Money is the main F1 fuel

PTI

“Hispania Racing Team will unfortunately not be there next season and that’s a shame because it was a nice little operation. But once you run out of money, it all goes downhill very quickly,” Narain Karthikeyan tells G. Raghunath.

Narain Karthikeyan, 36, is India’s most experienced driver in the Formula One circuit. However, barring the fourth-place finish in the United States Grand Prix in 2005 — the year he made his F1 debut — India’s first F1 driver has been confined to fighting at the lower end of the grid in a majority of the 48 Grands Prix that he has competed in. While this doesn’t truly reflect his talent, there is no doubt that Narain’s far-from-convincing runs are a direct result of driving an uncompetitive car. As the 2008 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton, said while interacting with the media during the Indian Grand Prix late last year, “It is unfortunate that Narain is driving a slow car. Probably, it would do wonders if he were in Force India, which is a pretty good team. It would be a good stepping stone for him.”

Narain, who won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Most Popular Driver Award for the 2010 season, is of the view that in F1 the accent is more on the machine than the driver. “Even the best of drivers can’t hope to win or score points in a backmarker car,” he says in an interview to Sportstar.

Question: The Race of Champions (RoC) in Bangkok in December 2012 created a buzz in India since you and Karun Chandhok were teaming up together. Could you throw some light on the RoC, and how it went off for you both in Bangkok?

Answer: It was great to be part of the RoC; it shows how far Asia has come to be able to host events of this stature. The experience was amazing and even though it was our first time, we were able to beat three other Asian countries and win the RoC Asia Cup. We had a good chance of performing well in the Nations Cup too, but some last minute changes to the track put paid to our efforts, as we didn’t get a chance to drive on the modified layout before we actually went out to race. Overall, it was a good effort for our debut and I hope to come back stronger next year.

There has been some talk in the media about the uncertainty over Hispania Racing Team running in 2013. What is the problem?

HRT will unfortunately not be there on the grid for the next season and that’s a shame because it was a nice little operation and everyone was passionate about what they did. I felt really comfortable, and my plan was to continue with them next year and make some progress with whatever resources we had.

The world economic situation has hit every possible sphere, F1 being no exception, and this is an example. Once you run out of money to develop the car and keep the operation running, it all goes downhill very quickly.

The HRT cars weren’t as competitive as you would have wanted them to be in the last few seasons. What was the real problem?

It was simply lack of funds; the management could not supplement the budget that comes as a part of being a small team. Stability was an issue as well, since the team had changed hands and as a result, most of the management was new. There were some good people onboard, but you don’t get far in F1 without money.

What about the Pirellis? How much of a problem were they?

It took me some time to figure out the tyres, as they were very different from anything else I had raced before. Post the summer break, I understood more about getting the best out of them in terms of performance and durability, and had quite a strong second half of 2012 as a result.

F1 racing, the cliché goes, is a perfect balance between man and machine. To what extent is this true, especially in today’s racing?

It is a balance, but in F1 the machine dominates the driver. In all junior series, cars are almost equal and it is up to the driver to make the difference. But in F1, even the best of drivers can’t win or even hope to finish in points in a backmarker car. I have won races in all other single-seater championships I have driven in, because when cars are equal, it is only talent that comes through to help you win.

Whenever the talk of big champions in F1 comes up, people (even experts) say that without the backing of their teams and top-class cars they wouldn’t have achieved much. That is something they hold against Sebastian Vettel, just as they did against Michael Schumacher before. What’s your take?

AP

Of course, even if you are world championship material, you need the backing to get that first big break in F1. Mercedes paid for Schumacher’s debut with Jordan as he was racing sports cars for them (Mercedes), while Vettel has been backed by Red Bull since his junior career and so on. But you have to understand that even though F1 is more about the car than the driver, it is a team sport in which every member, from the team principal, the designers, the drivers, the aerodynamicists to even people who are responsible for things like transportation, IT departments etc., is a link in a chain. If a single link breaks, so does the chain.

