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India revs up for Narain's F1 debut
N.Ananthanarayanan | March 02, 2005 14:12 IST
Narain Karthikeyan's face smiles down from giant hoardings in Indian cities, car stickers in his hometown proclaim "Narain, we are proud of you" and fans scribble good-luck messages on a special graffiti wall erected by sponsors in Bombay.
The mild-mannered Karthikeyan will become India's first F1 driver when he climbs into his Jordan in Melbourne.
"His impact has been phenomenal," said Vicky Chandok, head of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI).
"Indian corporates are among the biggest in the world but until now they did not give priority to F1. The sport being tech-driven, it's now logical for them to come in."
Karthikeyan's signing has given India, an attractive market for sponsors with its huge potential audience, a Formula One focal point after a stalled attempt to host a race in the country.
Sports fans in India are excited about a rare home cricket series against rivals Pakistan but Karthikeyan's yellow car will be the focus of attention on televisions sets across the country two days before the first Test match.
The domestic media have been running a stream of interviews with the 28-year-old Karthikeyan since he signed for Jordan last month.
Formula One already enjoys a huge following in the country, particularly in the cities, and the arrival of an Indian driver among the elite has whipped up the interest into a fever.
Jordan were ninth among 10 teams in 2004. Formula One reality suggests that Karthikeyan may never figure among the front-runners and that any point logged during the season would be a bonus.
That does not stop millions of Indians debating the prospects of their latest sporting icon while eagerly awaiting the season-opening grand prix.
Karthikeyan's fellow Jordan driver, Tiago Monteiro of Portugal, is also a newcomer on a team in transition after being bought by Russian-born Canadian businessman Alex Shnaider from flamboyant Irishman Eddie Jordan.
Indian fans believe Karthikeyan's natural talent will help him to make an impact in F1, inspiring youngsters such as Karun Chandok, who is in the Nissan World Series, and Arman Ebrahim, who races in the Formula BMW-Asia.
Indian motor racing has come a long way since its origins on disused World War Two airstrips in the 1950s.
It was not until 1989 that India got a fully-fledged racing track near Madras, a 3.75-km course certified to stage F3 races.
An industrialist and driver, the late S. Karivardhan, designed local engines to help cut costs and draw more people into the sport.
With a seven-year-old national circuit expanding, Indian officials feel Karthikeyan's presence could help to bring an F1 race to Asia's fourth largest economy.
Plans for India's own F1 race in Hyderabad fell through after the chief backer of the project was voted out in last year's regional elections.
Chandok believes a Monaco-style street race would be better suited for India due to its lower costs.
"Delhi would be a good choice. We're planning to make a proposal to the government," he said.
Family friends recall how Karthikeyan, elder son of an industrialist and ex-rally driver, used to hare around his big, oval-shaped driveway in a go-kart as a young boy.
"He was one of those wild boys," said R. Gopalakrishnan, also a former rally driver and one of hundreds of Indian fans who plan to travel to grands prix in Asia to watch Karthikeyan in action.
"He used to zip through empty special stages before local rallies, going full tilt into sharp bends with great technique to make 180-degree turns without braking."
Karthikeyan has test driven for Jordan, Jaguar and Minardi in the last three years. Minardi offered him a drive in 2003 but he was unable to secure the huge sums in sponsorship required to clinch the deal.
India's second-largest business conglomerate the Tata Group and state-run refiner Bharat Petroleum Corp are now his sponsors.
Karthikeyan's hometown, the southern industrial city of Coimbatore which has strong roots in rallying and racing, is preparing a grand party to mark his race debut.
"Most of our friends are preparing to get together and party on race day morning," R. Mahendran, a former rally driver and textile mill owner from Coimbatore, told Reuters.
"Earlier, we used to have impromptu parties only if it was a big India-Pakistan cricket match."
Mahendran said he felt sure India's Formula One fans, who grew weary of German champion Michael Schumacher's winning streak last year, would be watching every race this season.
"I hope the cameras also focus on the tail-enders," he said.
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