He belongs to a rare breed of winners for whom the journey is far more important than the destination. As the first Indian F1 racer and the fastest Indian racer in the world, Narain Karthikeyan has single-handedly given India a few distinctions in a sport where the country was all about non-existent. Despite his privileged upbringing, which afforded him the luxury to pursue what is strictly a rich man’s passion, it was an uphill task for Narain to make his mark in racing. He started at a time when the equipment was poor, infrastructure was terrible and encouragement extremely hard to come by. His significant achievements have earned him a place in the country’s racing history as the first hero of Indian racing to have made a splash across the world.
He has the distinction of having put India on the Formula One Racing map. Narain Karthikeyan was India’s first F1 racing driver, making his Formula One debut in 2005 with the Jordan team. Today, at 36, he is still raring to go, having spent 2013 competing in the Auto GP World Series; the season went very well for him with five victories in his debut season. Narain Karthikeyan is an inspiration to youngsters who want to take up this electrifying and challenging sport. “It is an amazing feeling as you’d expect, considering the amount of work it took to reach the pinnacle of motorsport,” he says about being India’s first F1 racer. But apart from the thrills and the buzz, it was no easy task. “For the first guy, it is always hard work as there is no guidance, no set route map that one could follow. So it was a seriously uphill task – there was absolutely no Indian connection at any level during the time. Essentially I had to go through the ranks that European drivers go through – like the British Formula Ford and F3 championship.”
And this came with inherent disadvantages. “Having competed only in India prior to that, with poor equipment and infrastructure levels, was a huge handicap. Most drivers on the grid had at least some experience in Europe where things were run head and shoulders above what we had been used to. No one handed out any favours, and being a non-white driver racing in UK and Europe during my early days was more difficult than you’d think in modern times. So taking everything into account, it is feels great, but it has definitely not been an easy journey!”
Nevertheless, he has been out of the Formula One circuit and at present he says, “I am looking forward to compete in the US-based Indycar championship next year, as it is second only to Formula One in terms of profile and drivers.” He has had a rough two years, but is raring to go. “I’ve definitely been driving better than ever. The previous two years in Formula One were a little difficult morale-wise, as it didn’t matter how well I drove since F1 depends eighty percent on the car. Being able to beat your teammate, who is driving the same car, was the only solace. But the 2013 Auto GP season was definitely a huge boost for me, as I was able to show my capability with all drivers driving similar cars. In all, I have no doubts in myself and I can definitely push further when the time comes.” All the same, he asserts that F1 is the most challenging motorsport he has raced in!
Narain’s tryst with motorsport started early as he was born into a motorsport family with his father being a former national rallying champion. He is also related to the late S. Karivardhan, who was India’s most famous racing driver till Narain Karthikeyan, his nephew, made his debut in racing. For Narain, his interest in racing was piqued at a young age. He recalls, “I remember myself wanting to get my hands on everything I could, including farming equipment like tractors! I also used to drive a Maruti 800 we had, sideways mostly – so yes, it was all a bit crazy to start with. My father did gift me a sort of makeshift kart, if you can call it that, which kept me occupied for a bit until I started driving the Formula Maruti single-seater at the Madras Circuit, and then everything took off from there!” His first race way back in 1992, which was in the Formula Maruti class at Sriperumbudur in Chennai, remains etched in his memory. “To my amazement I managed to get on the podium. That is definitely one of the early memories that stand out,” he reminisces.
Another memory he cherishes involves the legendary Michael Schumacher. “During my F1 debut at the 2005 Australian Grand Prix, it was quite something to be on the same grid as the legendary Michael Schumacher and understandably I was a little unnerved,” he recounts. “My recollection of the encounter is still crystal clear – as a journalist had asked Michael Schumacher, ‘What do you think about this rookie in the Jordan?’ and he replied, ‘He’s doing a good job for them.’ Coming from someone like Michael, it was a massive inspiration to do even better!”
In fact, being on the F1 grid for his first ever F1 race is, to him, his greatest motorsport moment. “It was a moment I could hardly believe. I had qualified 12th on the grid, ahead of Michael Schumacher who was only 18th! The weather did play a part in that but it still made my first-ever Grand Prix even more special.” He adds, “My first win in A1 GP for Team India at Zhuhai Circuit in China was also an incredibly proud moment – winning while representing my country was extremely overwhelming!” Talking about the lows in his career, he says, “Crashing out of the Macau GP 2000 is probably the only thing I regret in my racing career – I had started on pole and was leading the race by several seconds. I was the fastest driver all weekend, and but for that crash, I would have made it to the F1 grid much before I finally did in 2005.”
With the state-of-the-art Buddh International Circuit, India hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix in 2011, and two more subsequent to that. Narain outlines, “The three grand prix have been a huge success – the inaugural one understandably more than the next two. India isn’t on the calendar next year but is expected to return in 2015. All drivers, teams and international media love being here and the Buddh International Circuit is a world-class facility. So we do have all the ingredients to make it work.” However, he observes, “Drivers-wise, we still have a long way to go. Obviously despite the F1 circuit and everything, our infrastructure still lags behind what is available in Europe and elsewhere. We need to strengthen our national motorsport ladder to produce good drivers. With the likes of MRF Tyres bringing in proper race cars into the national championship, we should get there.”
Infrastructure – something India is lagging far behind in. In Narain’s case, he moved abroad very early in his career; he says, “There was no way that I could have expected to reach F1 while competing in the national championships as the level was quite low.” He adds, “But it isn’t right to expect all 14-year olds to start competing abroad from the get-go, which is why you need a solid national motorsport base. Things have improved manifold since my times, we have a good karting championship in place for a few years now, but more needs to be done.”