The FIA rules notwithstanding, how much of a level playing field is F1 today? The gulf between the top and the lower rung teams seems to be growing bigger?

F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, so we can’t expect it to become a spec-formula like other junior series. That said, I’m sure that rules can be tweaked to bring down spending which will allow the smaller teams to put up a fight which isn’t the case today. We’ll have to wait and see how the new 2014 regulations pan out in that aspect.

What are your views on the return of turbo-charged engines? Will it have a major impact on the drivers, teams and their approach to the races?

It is certainly a step forward — it’ll be greener, technologically more advanced and more relevant considering the trends in the auto industry. Companies aren’t interested in making fuel-guzzling V8s anymore, and F1 ought to send out the same message — that manufacturers are embracing more eco-friendly, smaller engines that would still be almost as powerful as the current ones. Same goes for KERS as its development will directly trickle down to technology used in hybrid road cars. But all these changes come at a huge cost. I’m not sure if it is the right time to be making these rule changes when the world economies have been the least healthy for over a decade.

Coming to India, you and Karun Chandhok definitely had the talent to compete in the F1 circuit. Do you sincerely believe India can produce some more drivers?

I hope we do, but honestly, I don’t know when. It can be at least five years down the line. We have come a long way in terms of infrastructure since the time I started out in India almost two decades ago. We have championships like the MRF Challenge, which is on a par with anything available in Europe and there is a strong karting programme as well. Then of course, we have our own F1 Grand Prix as well, and a world-class venue in the Buddh International Circuit, so hopefully things will come together sooner.

How difficult is it for an Indian to get into F1? What are the pitfalls one has to be wary of?

Getting into F1 is difficult for anyone and we are no exception. You need to have talent of course, but achieving it is impossible if the right support and backing isn’t there. I have had the support of the Tata Group without which it would have been impossible to reach the levels that I have done in the capital-intensive world of motorsport. Like any top-level sport, you have to be able to look out for yourself, have unshakable self-belief and do the best with whatever resources are available at your disposal.

Generally, how has your experience been on the F1 circuit?

I have been lucky enough to enjoy enormous support during my time in F1, during my first stint as India’s first ever F1 driver and upon my return in 2010 as well. The first Indian Grand Prix was a momentous occasion and I consider myself lucky to have been able to compete at the top echelon of the sport on my home ground and in turn enjoy the support that one can only hope for at a home Grand Prix. There have been highs and lows — I learnt a lot both on and off the track — as a driver and as an individual and got a first-hand experience of how the F1 machinery continues to work with clockwork precision, race after race, season after season. It has just been incredible. I have competed in 48 Grands Prix!

You had ventured into truck racing a couple of years ago? How different was the experience in terms of the thrill and adrenaline rush?

The NASCAR trucks may look like trucks but, in fact, they are thoroughbred racecars, very unlike any trucks you may see on the road. It was fantastic and at times scary, especially on the ovals with cars touching close to 300 kmph — something which we don’t get often in F1. I had some good finishes, and also some incidents but I learnt a lot and of course American fans are passionate about the sport and competing in front of them was a fantastic experience.

SHORT TAKES

Question: If you weren’t a F1 driver, what would you have been?

Answer: A fighter pilot. What’s the most you like about F1?

Cutting edge tech, most sophisticated racecars in the world.

What do you not like about F1? Disparity between machinery. The driver you admire the most? Ayrton Senna. Your greatest inspiration? Ayrton Senna, again. If you aren’t racing, how do you spend time?

Working out, hiking outdoors in Coonoor, and recently cycling.

How do you prepare for a race? Warm-up exercises, massage, right nutrition. Your favourite circuit? Brands Hatch, UK. Your favourite holiday destination? Coonoor. Your favourite food? Dosa and shushi. Your favourite music/song? I listen to a wide variety of music.