Lewis Hamilton's media-friendly suggestion that Narain Karthikeyan would flourish at a mid-grid F1 team might have wider implications than the 2008 world champion considered, with Indian involvement in the top flight facing a worrying void beyond the current generation.
Hamilton told local journalists attending a Vodafone event in the build-up to this weekend's race in Greater Noida that it was unfortunate that Karthikeyan was having to ply his trade in one of the slowest cars in the field, especially as he was bringing money to HRT for the benefit of trailing around at the back of the grid. A racewinner in F3, the Indian has shown that, like compatriot Karun Chandhok, he possesses the ability to compete with some of the drivers ahead of him, and Hamilton suggested that attempts to find a seat further up the field should be pursued.
"It is unfortunate that Narain is driving a slow car," the Briton was quoted by New Indian Express
, "Probably, it would do wonders if he were in Force India, which is a pretty good team. It would be a good stepping stone for him. I am a Brit driving for a British team in a British car and it has done wonders for us, so I hope it would be the same for him and India.
"The following and the understanding is growing here - more and more people [in India] now understand what F1 is. At some destinations - like Singapore, Spain, Canada - the races make the city come alive because of the fans. It is they who make it special."
Although Force India
team principal Vijay Mallya has so far been resistant to employing an Indian driver - despite setting up a scheme to unearth young talent ion his homeland - Hamilton's words may be more prophetic than he realises.
According to Vicky Chandhok, Karun's father and president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, the increasing need for drivers to attract big-money sponsors has made it harder for talented youngsters to break through, especially with F1 battling against the likes of cricket and hockey in India.
"After Narain and Karun, I really can't see an Indian driver for the next, I would say, eight to ten years," Chandhok told CNN
ahead of this weekend's Indian Grand Prix, "F1 has become all about money [where] it never was earlier, [when] you could find a slot with just talent. The teams have now decided that, even if you've got talent, let's have your chequebook as well - bring in five, ten, 20 million dollars and let's give you the seat."
Without an Indian in a competitive seat to generate interest amongst big business, however, Chandhok fears that it will be left to well-funded Europeans to continue dominating the sport.
"India needs heroes, India needs superheroes like [cricketer] Sachin Tendulkar," he said, "Narain and Karun have certainly given the sport, or our sport at least in India, the slot that it desperately needed. F1 has helped, [but] there's been a massive drop in buzz, and I don't know why. After the first year, we had a sell-out crowd in year one of 95,000 people, in year two there has been a dip. I think we will end up with 60,000 spectators in the stands..."
The cheapest ticket at the Buddh International Circuit
this weekend cost a little over $60 but, in a country blighted by poverty, the cost of attending - inflated due to the $40m charge placed on organisers for the right to host the grand prix circus - remains prohibitive to the majority.
"In the first year, you are always going to get a lot of spectators and a lot of interest," MotorSport
magazine's Ed Foster told the report, "It needs to be put in perspective as well as 60,000 spectators is a huge number of spectators. Places like South Korea didn't get half of that number so, [while India] might not have as many spectators as last year, they still have a hell of a lot more than many other race tracks."