India rises to prominence

THE rise of Indian racer Narain Karthikeyan is good news for motor racing around the world. Up to now Asian racing drivers have only been Japanese. Other wealthy drivers have popped up from Malaysia and Indonesia but they have won nothing and disappeared again quickly.

But Karthikeyan has shown that he can be competitive in the toughest environment for young racers: the British Formula 3 Championship and last weekend he showed that he can mix it with the best of the young generation with victory in the Korean Super Prix in Changwon city.

In Korea he beat not only the highly-rated Tiago Monteiro, Jonathan Cochet, Takuma Sato and Ryu Fukuda but also Jaguar's new test driver Tomas Scheckter.

"This will do a lot for my recognition and for the popularity of motorsports in India," he said after the victory

Indeed it will and when Karthikiyan tests for the Jaguar Formula 1 team in a couple of weeks, his rise towards Grand Prix racing will have taken another important step.

At 23 years of age Karthikeyan comes from Coimbatore in the Tamil Nadu state of southern India. His father - who is in the textile business - was the national rally champion of India in the 1970s and so he was interested in the sport from very early on. When he was 16 he was sent to France to attend the Elf Winfield Racing School and was one of the semi-finalists in the Pilote Elf Competition. He may not have won the contest but the fact that he was even there suggested that the people advising him understood how best to develop a talented youngster. In 1993 he raced in the little-known Formula Maruti in India and then went to Britain to race in Formula Vauxhall Junior. The following year he switched to Formula Ford Zetec and won the British Formula Ford Winter Series, thus becoming the first Indian to win any championship in Europe. In 1999 he won a round of the British Formula 3 series at Brands Hatch and this year was one of the frontrunners but failed to win a race, although he finished fourth in the championship. Formula 3 is not perhaps the best way to judge if a driver has what it takes to be in Formula 1 because of the importance of having the right engine but it is nonetheless an indication that a driver is of a certain level.

Now he has proved that he can win races, Karthikeyan has an advantage because most of the sponsors in Formula 1 are keen to sell their products to the one billion people in India. It is a vast unexploited market - second only to China in terms of numbers - and has nearly four times as many people as the United States. Many millions are very poor but there is a large middle class in India - and it is growing all the time.

Raising the money to compete in lower levels of racing in Britain was not always easy for Karthikeyan but as he climbs the motor racing ladder it is going to get easier. Already he has the support of Ford India and Kingfisher Beer - which was once a sponsor of the Benetton F1 team and in the background there is backing from Tata, India's biggest corporation.

Kingfisher is owned by Veejay Malik, who is an avid racing fan and involved in the running of Indian motorsport although there has been a lot of trouble over the running of the sport in India, with two competing bodies wanting to become the national sporting authority.

Karthikeyan's path to Formula 1 could be eased greatly by increased backing from any of these companies but Tata would be perfect. It is a vast business which comprises 90 companies in businesses ranging from iron and steel to software. The company assembles cars for foreign car companies and owns hotels all over the world.

"I want to be the first Indian Formula 1 driver", Kathikeyan says. "Rallying is very big in India but circuit racing is becoming very popular. The country is changing fast and opening up new opportunities. At some time I know that there will be talented drivers coming out of India and I want to be the first to make it".

Karthikeyan's progress is being watched keenly in India where there are still plans being discussed for the construction of a Grand Prix circuit at Bantola, in the state of West Bengal. The local government has already set aside a 500-acre site near Calcutta but is still looking to build up the necessary infrastructure to attract an F1 race.

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