Narain Karthikeyan earned his place in F1 folklore when he became the first driver from India – and the Indian sub-continent – to test and race a grand prix car. However, while his pace suggested that he could remain a fixture in the top flight, his debut year at Jordan was mixed and the personable Karthikeyan has since failed to secure a prolonged run in F1.
With little top-flight motorsport in his homeland, Karthikeyan ventured to Europe to learn his trade, joining the renowned ELF Winfield School in France in 1992. The education proved a good investment, for he began his race career with a podium on debut in Formula Maruti on his return to India. Sure that he wanted to make a living in motorsport, Karthikeyan returned to Europe, this time to Britain, where he secured a drive in the 1993 Formula Vauxhall Junior championship, and used his time there to learn more about piloting a single-seater and to get used to the circuits that would become his home over the next few years.
In 1994, Karthikeyan moved on to Formula Ford, winning the UK winter series and standing on the podium at a race held in support of the Portuguese F1 Grand Prix at Estoril. Despite getting used to Britain, he opted to return to India and tackle the new Formula Asia category. He only managed four races in 1995, but took one podium – at Shah Alam in Malaysia – to set himself up for the following year, when he swept all before him to win the championship.
With backing behind him, he returned to Britain for the 1997 season, stepping into the Formula Opel series, where he finished sixth overall on the back of a notable race victory. That provided the platform for a move into F3 in 1998, where Karthikeyan made first contact with Carlin Motorsport. He took two podiums – at Spa and Silverstone – in eight races during that initial season, and remained with Carlin into 1999, when more history was made as Karthikeyan became the first Indian to take pole and victory in the UK series, winning twice at Brands Hatch to open Carlin's F3 account. Five podium visits and two pole positions helped him finish sixth overall in a championship that featured Marc Hynes, Jenson Button and Luciano Burti.
He continued to contest the British F3 series in 2000, this time having transferred to the Stewart Racing organisation, but was denied another victory as Carlin drivers Takuma Sato, Anthony Davidson and Stewart team-mate Tomas Scheckter took the lions' share of the spoils. After finishing fourth in the UK, however, Karthikeyan ended the year on a higher note, setting pole and a lap record in Macau and then beating another international field to victory in the Korea Superprix.
His links with the Stewart team also led to the offer of an F1 test. This came the following year, after Stewart had handed the reins of its grand prix operation over to Ford and Jaguar Racing, and Karthikeyan found himself at the wheel of the Jaguar R1, making more history, at Silverstone in June. His performance there led to a testing offers from Jordan later in the year.
Much of the Indian's racing, however, was carried out away from the eyes of F1, after he decided to try his luck in the Japanese-based Formula Nippon championship in Japan. The experiment was not a successful one, with a strong field and a host of new circuits conspiring against Karthikeyan, who finished 14th overall. He returned to Europe the following year, joining RC Motorsport for the inaugural Telefonica World Series by Nissan. On the pace from the start of the season, he claimed one pole position and set a new lap record for Interlagos, as the series ventured to South America at the end of the year.
Karthikeyan remained in the World Series for 2003, but linked up once again with Carlin. The relationship produced five podium finishes, and fourth overall in the points, but a series of incidents prevented the Indian from winning a race. His performances, as well as his nationality, continued to make him a target for F1 teams looking for test drivers, and Karthikeyan turned out for Minardi before the year was over. Another season in the World Series beckoned for 2004 and, having returned to RC Motorsport, Karthikeyan finally broke through into the winner's club. He won races in Valencia and Magny-Cours, but his season was a mixed bag otherwise and he finished sixth in the points.
With a possible Indian Grand Prix on the horizon, Karthikeyan continued to feature on the F1 radar and, finally, one team decided to pursue him for a race drive. The Jordan team was now in the hands of Russian billionaire Alex Shnaider who, along with team principal Colin Kolles, saw potential in both Karthikeyan's driving and sponsorship links. There is little doubt that the Indian had the pace to step up, but his racecraft was sometimes lacking and he was often overshadowed by the consistent speed of team-mate Tiago Monteiro for much of the time. However it was a chance that the Indian felt he had to take, and he lucked into a points finish with fourth place at Indianapolis in the now-infamous six-car race that featured only Bridgestone runners.
