The Formula 1 world first became aware of Narain Karthikeyan in the summer of 1999, when the first rumours drifted in that "an Indian chap" had won a British Formula 3 race at Brands Hatch. In those days, a driver who could win in British F3 was capable of racing in F1. They might not all turn
out to be potential world champions, but winning in British F3 was not easy. Later, Karthikeyan underlined his potential by setting a new lap record at Macau. That takes talent as well.
Clearly, the "Indian chap" was a good driver. The question that people in F1 circles asked was whether or not Karthikeyan was good enough to make it in Grand Prix racing. It was a fair question. Thirteen years later, that question has still to be answered properly. Indian fans might not think that Karthikeyan has achieved a great deal, but, in order to do well in F1, you need a good car. And Karthikeyan has never had one.
In 2001, he got his first Formula 1 test with Jaguar Racing and he went on to test for Jordan Grand Prix as well, but there was no deal to race. Two years later, Karthikeyan was offered a ride by the Minardi team, but he could not find the sponsorship money he needed.
It was not until 2005 that his chance came when Colin Kolles, then the team boss of Jordan Grand Prix, decided to give him an opportunity. Kolles was willing to take the risk. The team was not in a great situation. It was necessary to use a year-old car, which meant that scoring points was out of the question - and Karthikeyan needed time to learn. He was fast and aggressive, but he had some big accidents.
"Sometimes, I am a bit over the top," he admitted, "but I cannot change that. That is my style. That is why I sometimes make mistakes." He had the added disadvantage of being in a team with another novice, Portugal's Tiago Monteiro, so he did not have an experienced teammate to learn from. "If you have an experienced teammate, you are under pressure," he said, "and having an inexperienced teammate evens things out. Maybe, with an experienced driver, you might get a better car set-up. There are positives and negatives."
The bad news was that Jordan had new ownership that year and they wanted money for the 2006 season. Karthikeyan did not have enough. He decided that the best thing would be to become a test driver with Williams, thanks in part to some sponsorship he had found from Tata. But there was never any real hope that he would ever race for Williams. He knew that, but he could learn from the experienced Alexander Wurz, the team's test driver.
He stayed with Williams for two years, but after the Tata sponsorship ended, Karthikeyan was in the wilderness. He spent the next four years hoping to find sponsorship to return to F1, in order to prove that he was good enough. It was Kolles who helped him again by hiring him to race for the HRT team in 2011.
Colin still believed in Karthikeyan and some money from Tata put him back into F1 again. When the team needed more cash, he was dropped, but he returned again this year and has done a decent job, against Pedro de la Rosa, a well-respected F1 veteran.
The problem that all youngsters face in F1 is that unless they get a good car and make an immediate impression, it is hard to be noticed. And if there is no funding available, staying in F1 is very tough. We still do not really know what Karthikeyan can do, and, at the age of 35, it is unlikely that he will ever get a chance with a big team. F1 careers are running down when the drivers get into their mid-thirties, and while Karthikeyan is still pushing hard, still keen to impress and hoping to get a drive again in 2013, he knows that the odds are stacked against him.
Being a pioneer is never easy, but no matter what he achieves in F1, Karthikeyan will always be the guy who made the breakthrough for India, and perhaps out there somewhere in India is a youngster, with talent and backing, who has been inspired by Karthikeyan' efforts.
The writer has covered every Grand Prix for the last 25 years
© Copyright © 2013 HT Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.