India's fast tracker relishes chance to open up Formula One's new frontier

Narain Karthikeyan is the first driver from the subcontinent to graduate to motor racing's élite level. David Tremayne hears a pioneer's tale
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Narain Karthikeyan does not want to "lose" his black and yellow Jordan cap. Almost defiantly he hides beneath its peak as he hunkers down into his clothes even though the room is warm. It transpires that India's latest sporting icon is having a bad hair day.

"I was running in the snow for an hour and it got messed up," he explains sheepishly, privately admitting that he had not shaved either because he was only expecting an interview and not a photo session.

Trailblazers are an interesting breed, and the 28-year-old Karthikeyan is the real thing: India's first Formula One driver. This little bit of image consciousness is the only outward sign of the massive weight of expectation back home that his sudden breakthrough to racing's big league has placed on his slight shoulders. As snowflakes swirl outside the windows of Jordan's Silverstone factory on a cold winter afternoon, he looks like any one of a hundred young dudes you could pass without a second glance on the street. Out of his overalls he is an ordinary little guy who probably weighs in at 65 kilos (just over 10 stone) sopping wet. There is none of the swagger of the young race driver, and not much of the sparkle either, though his humour breaks through every so often in the form of a wide, white-toothed grin.

Karthikeyan seems comfortable now but, like running in the snow, there have been plenty of times when his career has been out in the cold. Only sheer persistence has got him this far. European grand prix drivers are ten a penny and have been for decades. South Americans, too, since the Seventies. But an Indian?

The Malaysian Alex Yoong raced for Minardi in 2002. "But his mother was English," Karthikeyan quickly interjects. Neel Jani has tested for Sauber and Red Bull and is on the verge of Formula One, but though his father is Indian his mother is Swiss. So Karthikeyan occupies a unique position as far as the Indian subcontinent is concerned.

The shrug of acknowledgement he gives carries all the nonchalance of one who knows the initial struggle is over to reach the Formula One base camp. "When you are the first one to do anything it is going to be hardest. In 1994 I went to see sponsors and nobody even knew what Formula One was. They knew a little bit about Senna, maybe, because he got killed. But Formula One was never heard of in India back then. We never got any live television feeds from the races."

Despite Formula One's global expansion since Senna's death, India has been slow to awaken. Karthikeyan had to turn his countrymen's perceptions around in what has been a relatively long climb. He got interested in the first place because his businessman father, G R, drove rallies in India and was national champion. But he only got hooked on racing after a friend came home from a trip to Germany clutching a video tape of the 1989 Formula One season. "That review changed things for me. Senna versus Prost. I wanted F1."

It was an unusual ambition for an impressionable young Indian, and he laughs at the memories. Whenever he relayed his ambition to anyone, their reaction was inevitable: "Why don't you go and play cricket instead?" It was, after all, the national sport.

His family background has helped his progress. "In Indian terms I'm OK, but in European terms maybe I am middle class. In India if you are of European middle class wealth, then you can have a good standard of living. My father helped me start racing once I had finished my schooling, in Formula Suzuka single seaters. Only 40 bhp. It felt quick initially because I wasn't used to anything else."

Without a true national racing structure in India, he was forced abroad. At the famed Elf Winfield Racing School in France in 1992 he learned enough to know that he was quick.

"I had kept saying I want to be a professional driver in F1, and I think my father thought, 'OK, maybe he goes to Europe and sees the level and class there and he comes back and finishes off at college instead.' But thankfully I was fast enough and I got a Winfield scholarship."

Brazil got behind Emerson Fittipaldi in 1969 when he exploded on to the British racing scene, and his success led to a flood of South Americans which included his elder brother, Wilson, their friend Carlos Pace, Carlos Reutemann, Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno, Ayrton Senna, Mauricio Gugelmin, Christian Fittipaldi (Emerson's nephew), Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya and Felipe Massa. But though Karthikeyan won a winter Formula Ford championship in Britain in 1994 there was no sudden tide of financial backing. "Sponsors were very hard to come by until in 1996 I got lucky with Philip Morris with a fully funded drive in Formula Asia. The economy was good and a lot of Europeans were driving there. They got paid a lot, so to beat them and win the title was good. My confidence grew."

Eventually he worked his way into the British Formula Three Championship, from which drivers such as Fittipaldi, Piquet and Senna had sprung. He did a couple of races in 1998 with Trevor Carlin, now Jordan's sporting director, and in 1999 they started winning together. Teamed in 2000 with highly rated champion Takuma Sato, for the prestigious Formula Three races in Macau and Korea, he took two pole positions against top class opposition. "I was leading Macau by a country mile when I crashed on my own," he admits, but he made amends by winning in Korea.

