Is it end of the F1 road for Narain Karthikeyan?

by Chetan Narula

Hispania Racing F1 Team, also known as HRT, gets a lot of exposure whenever their slow moving cars come in the way of quicker ones and cost them valuable time/championship points. For the last couple of seasons, in 2011 and 2012 to be precise, they have garnered more eyeballs thanks to a different reason: the Indian Grand Prix and Narain Karthikeyan.

India’s first F1 driver raced in the inaugural race here and finished a satisfactory 17th, his highest finish last season. This time around, he managed only 21st. Following on from the Korean GP, this was another tough weekend for him and his team, thanks to brake-wear issues.

Even so, this is a week of getting immense popularity for Narain and his team, with local media and sponsors generating a lot of interest in him. You can say it is a bit deserved, simply because getting to this pinnacle of motorsport is no joke. He did it first in 2005, with the erstwhile team Jordan, and then went away from the sport. To make a comeback, at this age of 35 years without any victory accolades to boot, is quite spirited.

The problem begins when there is unnecessary noise. And there has been a lot of it in the build-up to this race weekend, where everyone has asked Force India to put Karthikeyan in their car. From Bernie Ecclestone to Lewis Hamilton to his HRT team-mate Pedro de la Rosa to even a dog walking down the paddock, all have the same opinion that Force India and Karthikeyan should be married next season. Let one just say this, it is never going to happen!

Karthikeyan is in danger of being dropped from F1 by team HRT. Reuters

For the simple reason that Force India have their own Indian driver program going on, known as One-From-A-Billion. And they are ready to acknowledge that their ‘prodigies’ will take at least ten years to graduate to this level. This acceptance has been made only because they feel the current crop will not deliver what the team needs momentarily. That is, constructor points. A high finish in the constructors’ championship allows their team to win a big pot of money which can be then invested back into the team for development the following season. If they don’t have these points, they won’t have any money and will probably become back-markers like HRT.

Can Narain not give them these points, you might ask? "No", says Robert Fernley, deputy team principal of Force India. ‘We monitored Narain (and Karun Chandhok) sometime earlier and it was observed that despite not lacking in talent, they do not outperform our so-called foreign drivers in simulation. He might do better than he is doing at HRT if he drove for Force India, but unfortunately for him, that is not the situation.’

This chapter is actually a closed one, since in 2011, Karthikeyan made it clear that he didn’t want to drive for Force India. That remark came about after Vijay Mallya declared emphatically that there was no current Indian driver capable of competing in F1. You can see where the ego clashes might have become a major sticking point, but that is how teams are run in any sport. More so, in Formula One!

So, moving on then, is Narain in danger of being dropped from F1 by team HRT? It could happen. HRT have only decided one of their two drivers for next season and that is Pedro. He has a two-year contract with them and has outperformed Narain on most occasions. Forget performance though, for his seat next year could be in danger if someone else comes and offers more cash to the team. Last year, Daniel Ricciardo was given a seat mid-season onwards for Red Bull paid for his drive with HRT. That is how pay-seats in F1 work and it is no secret that Narain is driving herein thanks mainly to his sponsors.

"I have a good relationship with HRT. It’s my second year with them. They have built a good factory and other infrastructure is slowly getting into place. On paper, they look my best bet, so realistically I would like to stay here, "he said in the build-up to the 2012 Indian Grand Prix.

A team like HRT is always in need of cash, more so with engine rules set to change in 2014, driving up costs further. And the changing financial aspect of the global economy means that even teams up the grid are desperate for rich and affluent backers. Sauber and Williams have taken up pay-drivers. Mallya too found a new partner in Sahara last year and selling 42.5 percent stake helped infuse cash into the team. Can Narain garner enough cash for him to compete for a midfield team? Probably not otherwise he wouldn’t have been gone from F1 for six years!

For teams like Sauber and Williams it is also a little about talent and natural pace. After his debut season with Jordan, Karthikeyan did spend a season testing for Williams. It was a time when in-season testing wasn’t banned and teams could judge their line-ups based on on-track information and not just simulation. Even so, he didn’t make the cut and was dropped from the test team shortly afterwards, forced to find greener pastures in other motorsport formulae.

It has happened to him before. It could happen again.

(Chetan Narula is the author India’s first book on Formula One, titled History of Formula One: The Circus comes to India).