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‘Driven at its limit, a normal human being will pass out in Formula 1 in no time’

Roudra Bhattacharya Mumbai | Updated on March 12, 2018

Narain Karthikeyan.

For the first Indian to reach the dizzy heights of F1 – the pinnacle of motor racing, participating in the first Grand Prix at home is definitely a very emotional experience. Narain Karthikeyan, driver for Hispania Racing Team, tells Business Line what it takes to achieve the thrill of speed and why the design of the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) promises a lot of excitement for fans. Excerpts from the interview.

The first F1 race in India. As the only Indian driver on the grid, what does it mean to you?

As an Indian driver, it will be an unparalleled experience – driving in front of the home crowd. I’ve experienced a little bit of that while driving in Durban in A1GP where there’s a huge Indian population. But home ground will be a different ball game altogether - with the support of over 100,000 people cheering me at the Buddh International Circuit, it will be an incredibly motivating atmosphere and definitely worth some lap time!

You must have already done a few laps around the mint-fresh circuit. Tell us a bit about it.

The circuit has a character not generally associated with new-generation circuits which have been added to the calendar in recent years – which is thanks to the artificially-induced elevation changes around the circuit, making it quite a roller-coaster. In some places the drivers will have to use their judgment to turn-in blindly instead of spotting the apex beforehand as it is traditionally the case. Plus, the track has been made wide in a couple of spots, to encourage overtaking and it should be a really exciting first lap especially.

How would you rate BIC among the other top circuits. Which ones are your most favourite?

It is definitely in my personal top five already despite not having driven it in an F1 car – it is going to be extremely challenging. And as far as my favourite circuits go, my absolute favourite is Brands Hatch in UK – the fast, flowing sequence of corners is absolutely amazing, heaven for a racing driver. Similarly, other high-speed tracks like Silverstone and Spa are also on my all-time list.

What do you think the F1 coming to India is going to mean for domestic motorsports, and allied business such as tourism?

Although Indian Motorsport has certainly evolved from the days when I started out here, a Formula 1 race will certainly be a massive boost to motorsport industry as a whole. Indian sponsors will hopefully realise the value of investing in motorsport looking at the kind visibility that brands associated with F1 enjoy. It will definitely motivate more youngsters towards the sport as well – and that is what will build our future in motorsport.

As far as tourism is concerned, it is sort of a no-brainer that over 3,000 F1 personnel descending for the F1 week is definitely going to boost the tourism and hospitality industry, and this is apart from the global fans who follow the races from country to country. The number can only be expected to go up every passing year so it’s a huge benefit as a whole.

Why do you think this is the right time for F1 to come to our shores? What are the reasons why you think it will be successful here after the experience in other markets where the excitement has waned after the first race?

India is slightly different from other venues recently added to the calendar – like Korea, Turkey and even China for instance. We have a lot of involvement in F1, with Tata being associated with Ferrari since 2004, then Force India coming along plus two drivers – that equates to more stake than Korea, Turkey, China and Singapore put together. So we have a ready-made fan base as a result – TV viewing figures have been on an all-time high and generally the average youth is interested in concepts of speed, competition, glitz and glamour which F1 has aplenty of. So I think there is a lot of activation that F1 has in India and thus it’ll be here for many years to come.

You made us proud as the first Indian driver to reach so far. How far do you think we are in training more of our own drivers to compete in the top rung of motorsport?

We already have plenty of aspiring race drivers, and numbers are going to increase once they see racing at a level like F1. But many forget that racing begins at a very grassroot level and is far from the glamorous circus which F1 is. So only the most determined drivers are able to progress through the domestic ranks and onwards. We have some driver training academies at present, but I wouldn’t say it is enough.

With the Buddh International Circuit located in the northern part of the country, things will now be much more accessible compared to until now with only two race tracks in the country being located in the south. To produce drivers of international quality, we need purpose built racing facilities (tracks), modern racing machinery and professional guidance. Once these things are in place, transition to international racing will be much easier, unlike my days when I had to go from a Formula Maruti to a Formula Ford and immediately up to British F3 - which was a massive step-up in all terms you can think of.

Many petrol-heads in this country look up at you for inspiration. Apart from all the glamour, what kind of discipline and hardwork is needed to be successful in this very physically demanding sport?

Being fit is desirable at any level of racing, but it goes to a different dimension when you talk about Formula 1. Driven at its limit, a normal human being will pass out in a Formula 1 in no time. There are G-forces because of the incredible acceleration, braking and cornering grip the car generates. It takes a massive toll on your body, and you have to be fit enough not just drive, but have plenty of spare capacity to think about strategies, converse with the team on the radio and perform precise overtaking manoeuvres.

The training is continuously on, even between races – emphasis is on cardiovascular fitness, as during a 90-minute race our heartbeat can average around 180bpm. Also, braking in a Formula 1 car needs a pressure of around 85 kilograms to be delivered by the left foot to the brake pedal – so you need to build up lower body strength as well. Then there’s the neck – it has to remain stable amidst all the g-force, but it’s the most difficult to train as well. You need to keep driving to keep those muscles in shape.

What are the challenges drivers are likely to face at home who want to reach the same heights as you?

Infrastructure and funding is what springs to mind first, but there are other things as well. Nowadays you need to start out really early so parents’ support is vital and although things are changing quickly, Indian parents may still sometimes be a little orthodox – with traditional education taking precedence over ‘extra-curricular’ activities like racing. I’m not saying that studies isn’t important but if parents see the interest in they should encourage their kids into karting as soon as possible and then see how it goes.

A word about how life is as an F1 driver. How is an average day like?

A regular non-race day consists of training, sponsor commitments, media appearances and some more training. Very unglamorous, if I may add.

F1 has seen dominance time and again by certain drivers (like Michael Schumacher). Is that trend changing now?

If you have a good driver and car combination, you’re going to win a championship. But if the car, the driver and the team can keep the development pace which outclasses their rivals, they win championships. That was what Schumacher and Ferrari did and now another classic example in modern times is Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. They just managed to clinch the title in the last race by a hair’s breadth in 2010 but this season has been a complete walkover, with hardly any mistakes from the driver or the team and the result is that they sealed the title with four races to go.

What do you think of the rule changes by FIA? Are there more coming?

The next major raft of changes has been designated for 2014, with six-cylinder turbocharged engines and different chassis rules. So there might be a few other accompaniments which go into force at the same time but nothing major for sure, as teams and engine manufacturers have already started working on the 2014 projects.

F1 may go towards hybrid drivetrains in the future (2014). How do you view the changes which focus on efficiency - like smaller engines? Will they take away the rush of F1?

F1 being the pinnacle of motorsport has to adapt itself from time to time, to ensure greater relevance to the modern car industry and I think that is what these new rules have been designed to do. We have an environmental responsibility as well, so I’m all for hybrid drivetrains – which will essentially mean a bigger version of the present KERS. For the fans though, sound is major draw and it has been assured that the F1 cars will retain their characteristic sound-note, thanks to a 15,000rpm redline –exceptionally high for a turbocharged engine so I’m sure the fans won’t be disappointed.

Published on October 27, 2011

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