Karthikeyan & Chandhok - different routes to the Rajpath 28 Oct 2011
There is nothing like a Grand Prix to instil fervour in local fans and prompt youngsters to dream of becoming race drivers, and many hope this weekends inaugural New Delhi race will work just that sort of magic in India. What may make the difference is that not only does paddock boast its very own Indian team - courtesy of Force India - but also two Indian Formula One drivers, who have both taken very different routes into the sport.
First up is Indias very first Formula One driver, Narain Karthikeyan, who will race for HRT this weekend. Back in 2001, he was the first of his countrymen to drive an F1 car when he tested for Jaguar. And after further tests for Jordan and Minardi - and spells competing in the World Series by Nissan and the FIA GT championship - he was signed by Jordan to race in 2005.
Before his 19-race Formula One foray in 2005, Karthikeyan had completed single-seater spells in Formula Three, Formula Nippon and Formula Vauxhall to name just a few, with highlights including his fourth place in the 2000 British Formula Three championship and his 1996 Formula Asia title. With a former rally driver as a father, he didnt lack ambition and set his sights high.
The press pack was just behind him all the way, swiftly dubbing him the fastest Indian in the world as he tackled F1 for the first time. Although he did score five points for Jordan in his debut season, all were won at the infamous US race, where only six Bridgestone-shod drivers competed. It was so disappointing that Karthikeyan was swiftly dropped by the team for 2006.
Williams, however, were pleased to secure his services and signed him as their test driver after a successful outing over the winter. He stayed with Williams as a tester for a second year and simultaneously competed in the A1GP series, where he was the lead driver for India for two seasons from 2007, winning two events. In 2009, he raced for the Kolles Audi Team in the Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24-Hour race, becoming the first Indian to compete in the legendary event. He finished seventh.
In 2010 the Chennai-born driver broadened his horizons, racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in the USA, as well as in the Superleague Formula in Europe. To most it seemed like his Formula One ambitions had long since faltered, but then in January 2011 came the surprise announcement that he would be back in F1 for the new season, driving for HRT.
It didnt prove the most successful pairing - in his eight outings before being replaced by Daniel Ricciardo, Karthikeyan recorded best finishes of 17th in Monaco and Canada. Even so, the team opted to retain the 34 year-old and return him to the cockpit - in place of Vitantonio Liuzzi - for a one-off outing at the first Indian Grand Prix.
The other Indian driver in action this weekend is Lotus tester Karun Chandhok. Although his team decided to retain their regular race line-up for the New Delhi event, Chennai-born Chandhok was out on track for Friday mornings opening practice session to wow the local fans.
After early days in karting, the 27 year-old switched to the national Indian championship, Formula Maruti. Seven victories later he was declared champion. He swiftly decided to look overseas for a more demanding challenge. He clinched a second championship in the 2001 Formula 2000 Asia series and was subsequently invited by Carlin Motorsport to test with their British Formula Three team.
Performing well enough to secure a drive in the series for 2002, he finished sixth in the national class before improving dramatically in his second year to go third, scoring seven wins. The following season he remained a regular frontrunner in British Formula Three, and also ran alongside Karthikeyan in the World Series by Nissan at the final two rounds of the year.
In 2005 he switched his focus to the inaugural A1GP series, racing for Team India, and also competed in six Formula Renault 3.5 races. In 2006 he joined the first-ever Asian Formula Renault V6 championship and dominated, winning seven of the 12 races to be declared champion.
Back in Europe in 2007 he competed in the GP2 Series and singled himself out for praise after winning the Belgian race. It was the first time the Indian national anthem had been played during a Formula One meeting, albeit for a support race. He was invited to test for Red Bull but stayed in GP2 for a second season in 2008 to score a second race win at the German round.
Although he endured a win-less 2009, a chance for him to drive in F1 was looking more and more likely and after some issues, Chandhok was confirmed as Bruno Sennas 2010 team mate at HRT just days before the opening Grand Prix. Having completed zero testing, his first race was something of a baptism of fire, but he handled the pressure with aplomb.
He made a further nine appearances for the team in 2010 and twice - in Australia and Monaco -finished as high as 14th, but was replaced by Sakon Yamamoto and then Christian Klien from the German round onwards. His search for a race drive took him to Lotus for the 2011 season as a tester and although he missed the chance to race in India, he has made one Sunday outing for the team at Julys German Grand Prix - where he qualified and finished 20th - as well as several Friday practice appearances.
Its tricky enough for most young drivers to find a foothold in F1, but for two to make it from India, a country which has only just started to enjoy motorsport, is a phenomenal achievement. Rarely at a brand new race does the crowd have one let alone two local heroes to cheer, something which makes Chandhoks and Karthikeyans efforts all the more worthwhile.
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