"I know Narain very well because he drove for me in 1998 in Formula Three and I have run him in various formulae every year since then," Carlin says of the man whose signing rather surprised the Formula One world. "We've won a lot of races together. He's very competitive, a super-quick driver, sometimes a little bit raw and wild in his style, but he is a proven race winner and I am confident that in our environment he will thrive."

Yet for a while it had seemed that Karthikeyan would disappear. He had to go to Japan to drive in 2001 and then risked being left on the sidelines in the Nissan World Series single-seaters for the past two seasons. Test drives with Jordan, Jaguar and Minardi all failed to lead to opportunities for 2003, but two World Series victories in 2004 and two valuable sponsorship deals turned his career around. His story is a parable of modern day Formula One. Talent alone is not enough. The break finally came in 2002 when he hooked up with the TaTa Group, India's second largest company, which had big expansion plans. "They do all sorts of things: The tea you drink, Tetley, they own worldwide. Cars, buses, steel, lots of software... They came on board after I approached the chairman and he said, 'Yeah, let's do it', as they were going global."

It was a major boost after frustrating years pushing water uphill trying to sell Indian companies on something they simply did not understand. Today he is also supported by the state-run Bahrat Petroleum company, appropriately enough via their brand called Speed. "Believe it or not, only now in India have they come up with a 95 octane fuel, and they'll be promoting that through Formula One."

Now the new battle lies ahead, as Karthikeyan begins his push to the summit when he races in Melbourne next weekend. Having made it to Formula One, he now has to stay there. It seems that he probably will, not least because of the politics of the sport. He has been a recognised sports figure back home for several years, since making his first television advertisement back in 1999. Now he has corporate India queueing on his doorstep. "It's huge!" he says, of the burgeoning interest in him. "I mean, I knew it was going to be big, but this is extremely big now..." He trails off in a disbelieving laugh.

Another big supporter lives a lot closer, in London's Princes Gate. Bernie Ecclestone must be ecstatic to have an Indian driver in his circus and already be counting mental rupees by the million. There have been rumours of an Indian Grand Prix for several years, but each time something appears imminent India's ever-present politics stymie it. Now Karthikeyan's arrival will be the catalyst for his nation to make a further breakthrough, following the path trodden by Malaysia, Bahrain, China and Turkey. "We have had a live feed of Formula One since 1998 and the people who watch are very well educated," he says. "They don't expect me to go and beat Schumacher. Despite all the hype, they are realistic. But now you watch. There will be an Indian Grand Prix, and sooner than four years. I don't know where, but there is a lot of interest now. It will happen." And it will mean more big business for Ecclestone and Formula One, more global expansion and more opportunity, perhaps, to lure the teams that are considering a breakaway championship back into line as new commercial horizons open up.

All of this means pressure. "The biggest pressure is that I have made it, so now I need to stick around," Karthikeyan acknowledges. "For that I need to drive well. I have always had pressure being the only guy from India. This is a little bit bigger because of all the hype and so on, but if I have the same head as I used to have in Formula Three and the World Series, then I should get away with it."

The chances seem reasonable. He already has sound relationships with Colin Kolles and Trevor Carlin at Jordan, who approached him about the drive. "They know I'm quick enough, and there was my advantage, commercially," he says candidly. And with two drivers he has raced directly against driving for BAR-Honda - Jenson Button and Sato - he knows the level at which he could fit in with the right car.

Though he admits at times that he can go "over the top" when racing, outside the car he lives quietly. He and his wife, Pavarna, who studied in England, met in 2001 and married late last year. They are looking for a house in Buckingham, to be close to the Jordan factory. "England for me is like a second home, much easier than any other part of Europe. I am not outgoing. That is a little bit of a disadvantage in India, especially with all the politics."

Given the problems in football it might be reasonable to have expected Karthikeyan to encounter a degree of racism in motor sport, but he says not. "Not really. Maybe some people thought it was odd for an Indian to be here because maybe I didn't have the speed, but once I started winning I had a lot of respect." If anything, there is caution in his dealings with fellow countrymen, though the great cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, a big fan of motor racing, is a close friend.

Doubtless this a legacy of all the politics. "For sure in India Formula One is going to be big! But there is so much politicking and on the one side people have been saying that I am too old." If he is over the hill at 28, then there are plenty of other drivers who should be booking their bathchairs down in Brighton. Karthikeyan laughs. "Yes, Schumacher at 35 is a prime example!"

India's first grand prix driver! "I'm proud of it," Karthikeyan grins, admitting he gets a buzz from knowing he is the catalyst for his country's future involvement in a major global sport. But you could see how the label might begin to pall after a while. All he really cares about right now is performing to the best of his circumstances.

"Eventually I just want to be known for my speed and success. It has all been going well in the tests and everything. We have realistic goals. Things have happened relatively late and our car is an update, so we are not going to set the world alight. If we can score points, we will have done a good job."

And nobody will give a damn what he does with his cap.