x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Narain Karthikeyan's Indian summer

It is all too easy to slate Karthikeyan's talent. His best years may be behind him, but few have had to struggle anything like as much to get an F1 drive.

In a little over a month, India will host its first Formula One race at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi.

In a country that has seen petrol prices soar by 15 rupees (Dh1.1) in the past 12 months - a litre now costs 66.84 rupees in Delhi - the irony will no be lost on some.

If a strong motorsport tradition was the criteria for hosting a race, it is very unlikely that India would have been chosen. But with commercial possibilities driving the move for expansion, a growing South Asian economy with dozens of prospective sponsors makes for a good fit.

There is also likely to be the added sop of two Indian drivers on the grid, even if neither Narain Karthikeyan nor Karun Chandhok has ever set an F1 track alight when afforded the opportunity.

The irony quotient is increased by the fact that the Indian team in the paddock - Vijay Mallya's Force India - has a German, Adrian Sutil, and a Briton, Paul di Resta, driving their cars.

For Karthikeyan, who has already been informed by his Hispania Racing team that he will get the Delhi drive, it is the culmination of a dream more than two decades in the making.

The first Indian to drive on the biggest stage, many thought his chance had come and gone after the 2005 season with Jordan that finished with him being shunted aside.

When Mallya took over the Spyker team after the 2007 season, there were rumours of an Indian being given the drive - "I never even approached Mallya. The vibes from the camp have been extremely negative and I want to make it clear that I am not interested in driving for Force India," said Karthikeyan - but it was only after his 34th birthday earlier this year that the chance to drive in F1 came again.

In a hopelessly outpaced car, he has not managed better than 17th place - in Monaco and Canada - and was benched after the European Grand Prix at the end of June.

But with Tata Racing as one of his sponsors - India's century-old business house now owns the Jaguar marque - most expected he would be restored to the Cosworth-powered car for the Indian race. It is all too easy to slate Karthikeyan's talent. His best years may be behind him, but few have had to struggle anything like as much to get an F1 drive. Given where he came from, he really has been a pioneer.

When he was growing up, in an India still wedded to Nehruvian socialism, it was not even possible to watch an F1 race on television. His passion was fuelled by his racing-rallying family and motorsport magazines that reached the house months late.

"I drove the Formula Ford support race during the 1994 Portuguese GP in Estoril," he told The Hindustan Times recently. "That was the first time I saw and heard the thrill of F1 live."

Chandhok, whose father, Vicky, was one of the stalwarts of an old amateur racing scene based around converted airfields, is not yet assured of a ride, though Tony Fernandes, the Lotus-Renault boss, has been making encouraging noises recently.

At 27, the sand has not yet reached the bottom of the timer for Chandhok, but the frustration of getting just one drive this season - he finished 20th at the Nurburgring - is beginning to show.

"I've just got to wait and see what he [Fernandes] decides," said Chandhok when interviewed by CNN. "As a racing driver, the most emotional race is certainly your home grand prix.

"If I do get the opportunity to do it, it'll be fantastic, but at this moment it's a question only Tony can answer.

"To be an Indian driver on the grid for the first Indian Grand Prix would be magic. I've been very involved in the circuit, I've been visiting the site every month. To have the opportunity to drive would sort of complete that circle."

The following for the sport grew steadily in India after the ESPN-Star Sports network started showing the races in the late 1990s. Interest was at its most intense during Michael Schumacher's halcyon years at Ferrari, but the numbers are still growing. Last season's races were watched by close to 25 million on television, while the numbers for this season are already up to 22.5 million.

Force India and the two Indian drivers may make many proud, but most Indians continue to identify most with the traditional marques such as Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes and the rivalries between those with podium chances.

Unlike somewhere such as Scandinavia though, the country's huge population, much of it young, guarantees a captive audience for years to come.

Finland's Imatra circuit has not seen big bike racing since 1982, less than a decade after the death of the Finnish rider Jarno Saarinen and the decline of Tepi Lansivuori, while the last of Sweden's nine grands prix was held in 1978, the year F1 drivers Gunnar Nilsson and Ronnie Peterson died in tragic circumstances.

The Buddh circuit is unlikely to meet such a fate, not as long as the roar of an F1 engine being revved up resonates in the aspirational Indian heart.

 

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