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Waiting to vroom to F1

If there's anything that's holding back Narain Karthikeyan from that haloed circuit, it is lack of financing

HE ENTERED almost unnoticed. The crowd that had been waiting patiently for him at the go-karting course on the outskirts of the city hadn't even realised that he had just walked through the stands to reach the group of organisers that stood there, waiting for him, completely unaware till one turned around and bumped into him. No airs of a film star, no superciliousness of a cricketing hero, no mad waving, and kissing the air, no swinging shirts. In fact, in a crowd, Narain Karthikeyan nearly always looks uncomfortable.

On Sunday evening, for instance, there was the flamboyant Remo Fernandes, apart from a couple of young things. And there was Narain Karthikeyan, desperately trying to join in wholeheartedly in the gambolling that went on during the photo shoot. He gave it a good shot, even gamely, albeit a bit awkwardly, clutching Remo's guitar. While the false smiles came easily to the others, Narain looked quite reticent. He did smile — a rather charming and dimpled one — and even grin, but somehow, it all didn't ring true. There was just that feeling that he'd rather be over and done with it as quickly as possible.

"Cricket is popular," he admits, quite candidly, in between signing autographs for pre-teens who come up breathlessly to him. That, by the way, he does, very naturally, quite matter-of-factly, with none of the unease that seems to plague him in front of a camera. "So, this is my contribution to making motor sport popular. I do whatever I can and if I succeed in making it popular, I feel proud," he adds. A duty, he knows that he must fulfil as the only Indian who has made it to the top echelons of motor racing.

Which probably explains the burden he seems to carry on his young shoulders. The icon of motor sporting in the country, who can easily make it to that select circle that houses the Schumachers and the Sennas; who has the talent and the speed. And, has the disadvantage of coming from a developing country. If there is one thing that is keeping Narain back from that haloed ring, it is the lack of financing. And that, obviously, can be most frustrating.

With another ace racer Vicky Chandok

On the one hand, you have the youth of the country, his fans, egging him on, wanting to desperately watch him on Sunday evenings on television along with the other heroes of Formula One and on the other, there is the terrible lack of resources which forces him to go round in circles, as it were, in the World Series and not get himself the super license for which he is eligible. "In Indian terms, it is a lot of money," he points out. "I am not sure how many Indian corporates can afford it." He is of course, checking out a few MNCs, as well, but would rather not say more at the moment.

The focus is tremendous. He is going to be in Forumla One and there are no two ways about it. No matter how hard the road, he's going to trudge it. And sometimes, it only seems to get harder.

And trying his hand at tennis with Leander Paes

Like that day in the F3 at Macau. "I had broken the world record held by everyone else who had driven in that race, and was going really strong when on that crucial day I crashed; the greatest win in my career just disappeared," he says. So, what did he do? Narain disappears back into his shell as he says: "One week was bad, but then you start working for the next race and learn from your mistakes."

Narain Karthikeyan at the AXN event in Bangalore with singer Remo Fernandes

There is obviously nothing on his mind other than motor racing. When he's not racing, he is working out and when he is not working out, he is on play stations, of course, racing away. "I don't care about other things," he remarks.

Did I hear someone say, get a life? While the older generation of race drivers in the country took their brush with fame in their stride — even today Vicky Chandok looks ready to party, never mind the portliness — and even derived the maximum out of it, what is it that makes the younger lot so much more sober, that they almost seem boring? "They were not professionals," comes the answer. "They did not race abroad, and they did not have the ambition to go abroad," explains Narain. He of the famous, "Girlfriends are a distraction and I'd rather focus on racing," seems to have stayed the course, though he insists he is not `boring'.

Of light-heartedness, there is only just that much that one can get out of Narain. He does carry the burden rather heavily. For, he quickly returns to how, he's sure he's certainly going to get his break. "It is going to be hard, but it will be done. I will have to continue to drive in the World Series for a while, but one day, I know I'll get my break," he says, with a quiet determination. Certainly, can one so firm and focused ever be denied what he seeks most?


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