Is Narain Karthikeyan ready for the new world?

AS Narain Karthikeyan waits patiently for his maiden Formula One drive, a new world circuit has been launched recently which promises to give the Indian racing ace his break into big time.

STAN RAYAN

AS Narain Karthikeyan waits patiently for his maiden Formula One drive, a new world circuit has been launched recently which promises to give the Indian racing ace his break into big time.

If Narain Karthikeyan, the fastest Indian, proves himself in A1, it could make his drive to F1 a lot easier.-

It's the A1 Grand Prix we're talking about, the new series backed by the Dubai royal family. Many believe it's got the ingredients to rival Formula One. Hailed as the World Cup of motorsport, the series will have drivers representing countries and all racing identical cars with the winner of each race taking home $1 million.

While superior machinery along with driving skills count in F1, which has teams as diverse as the Ferrari and the Minardi, it will be solely one's driving dexterity, which will matter, in the new event. However, when it comes to speed, the A1 cars will be much slower than the F1 demons.

Founded by Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum al-Maktoum, nephew of the crown prince of Dubai, the A1 Grand Prix will have its debut race in October 2005 either in Dubai or in New York. The FIA-sanctioned championship will be run during the winter months when the Formula One takes a break, and this, claims the A1 president Sheikh Maktoum, will be the key to its success.

The championship will have around 25 cars, one from each country taking part and racing in more than a dozen exotic locations. A few days ago in London, Sheikh Maktoum unveiled the first six teams — Britain, Pakistan, South Africa, Lebanon, China and Portugal — which will take part in the series.

And many more, including India, are expected to do so before the series' first flag-off a year from now. If a recent race is anything to go by, Sheikh Maktoum has already made the first moves for including Narain Karthikeyan in his series. Narain, the fastest Indian, drove with Sheikh Maktoum at the FIA GT Championship in Dubai on October 8, during a spare weekend in his Nissan World Series schedule.

The World Series is a single-seater sprint affair, while the Dubai race where Narain made his GT debut, was a multi-seater endurance event with two or three drivers taking turns in driving a sports car (the driver changes at pit stops). Sheikh Maktoum, Narain and Antony Beltoise shared a Chrysler Viper GTS in Dubai and the team finished 10th.

Having Narain in his series would make shrewd business sense for Sheikh Maktoum. Though the circuit calendar has not been announced yet, the A1 president has revealed that many Gulf countries, including Qatar and Bahrain, which made its Formula One debut in April this year, would be a part of his championship.

It's money that makes the mare go. In sport, it's the huge television revenue. The CBFS cricket tournament in Sharjah was a big hit whenever India figured in it. And with Narain driving for India against a Pakistani star, the A1 organisers would be hoping for the dollars to flow in. The thousands of Indian workers turning up to cheer Narain at Gulf venues could just be a bonus.

Though many are sceptical that the A1 would succeed financially, its president is confident that his Grand Prix would bring in profits within three years.

The championship runs like this: In each country, backers will sign a three-year franchise contract to run their nation's team. The A1 GP will provide the cars (3.4-litre, V8 engines mounted on a Lola chassis) and the circuits and take charge of organising the show.

In return, the A1 will take an annual fee from the teams and keep the bulk of television revenue. The franchisees will keep revenues from advertising on the cars.

The British and South African franchisees, which were among the six unveiled recently in London, have some big names behind them. Former F1 star John Surtees, the only man to have won the world championship on two and four wheels, is the chairman of the British franchise while South Africa has prominent businessman Tokyo Sexwale as its boss.

With Ford deciding to withdraw its Jaguar team from F1 after this season and with talk of Britain's prestigious Silverstone being dropped from next year's circuit, F1 suffers a lot of problems these days. And interest, especially in Europe, is on the wane.

Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai unveils the A1 Grand Prix car in London's Trafalgar Square. — Pic. REUTERS-

With four Asian countries currently on its map and many more, including India, keen to join the party, the F1's focus is now on Asia.

Sheikh Maktoum promises to offer more. "Instead of them just hosting races, they are actually having the chance to take part," he says.

"Most of the stars currently in F1 were not well known before. I'm looking to create new stars. We are going to have probably the first (black) African driver in motorsport in the A1 Grand Prix. We are going to have the first Indian driver in a blue-chip event. It's an opportunity for these nations to shine," he said recently.

And even an F1 star, Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya, appears keen to drive in A1.

"If there is a possibility, I would be very proud to represent my country," said the Colombian. Competing with F1 stars.

Well, this could be Narain's golden chance. And if the fastest Indian proves himself in the A1 Grand Prix, it could make his drive to F1 a lot easier.