SPORT

Sepang will be a big test for me: Narain

KUALA LUMPUR, MARCH 17 . Sepang is a good 60kms away from the central business district of Kuala Lumpur; but if you sweep along the marvellously engineered three-lane interstate highway that connects the Malaysian capital with the international airport, it takes only three-quarter of an hour to cover the distance.

The drive itself is wonderfully distracting. Look out the window and it's like a hundred races at one go, as swanky air-conditioned cars in adjacent traffic paths surge forward and fall back achingly in slow motion. But that is, of course, the beauty of relative velocity: they are all doing over a hundred mph, easy, as if it were the most natural thing in the world; the most comfortable state of being.

Uncomfortable

Unfortunately it's going to be anything but comfortable when the real thing gets under way this weekend at the Sepang F1 circuit. The first practice session will be held on Friday around noon, and will offer drivers an idea of what to expect on race-day. Conditions are expected to be harsh, and for India's burgeoning breed of racing enthusiasts that spells bad news: inexperienced Formula One drivers like Narain Karthikeyan are most likely to be hit the hardest.

"You're driving this powerful car and there's no air reaching you because you're suited up," says Narain. "I'm told it'll effectively be 41 degrees out there. It will be very tough."

In effect, a bunch of guys strapped to their seats and covered from head to toe like mummies in their shrouds will struggle to pass each other — and, at the same time, try and not pass out.

Narain has been working out regularly since getting here last week. "I began last Tuesday, two days after the Melbourne GP. We started with two-hour workouts in outdoor conditions and I've got that up to four," he says. "This will definitely be one of the harder circuits and it comes early in the season, so it will be a big test for me."

The 28-year-old remains cautious as ever when discussing his immediate objectives. "Again the priority here would be to finish the race and not worry too much about earning points," he emphasises. "Although I have raced in Malaysia before, I have not driven in Sepang; so I will need to learn this track in the two hours I have tomorrow. If the car runs alright, I'll get 40 laps of practice. In this heat there's an increased possibility of tyres wearing out sooner, though we think we've found just the right compound to use, so hopefully they will last.

"It's an interesting circuit. I've jogged the course and it's got several high-speed corners along with a couple of long straights," Narain says. "Overtaking will be difficult along the curves and cars with more powerful engines and better aerodynamic structure will obviously benefit on the straight."

Narain believes Renault presents the ideal combination of smooth and sleek, so to speak. Jordan, in Narain's opinion, is simply too far behind at this stage. Consequently, there would be no shame in finishing a lap behind the winner once more, like it happened in Melbourne — certainly it would count as a decent performance given the crushing limitations Jordan has had to work with.

And yet, it won't seem as rosy as Melbourne. Finishing 15th there in his debut race was creditable, most definitely; and much was made of the fact that among the four rookies in the starting line-up, Narain put up the best show. But somewhat unfairly the novelty has already begun to fade; the assorted paeans of praise will at some point inevitably subside into prosaic mumblings.

But Narain does not believe an improvement in standings necessarily implies improvement in performance. "I might finish 16th or 17th but I might still be satisfied with the way I drove," he says.

Narain refuses to acknowledge any pressure that arises from fans' expectations. "Well, I can't try any daring manoeuvres because of the tyres, you know, can't be too aggressive," Narain shrugs. "Like I've said before, there's nothing to hide, Jordan is not capable at the moment of finishing in the top eight. But we are working on it. Who knows what might happen in the long run?"

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