ON asphalt, encased in exteriors of titanium, ceramic, carbon fibre and kevlar, with eyes peering through helmet slits even as cylinders screech and roar and rubber spins against concrete at 275 kmph, Narain Karthikeyan, 23, is the fastest Indian on wheels. And if he tunes and revs his testosterone levels just right this season, he could be within striking distance of being India's first ever Formula 1 driver. In layman terms, it means he could be in the elite group of 25-odd drivers that include Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill and Jacques Villenue. Drivers who could, if it so caught their fancy, hire a Learjet for the weekend to fly over Capri and pop some honey-roasted peanuts into their mouths-just to cool off.
Right now, however, Narain's options for cooling off are dictated by the amount of money he'll be needing to survive the 19 races of his F-3 circuit-the stepping stone to F-1 stardom. Says Karthikeyan: "I need £325,000 to be competitive for the entire year"-that's over Rs 2 crore. Till now, India's ace driver has managed to raise £220,000 through sponsorship. And this is where most of the money goes: £65,000 for loaning an engine for the season. It's useless to buy one outright as engines get updated every month and you could run through four in a single season. Another £50,000 for the body and chassis, roughly £30,000 for tyres alone (you use up 70 sets of tyres, each costing £450). Fuel costs £30,000 (more than aviation fuel), and of course, insurance and wages for the Carlin team that Narain races for. Says Antony Hyatt, team engineer: "You have a support staff of around eight people per competing car-engineers, motor mechanics, data logging guys, the works."
While Narain's facing a shortfall of around £100,000, he thinks the Kingfisher, JK Tyres, Opel and Mobil consortium currently backing him would go the whole hog depending on his performance in the early races. Says Mahesh Raju, who handles Narain at Opel: "Going by his performance last year he's one of the two hot contenders this year in F-3. The main threats have moved out, either to Indycar racing or to F-1. Narain's experience last year should see him through. At a crunch, money shouldn't be a problem ."
Last year, Karthikeyan had three podium finishes in the last three races of the British F-3. Though he raced in just 10 out of the 16 events on the calendar, he was among the points in nearly all. Says Hyatt: "That's no mean achievement. Right now he has better car control than Hakkinen had at his age and a better first-year record in F-3. Most drivers would crash from the situations he sometimes gets into. He's astonishingly quick on cold tyres and he's very good at giving the right feedback on the car to the engineers. If you finish in the top six in the British F-3, you have a very special talent."
A talent that saw him attend the Elf Winfield school of racing in Marseilles, France, in '92 when he was just 16. Says Narain: "The school takes six groups a year. In my group only two drivers out of 40 made it to the second course. They teach you a lot of theory in classrooms, about racing lines and the like, before the practicals." Winfield has been the breeding ground of F-1 champions like Alain Prost and Hill and other grand prix drivers like Jean Alesi.
Narain isn't an absolute wildcard in this pack. His father was a rallyist in the '70s. Though there was some initial family opposition to his plans of making a career out of racing, according to Narain, "they left me alone when I started doing well".His own attraction to the sport grew out of his passion for "speed", the risk involved and how as a whole package it "stood out more than anything else". Part of the package last year was two crashes on the F-3 circuit. Once, when somebody rammed into him from the rear, and the second, which was worse-a puncture-induced 100 mph crash at Olden Park in England.
The F-3 circuit is one of the most arduous in the world. Says Hyatt: "It's massively difficult. Over 70 per cent of F-1 drivers have been through F-3. All the top drivers in the world come there. The competition is frightening, as everyone wants to make it to the big bucks of F-1." Narain himself had just one pole position last year. And in the season's last race in Silverstone he even had an opportunity to win. Says he: "If you finish on the podium in the last race everybody remembers it. But a Danish driver was blocking me left, right and centre. It was so funny. When I went up to him after the race he said there was lots of pressure on him to come first or his sponsors wouldn't have backed him this year. But the risks he took to stop me were phenomenal."
It's not as if Narain himself is devoid of this ruthless streak. In '93 when he was racing for the JK Tyres team in Madras, teammates were under strict orders not to block each other. But Narain took one out in the first lap itself. "We had a big crash together. I had a problem with my car and I didn't want him to go past me or I would have become the No. 2 driver in the team. I had nothing to lose. The other driver hasn't talked to me since then."
In the '96 Formula Asia championship, which he won-the first Asian ever to do so-he put his teammate on the grass after he overtook him. His English teammate was so angry that he threatened to dispatch Narain to the hospital, but Narain gave him the finger and walked away. Says Narain, "I don't have many friends on the circuit. If you socialise too much with fellow drivers then you can't play all the dirty tricks-like blocking them." He's also very particular about not having any girlfriends. "I have seen the effect it has on some drivers. Guys in the front grid are suddenly at the back for no apparent reason. The sport is so intense that even a little distraction is amplified."
Interestingly, when reigning world champion Hakkinen won the F-3 world cup in 1990, two-time champion Schumacher was second. Hakkinen switched to F-1 immediately. Last year, F-1 took in four new drivers, two of whom moved up from the F-3 circuit. Says Hyatt: "Hill first drove in F-1 when he was 29. Nigel Mansel won it at the age of 38. Narain is 23, if he gets there when he's 26, he's going great. A little too early and it could be a disadvantage." Adds Raju: "The big bosses are already noticing Narain. Ron Dennis, the Mclaren Mercedes boss, told Narain that he could be on if he does well this year." Narain himself rates his chances as good. Says he: "India is a big market, it can only grow in the long run. Ford, Mercedes, Honda, Fiat, everybody is here. If I'm good enough they will take me. Some of the big guns have said they'll be watching me, and decide at the start of next year's season." Adds Hyatt: "F-1 is in a potential minefield situation right now. With the tobacco sponsorship problem in Europe and Australia the sport is looking at expanding into new turf. It could be coming to Asia in a big way. Right now Narain is the only potential talent." Others who have encouraged Narain include Jan Magnussen, who drove for Stewart Ford last year, and Jonathan Williams, son of Frank Williams, the legendary Williams boss. Says Narain: "Jan always says hello. Jonathan Williams watched me racing last year.He said things were going well for me and added a promising 'you never know'."
Narain also stands out on the circuit by virtue of being Indian; last year there were only two other Asians. One of his main strengths is "remaining cool" and "pushing like hell" before the other drivers get tuned into the racing atmosphere. Says Hyatt: "He has a way of sneaking up when the tyres are still cold." This sneaking up business is what the Indian corporates should keep in mind. For if the 23-year-old sneaks up onto the F-1 grid next year when they are still in the 'Narain who?' mould, they might find that their budgets for the flamboyant driver might have to include his fetish for cooling off over Capri. Or wherever.