A year ago, when Karun Chandhok became the second Indian after Narain Karthikeyan to get into Formula One as a racing driver, he would have least imagined the dramatic twist and turns his fortunes (in more ways than one!) after just 10 races. For, today, he is fighting to keep a toe-hold in the F1 circus. Well, you never know in life, do you?
At 25, Karun probably understands most that it is important for him to remain in circulation if he wishes to further his F1 career. He is not getting any younger while a new generation of bright-eyed and aggressive kids are lining up outside the doors of the F1 teams with bigger cash sacks.
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As such, the Chennai lad needs to retain his link with F1 in whatever form or role, and hence his presence in Valencia where the pre-season test programme is currently in progress. For, once you are out of sight, you become history.
Whether Karun cares to publicly admit or not, the fact was that he had an unhappy existence in the Hispania team last year when he made his F1 debut, full of hopes and dreams that were soon shattered. The cash-strapped team struggled to put a car that could last a race, much less win any point. Karun's stint as an F1 racing driver ended, at least for the year, when the cash flow seized.
The very nature of motor racing is such that you got to have the capacity to put money where your mouth is to get a drive. Talent, passion and such factors are secondary at the outset. Barring a handful of top drivers, the rest have to pay to hang on to their race seats. Both Karun and before him, Narain, ran aground when they could not sustain the cash flow or raise bigger sponsorship to get into better teams than Hispania or Jordan (Narain's team in 2005).
As per reports, Karun is obviously eyeing a role, whether as a reserve driver or whatever, in the Lotus team that is funded by Malaysian aviation czar Tony Fernandes. The Asian connection could well tilt the balance in Karun's favour. That India is set to host its first F1 race in October and another home driver on the grid are factors that cannot be glossed over as that would give Lotus a high visibility in an as yet untapped market with huge potential.
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Even if Karun secures a reserve driver position, that would not mean much. With restrictions on in-season testing, the reserve drivers barely get any significant track time that is so vital in keeping oneself in racing trim. Conversely, the reserve driver role will help Karun to remain visible.
In this context, Narain was very fortunate to have the backing of the Tata Group that has supported him for many years. Nobody quite knows for certain the funding amount, but it has put an Indian on the F1 grid and that has served as an excellent build-up towards the inaugural GP in Noida later this year.
Further, Narain, after his departure from F1 as a racing driver (2005) and test driver at Williams (2006 and 07), kept himself competitive by racing in other series such as the A1 Grand Prix, the Le Mans and the NASCAR Truck championship in the US. Although F1 requires a much higher level of fitness, Narain has remained in a racing mode from where he can work to improve to F1 standards.
As coincidence has it, Karun is in the same position that Narain was at the start of the 2006 season. It is a tricky crossroad where you got to be smart to read and follow the correct signboard or else, the racing career runs into an abyss.
Lastly, the other criteria that dictates a career as an F1 race driver is performance. You can only talk so much about talent and potential, but finally, you got to deliver, not just the results, but also cash, unless you are a Schumacher or an Alonso or a Vettel. Until then, it is a grind that few have the capacity to survive.