Without a race drive for 2006, Karthikeyan secured a test driver role at Williams, partnering the very experienced Alex Wurz as back-up for Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg. He continued to share the role in 2007 with Kazuki Nakajima, but had already stepped back into the racing limelight by taking over the seat of India’s hitherto unsuccessful A1GP challenge.
After finishing tenth on his series debut in New Zealand, Karthikeyan remained in A1GP through the 2008-09 campaign, winning in Zhuhai and again at Brands Hatch, helping lift India to a top ten championship finish, ahead of the more fancied Australian, Brazilian and Italian teams.
The following season was a nightmare, however, and, with A1GP also facing an uncertain future, Karthikeyan began to explore other options, including F1. Even during his stint in A1GP, he had already been linked to the latest incarnation of the Jordan team, which had been acquired by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya in 2007, but wasn't offered as much as test drive. It was the same story at struggling Super Aguri the following year, after an Indian consortium was rumoured to be interested in investing in the operation, but a deal could not be agreed and the Leafield team disappeared just four races into the campaign.
Despite the seemingly fractured raltionship with Kolles following his spell at Jordan, Karthikeyan was welcomed back into the Romanian's fold when he signed to join the family team for the Le Mans Series and Le Mans 24 Hours at the wheel of a privateer Audi R10. Partnered by another former Jordan/Midland/Spyker outcast in Christijan Albers, Karthikeyan finished sixth in his first ever LMS, at Spa, but was denied a chance to contest the Le Mans classic when he dislocated his shoulder attempting to negotiate the pit-wall after answering a pre-race call of nature. Having shown strongly in both practice and qualifying, the Indian had been due to drive the opening part of the race, but was declared hors de combat by the organising ACO.
Determined to explore his options as widely as possible, Karthikeyan found himself back in the United States in 2010, making his NASCAR debut for Wyler Racing in the Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville. A respectable debut saw him finish 13th and on the lead lap, and secured further appearances throughout the year. Karthikeyan also went on to win the series' 'Most Popular Driver Award', becoming the first foreign-born driver to win the fans' acclaim.
Betwen NASCAR commitments, the Indian also made a handful of Superleague Formula appearances, representing the PSV Eindhoven team, and winning at his favourite circuit, Brands Hatch.
Karthikeyan remained India's only F1 race driver until Karun Chandhok joined Hispania Racing in 2010, but both drivers appeared to be on course for seats in 2011, as the inaugural Indian Grand Prix joined the schedule. In the end, Chandhok was only able to secure a test and reserve deal at Team Lotus, while Karthikeyan, ironically, took over his ride at the renamed HRT outfit, despite having not driven an F1 car for five years....
Karthikeyan's determination to rejoin the top flight at any cost left him as a backmarker for the 2011 campaign, the Indian twice setting new records as the lowliest finisher in a grand prix, as improved reliability throughout the field, combined with the HRT's lack of pace, left him 23rd in China and 24th in Valencia.
Unsurprisingly, when Red Bull came looking for a berth for protege Daniel Ricciardo, it was Karthikeyan who was moved to make way for the Australian, returning only to make an emotional appearance on home soil, where he equalled his season's best finish in 17th place.
Stepping down again for the remainder of the season, it was widely believed that F1 had seen the back of Narain Karthikeyan, but the Indian refused to slip quietly away and, with just six weeks remaining before the opening round of the 2012 world championship in Australia, he rejoined HRT to partner another veteran, Pedro de la Rosa, in possibly the oldest combination on the grid.
Perhaps Karthikeyan’s biggest achievement of 2012 was seeing out the entire season as a member of the HRT line-up, having had to hand his car over to Chinese reserve Ma Qing Hua on more than one occasion in Friday practice. The year started poorly when neither of the team’s cars qualified for the Australian Grand Prix, and it was largely down to Karthikeyan’s ability to survive at Monaco that allowed him to finish above team-mate Pedro de la Rosa, the 15th place from the Principality being his best result of the year.
HRT’s demise at the end of the season, however, once again casts doubt on Karthikeyan’s F1 career.
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