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Indian GP's mass appeal has uplifted motorsport: Narain Karthikeyan

It’s nearly two years since India’s first Formula One driver Narain Karthikeyan participated in the inaugural Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. But ask him about that day, and he recalls every moment as though it happened yesterday.

Narain Karthikeyan
Spectators watch the inaugural Indian GP at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida in 2011. Inset: Hispania Racing’s Narain Karthikeyan during practice last year. Pics/AFP

In an interview with MiD DAY, the nation’s original speed-demon talks about the Indian GP’s absence in 2014, Sebastian Vettel’s dominance leaving fans bored and the after-effects of F1 on a country obsessed with cricket. Excerpts:

You were part of the first Indian GP in 2011. Can you recall the experience of revving it up in front of your home fans?
It was perhaps the most memorable weekend of my life. I couldn’t believe it was happening right until the point, where I was strapped into my car and drove out of the pit garage for the first free practice, with thousands of home fans in the grandstands. The build-up had been immense. I was nervous, not having driven a full race distance since July that year and there was immense pressure going up against a highly rated driver like Daniel Ricciardo, who will be driving for Red Bull next year. In qualifying we were close, down to the thousandths of a second, but I got a grid penalty for the race. Then, there was a contact on the first lap and I lost a chunk of the front wing, but still managed a good race finishing ahead of Ricciardo (by 31.8 seconds) and 17th overall. It was a magical weekend!

There’s no Indian GP next year and in 2015 it is in March, a time when it’s too hot in Delhi. Do you think F1 drivers will be able to cope with the harsh weather?
F1 drivers are among the fittest sportsmen on the planet. So, I don’t think heat will be a major concern for them. Malaysia, Singapore etc are all hot and humid. Yes, the heat in Delhi is more parching as it is devoid of humidity, but the concern would be higher for the spectators in the stands, rather than the drivers on the track. Besides, it’s better to grin and bear it in March, rather than not have a race at all!

Given Sebastian Vettel has led every single lap of both Indian GPs, do you believe a hat-trick here is inevitable?
It’s very difficult to bet against Vettel right now, given he has won the last four races on the trot and Red Bull’s dominant form. The only drivers who can spoil Vettel’s party are Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, apart from Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber. My money’s on Vettel.

There’s a growing feeling that Vettel’s dominance, similar to Michael Schumacher’s reign a few years ago, is making F1 boring. Do you see things being different next year given the slew of changes lined up?
A regulation shake-up as extensive as next year can definitely reshuffle the cards but eventually the best teams/drivers will emerge on top. The engine is arguably the single-most important contributing factor to decide next year’s pecking order and Renault has done some great work with Red Bull as well as Lotus previously, so they are up to the task of delivering in the ‘new’ turbo era as well. Ferrari and Mercedes may have some advantage in terms of engine/chassis integration, but there’s no reason to think that Renault’s top customer teams will lag behind.

Sahara Force India have set up an academy to groom young drivers but we’ve not seen any promising names emerge to grab a potential F1 seat in the near future. Is it so difficult for a young Indian driver to make it to F1?
F1 drivers aren’t made overnight or even over a year. It takes several years of competing in the right championships and showing your speed at every level before making it to F1. In my days, the ladder was far more simpler than it is today. I never touched a kart, whereas kids today start driving when they’re eight and do karting for six to eight years before switching to a single-seater.

You have moved on from F1, but do you still harbour even the slightest intention of a comeback?
It’s difficult, given the dynamics of F1, where huge funding is needed to get a seat — even if you have speed. Given the turbulent financial climate, F1 won’t be feasible any time soon, but I’d never say never as far as F1 is concerned!

Finally, do you think the Indian GP and its after-effects have helped popularise motorsport in a country crazy about cricket?
Since the first GP in 2011, motorsport is truly in the limelight in India. F1 is a huge draw, it has the maximum visibility to attract the masses. But again, things don’t change overnight — China has been hosting a F1 race since 2005 and they still don’t have a F1 driver. So, we are better off with two F1 drivers (Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok) already. We can’t hope to match cricket any time soon, but we’re still way better than we were a decade ago! 

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