Narain Karthikeyan's decision to join the A1 Grand Prix reminds me of words from a Creed song, "We've seen our share of ups and downs and how quickly life can turn around..."
These words depict the fastest Indian's sojourn in motor racing aptly. Two years ago, Narain was driving alongside the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso and now he is part of the team game version (instead of sponsored teams, drivers represent their countries) of Formula 1 which has had very few takers.
Karthikeyan began his F1 career on a good note and finished several races. But due to alleged problems with his bosses at Jordan, he left the team and became a test driver for Williams. Although he remains on the books of Williams as the fourth test driver, the decision to race in A1 has left many people perplexed. Is it a kind of demotion for Karhikeyan or is his F1 dream as good as over?
"Well, it is not a step down," says Sanjay Sharma, head of motorsports division, JK Tyres and former national rallying champion, "and to say that his F1 dream is over is a bit unfair."
Sharma argues that as a racing driver he needs to race continuously to keep the adrenaline flowing. Karun Chandhok, a former Formula Asia winner and promising driver feels that Karthikeyan's decision to join A1 is justified.
He says, "A driver needs to race in order to keep his competitive juices flowing and being a test driver doesn't let you do that."
Chandhok also feels that A1 is more relevant for people who want to make a name for themselves in F1.
Karthikeyan has already done so: "One can't actually say whether it is a promotion for Narain or a demotion."
Sharma adds his perspective and says, "In racing, the 'out of sight, out of mind' phenomenon works, so to show that he still has it in him to win races, he has had to do this."
Getting a team in F1 to sign you as a main driver is not easy and Karthikeyan knows that. After a lot of struggle he got to race for Jordan and it was unfortunate that he had to leave after just one year. "You never know how drivers will do in F1. Some retire and some leave the sport completely," says Chandhok.
For instance, Mclaren driver Juan Pablo Montoya left F1 and went to race in NASCAR. Karthikeyan enjoyed a good debut in A1 last week in Taupo, New Zealand and garnered first points for Team India by finishing seventh. But his talent has never been in doubt and he did impress quite a few in his only Formula 1 season. And in one season as a test driver, his bosses at Williams are satisfied with his performance.
"There is a misconception that a test driver's job is easy and he doesn't have much to do. But he is the driver who tests the car and gives feedback about how to improve the performance of the car," explains Sharma.
Also, if a team has to replace an injured driver, then the test driver steps in. "People are calling this a bad move because they don't know too much about A1 as it didn't gain enough popularity," says Anirban Das Blah of Globosport, which manages Karthikeyan.
The Formula 1 season gets underway on March 18 and the A1 season ends in early May, so it does not actually affect his Formula 1 commitments.
Prior to joining A1 Karthikeyan in a statement had said, "I am very privileged to be in Formula 1, but like all drivers I want to race fast cars as well as drive them and in recent months, I have had several offers to drive in America and Japan, but I chose A1GP because the race schedule does not clash with my Formula 1 commitments and it also offers a good financial package."
Age is another factor that has put a question mark on whether Karthikeyan will make it to F 1. "He might not have age on his side but has the talent to still succeed in Formula 1," concludes Chandhok.
Till Formula 1 beckons again, zooming off to A1 may just be what Karthikeyan needs to get his groove back.