Bumpy ride for Karthikeyan and Chandhok
Chennai: For Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, there is more to the Oct 30 Formula One India Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit than meets the eye.
While they are hoping that the weekend would see them back in the "tub", such an eventuality will be reason enough to celebrate if only as an appreciation of their travails to get there.
The fact that Karthikeyan, 35, and Chandhok, 27, lost their race seats even in back-of-the-grid teams is solely because of inadequate sponsorship, something they are all too familiar with.
Both have traversed the difficult road to Formula One that is essentially money-centric with talent a distant second in the order of priorities. Barring a handful of top drivers, it is pay-and-drive for others on the F1 grid.
Karthikeyan was blessed with a silver spoon at birth and could afford to withstand the financial punches he had to take as he single-mindedly pursued his Formula One dream.
The Tata Group bestowed virtually unconditional support as also JK Tyre. The two have been the pillars on which rested Karthikeyan`s Formula One aspiration that he eventually realised in 2005 when he climbed into a Jordan car only to last a season before a comeback this year.
Until the F1 debut Karthikeyan made way through the ranks, the Chennai-born, Coimbatore-based racer had to weather massive financial storms, especially during his British Formula 3 days.
"I used to have an eye on the damage to my car. Every time a nut fell off, I used to tell myself that it added another 10 Pounds to my expenses. So, you literally did the laps counting the costs rather than focussing on your driving," Karthikeyan had said after a season in the UK.
It was no different with Chandhok who made his F1 debut last year with Hispania. Born in a motorsport family that had grandfather Indu and father Vicky actively involved in racing and rallying, Karun`s first word was "car" as his doting mother Chitra fondly recalled.
Vicky lived through financial nightmares and, at one stage, even mortgaged his Chennai home to raise funds for his son`s racing career. "I can`t even begin to tell you the sacrifices we had to make to keep Karun racing," recalled Vicky in a recent conversation.
So much so the rather zig-zag course that Karthikeyan and Chandhok have charted over the years was dictated by the size of sponsorship rather than by choice.
The plight of other youngsters following in the footsteps of Karthikeyan and Chandhok is no different. Armaan Ebrahim, only 22, is touted to be next in line for a Formula One seat, but is struggling to raise sufficient funds to stay on course.
"I have not bought a new shirt in the past three years," said Armaan`s father, Akbar, the first Indian to race abroad back in early 1990s. "Whatever I make is for Armaan."
Another young man, Ashwin Sundar, glittered briefly before yielding to the inevitable as he switched from single-seater racing to saloon car before exiting. A few more young aspirants, Aditya Patel (23), Sailesh Bolisetti (22), Vishnu Prasad (18) and Chittesh Mandody (17) are going through the same grind.
Patel and Bolisetti are racing in the Volkswagen Polo R Cup series in Europe; Prasad and Mandody are in a crucial transitional stage from karting to track racing, but facing roadblocks in their plans to move to the next level.
The same fate has befallen several other young guns and yet there are the likes of Maini brothers from Bangalore, Kush (11) and Arjun (13), and Mumbai`s Jehan Darukhanawala (13), all rich in talent and potential, and making their mark in karting which by no means is inexpensive.
The irrefutable fact is that for all the hype and hoopla over India GP and Formula One, the interest level among the media and the public is comparatively non-existent at the grass roots.
A bike-racer turned saloon car competitor said on condition of anonymity: "I made the switch from bikes to cars with the hope that at least somewhere I get mentioned. I can`t get sponsors because I can`t deliver media exposure that they demand in return."
Bangalore-based Red Rooster Racing team shut shop at the end of the 2010 season after blowing up Rs. 18 crore over three years in racing, rallying and karting.
"Not enough publicity, no sponsors, no interest beyond cricket, no awareness at all," said the team`s boss Dinesh Reddy. "At some point, you have to draw a line. We burnt our fingers and we will think twice before getting back into motorsport unless we get corporate backing."
Thus, should Karthikeyan and Chandhok get to race at the magnificent BIC on Oct 30, it will be a culmination of years of toil and frustration, and realization of a dream that few can dare to.