

However, these performances earned him test drives with Jaguar and Jordan in 2001. But then, inadequate funding and consequent move to Formula Nippon and Nissan World Series delayed Narain's entry into F1. When he finally "arrived", he was stuck with Jordan that virtually had two wheels over the cliff.

The Tata Group backed him quite substantially, but Narain needed bigger moneybags for a race seat in a better team. His failure to even grab a podium finish behind the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at the 2005 Indy race, where only six cars contested, was a huge blow to his chances of a second F1 season as a racing driver.

The launch of A1 GP provided Narain an opportunity to keep himself in racing trim and public memory. Here too, it was the same old tale of promising and not delivering. It effectively left his racing career in a limbo as events overtook him.

His dreams of returning to F1 with a race seat further diminished as younger, hungrier, and talented kids snapped up vacancies quicker than you could say Narain Karthikeyan! The introduction of the GP2 championship in 2005 as a feeder series to F1 did provide an option for Narain, but he chose to remain in F1 even if only as a test driver.

Further, his love-hate relationship with the Indian media only highlighted the lack of communication skills on his part or, for that matter, of his managers. The two seasons at Williams virtually took him off the sports pages. A few road shows with his sponsors barely evoked media interest at a time when he needed to be visible.

Team India tried to rescue the situation by offering media junkets to his A1 races, but with results not forthcoming, there was precious little to write home about.

Today, despite the "historic" win at Zhuhai and success at Brands Hatch, Narain faces an uncertain future in the context of his return to Formula One. Although the A1 GP is to receive Ferrari engines for their next season, the so-called World Cup of Motorsport is still a poor option for F1 as compared to the high-profile GP2 series.

When Vijay Mallya bought Spyker and renamed it Force India, it was speculated that Narain would be offered a drive as the two made a good fit in terms of hyping up Indian interests and viewership. But Mallya's priorities have more to do with business than sentiments, and Narain did not even figure on his radar.

While Narain is struggling to keep his career on track, a couple of other Indians, Karun Chandhok and Armaan Ebrahim, are snapping at his heels. Karun has already tested for Red Bull F1 team and is in line for a drive next year. He, along with Armaan, is doing the GP2 series.

Thus, with new and fresh Indian faces arriving on the scene, Narain perhaps is facing the biggest challenge yet as he attempts to find his way back to Formula One.
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