Thursday, May 29, 2008

Naren Kumar charts new course

"There will be a big boost for rallying in India. Finally it will get its due recognition as a spectator sport"- V R Naren Kumar.

The feeling of euphoria is at its peak. All people connected with V R Naren Kumar (A Kamma guy from Coimbatore) are waiting with bated breath and thumping heartbeats. For, the man is set to create a piece of history in Indian motorsport.

May 29, 2008 will be the historic day when the Coimbatore driver will attempt to make his presence felt among the top guns in the big, bad and glamorous World Rally Championship. Naren has arrived in the Production Class of the WRC and his first event will be the Rally of Greece this weekend. He will compete in a shiny, new Subaru WRX 2008 model car with English navigator Nicky Beech.

"It's a great feeling to realise my long-term dream of representing India at the world rally stage," said the 33-year-old.

The road to just reach this level has not been easy at all. Naren has won the Indian National Rally Championship six times and it was crystal clear that this man had to go to higher levels in the sport. The 2001 Asia Zone champion had seen it all at the National level and needed to go international. That he did last year and drove in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, with the best finish being a second place in the Malaysian Rally. The fact was that Naren was competing in APRC in a car that was not as well prepared as the Subaru of Aussie Cody Crocker or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IXs of Team MRF.

With not many ready to put their money into Naren's WRC dreams, it was an uncomfortable situation. Naren had offers from Fiat Abarth Works team for the European Rally Championship a couple of seasons ago and also tested with the Subaru World Rally Team last year. But it all boiled down to how much money he could get in.

Finally, help came in the form of a Bangalore-based company Sidvin Core Technologies, which decided to sponsor Naren's entry into the PWRC. It was a former rallyist Mohan Nagarajan, the managing director of Sidvin, who decided this talented driver should race at the top levels. In fact, Sidvin has taken over as the title sponsor of the INRC too.

However, all associated with Team Sidvin India (TSI) will be well aware that miracles will not happen overnight. It is not easy to win against drivers who have many, many years of experience in driving top-of-the-line rally cars. But given Naren's exceptional talent and with four-time WRC title winner Tommi Makinen preparing his car, fair results should not be unrealistic. "Considering the level of drivers and extreme conditions and terrain, a top-10 in the world rally stage will be a great result for the first year," said Naren.

TSI have also roped in Ramji Srinivasan as the physical fitness trainer for Naren. Srinivasan is also the trainer for Karthikeyan in the A1 Grand Prix series. It is no secret that drivers need to be in supreme fitness to take the rigours of motorsport.

More than just the historic significance of the first Indian in the PWRC, what this event could do to Indian rallying will be viewed with great interest as it could pave the way for more Indians to get to the rally stage.

In 2005, Naren's city-mate Narain Karthikeyan became the first Indian to drive in the Formula One world championship. That triggered a wave of interest in a sport that was getting increased media attention. And today, we have an Indian F1 team in Force India.

The whole problem has been that with very few being exposed to world rallying in India, not many really know what it is. However, what happened to F1 and India could also happen to rallying. If Naren gets some good results, it is sure to boost rallying in the country. Also, getting into rallying is more economical than the prospect of someone getting into F1.

"There will be a big boost for rallying in India," Naren felt. "Finally, it will get its due recognition as a super spectator sport.

"The cars that are used in the WRC are very different from those used in the INRC. Having better cars to race in at the National level makes things easier for Indians to make that graduation to the world level.

"The level of rallying is good in India now. However, there are changes to be made to give opportunities to Indians to drive faster cars. This will help our drivers to get to the world rally stage faster.

"But for now, the first step has been taken. With financial worries not present at the back of Naren's mind, it will surely be easier for him to concentrate on his driving. India now has a representation in a championship that is considered the Formula One of rallying. This could be one of the turning points in the history of Indian motorsport.
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