Driving for Jordan... and India

THE news of Jordan offering a drive to Narain Karthikeyan has given scores of F-1 fans in India a patriotic reason to tune in to the sport.

THE news of Jordan offering a drive to Narain Karthikeyan has given scores of F-1 fans in India a patriotic reason to tune in to the sport. As ESPN would say, race Sundays will never be the same.

It is surprising that it took so long for India to have a driver in Formula One. But it isn't surprising though that Karthikeyan has become the first Indian to enter F-1. Karthikeyan's family has been in motor-sports for a long time. His father, G. R. Karthikeyan, used to be a rally driver of repute and his uncle, the late Karivardhan, was one of the visionaries in Indian motor-sports.

However, Karthikeyan cannot be expected to duke it out with the likes of Michael Schumacher or Juan Pablo Montoya right away. This Jordan team is but a shadow of the one assembled in the 90s.

The team is a far cry from the one that Damon Hill steered to victory at Spa in Belgium. This is not the one that Ralf Schumacher used to tailgate Hill in the Belgium GP to make it a dramatic double.

This is not the Jordan on which Heinz Harald Frentzen mounted his championship assault in 1999 only to fall short in the end. This team now fights with Minardi for the tag of the perennial backrunners.

Team owner Eddie Jordan is a Panglossian, for sure. His gargantuan projects and outrageous schemes combined with his lack of focus on his F-1 efforts have left the team in disarray. Jordan ran the risk of going skint and it was resuscitated recently.

Thanks to the largesse from Russian-born Canadian business tycoon Alex Schnaider, Jordan gets a fresh release. Because of the freefall, Jordan's technical staff was pouched by rival teams. Techno-guru Mike Gascoyne left. So too did technical director Mark Smith. In came long-time Karthikeyan friend Trevor Carlin.

Karthikeyan's European career for the most part has been interwoven with Carlin Motorsports, Trevor Carlin's eponymous outfit. Hence, the need does not arise to get accustomed to a new squad.

Though the buyout of Jordan by Schnaider has not forced a name change at least for the 2005 season, it is still unclear as to who would head the F-1 operations.

Sources say that Jordan himself would play an important role and Schnaider is sure to have a say in the proceedings. Karthikeyan might probably hope that Schnaider's F-1 team mirrors the achievements of Chelsea Football Club, owned by another billionaire with a Russian connection, Roman Abramovich.

After having struggled with the underpowered Ford engines, Jordan will now be supplied by Toyota. And one hopes the arrival of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli to Toyota has fired its R & D to produce better engines.

This will surely be a test of nerves for the man from Coimbatore who is used to well funded and top of the shelf teams in British F-3 and Nissan World Series. Karthikeyan's patience would be put to test in F-1. And he needs to erase the tag of being `blindingly quick but extremely wild.'

On most Sundays the road ahead might not be clear for Karthikeyan. A bunch of exhausts from a gaggle of cars might crowd his vision. It's here that Karthikeyan has to show his ability to vindicate Jordan's offer and also to other team owners and fellow drivers.

The point is, if Karthikeyan can string together a host of stealthy and steady finishes, he could have a long innings in the top-most tier of the sport. If Karthikeyan can curb his instincts and if he restrains himself from being too flamboyant, he is sure to come under the radar of other team owners.

Karthikeyan's entry into F-1 has turned out to be a watershed for the sport in the country. Representation in F-1 is a sure sign that a developing country has `arrived' on the global sport market. It is certainly na�ve to expect Karthikeyan to be a Senna or for India to host a F-1 race in the near future, but people who back Karthikeyan and F-1 in India would not be shooting themselves in the foot if they follow the Brazilian model.

Speaking at the Inter-American Development Bank Conference on Ethical Dimension of Development in Brazil in July 2003, both Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Viviane Senna, Ayrton Senna's sister and President of the Ayrton Senna Institute, had emphasised the role of F-1 in strengthening corporate responsibility towards development in Brazil. Karthikeyan's entry might well open up exciting possibilities in the country in the longer run, both in terms of marketing and development.

By the way, Jordan launched the Formula One career of someone called Michael Schumacher. Anything can happen.