Who among the present lot does he feel is the most talented? Narain replies, “I think Jehan Daruvala has a lot of potential – he is young and has already impressed with his speed in the British karting championship. Hopefully he’ll be able to maintain the same momentum while transitioning into single-seaters.”
Indian companies like UB have been backing the sport. But has that changed things for the better, we wonder. “Yes I think it is better than it was but again, we need more Indians to be involved in the sport – not only drivers but also engineers, mechanics, staff and so on,” he replies, stressing again on the need for better infrastructure. “There should be an avenue for aspiring Indian F1 engineers to get their foot in the door; otherwise the sport will always remain unapproachable. Agreed that guys in UK and the rest of Europe are ahead of us in terms of knowhow and experience, but everybody’s got to start somewhere. If more corporates take up initiatives and allow scope for more Indians to be involved, it will go a long way in ensuring that motorsport takes strong roots in India.”
He continues, “Jaypee Group has worked extremely hard in bringing F1 to India and running the show flawlessly, but government support is needed to make an event of such a stature successful in the long run. All other GPs, barring a couple, are supported by local governments in one way or the other – whether it is tax breaks, custom relaxations or hosting fee contribution.” As a result, he feels the corporate backing is not the only solution; the government needs to be more proactive: “The government should understand that F1 shows India in a positive light on a global stage, apart from the regular benefits to the tourism industry. Classifying F1 as a sport instead of entertainment would be a good place to start.”
India can most certainly have a good F1 future according to him. “India is a great destination for F1. F1 knows that, Bernie Ecclestone knows that, given the number of companies that are involved at several different levels in the sport. All we need to do this is make things a little simpler and easier for them to be here, and Indian GP will be a permanent fixture on the calendar in the time to come.”
Racing cars for a living is an adrenaline rush and for lay people, this is the ultimate glam sport – hunky drivers zooming round the tracks at breakneck speeds, hot-looking WAGs (wives and girlfriends), travelling to exotic destinations, the thrills and the frills…make it seem like something out of an action film – a heady mix of masala, adventure and an exhilarating buzz. Narain dispels some of these myths saying, “It may seem quite glamorous but behind the scenes that isn’t the case. There is so much travelling, training and racing that it leaves very little time for socializing at parties and so on. And even if there is a chance to do it, I avoid it if I can since I would rather relax and spend time with my family.”
Family life can take a toll with the constant travelling that is required of this profession. Nevertheless, Narain feels he is blessed to have a great support system. He says, “My wife has been incredibly supportive over all these years – there’s no end to how many important family functions, festivals and occasions I’ve missed as I would be away racing in some part of the world. But my wife and my entire family have been extremely supportive of my passion and have always been there for me. I try to compensate by spending as much time with my family during the off-season and travel only if I absolutely have to. My wife also accompanies me to a couple of races when she can.”
Being a motorsport driver is no cakewalk, glamour and glitz notwithstanding! “As an athlete, you have to be extremely disciplined so you can’t just party away and stay up late, especially on race weekends,” says Narain.
Yes, discipline is the key; it’s tough work requiring amazing fitness levels. “For a racing driver, fitness is the lifeblood. It may not make up for a massive deficit in talent itself, but without fitness you can’t expect to achieve much no matter how talented you are,” he cautions. On an average, his workouts last around two hours, with greater emphasis on cardio training along with core and weight training targeting specific muscle groups which bear the brunt while he is behind the wheels, racing. He says, “Even when I’m travelling, I try to squeeze in at least an hour at the gym wherever I am.”
Driving a racing car at such speeds requires immense concentration and focus as well as split-second judgment. How does one train for that? Narain enlightens us: “There are specific exercises to keep yourself sharp and there is equipment to measure your reaction times and so on – like the batak board, which is a simple yet an extremely accurate reflection of your reactions. Along with this, some yoga and mental relaxation techniques help as well.”
Racing is a high-risk sport and we’ve all gasped as we’ve watched cars veer off the track, tumble and skid and even overturn. How does one cope with the underlying dangers of the sport? “Well, then it would be no fun would it!” he exclaims, adding on a more serious note, “Every racing driver is aware of the underlying dangers. No matter how good you are, when there are 20 or more cars out on the circuit with all drivers pushing to the limit, accidents are bound to happen. Then there are car failures, driving errors and so on – it is ingrained in motorsport so we all know the deal from day one. I have been involved in a couple of accidents in my career, but thankfully was able to walk away from all of them. The main reason is the amount of safety built into the racing cars these days and then, there’s your own luck as well.”
Racing has been his life and continues to be so for Narain Karthikeyan. It has defined him as a person too – toughened him up and instilled values in him. “It has taught me the value of hard work, perseverance and will power. Now I know that nothing is impossible if you put in your hundred per cent. Anything else is just an excuse to not put in the effort.”
He muses, “I guess if you have it in you, you have it in you. Almost every boy has posters of cars and bikes in their bedrooms, so that is a starting point. Whether someone can continue to follow through on that passion as they grow up depends entirely on the individual.” So for all you youngsters out there who aspire to step (or rather zoom) into the adrenaline-rush of the motorsport world, the seasoned racer has this advice: “Follow your passion, keep pushing and never give up.”
Your dream garage?
GT-R, 911 GT3, Jaguar XKR-S GT
Your favourite road car?
Your favourite among the cars in your garage?
Top speed you have reached on the racetracks and on the road?
350+ kmph on the track, around 300kmph on the road
Your racing idol?
3 things you have learnt from racing?
Hard work, dedication, perseverance