Feb. 28 issue - On March 5, 28-year-old Narain Karthikeyan will become the first Indian to compete in Formula One racing when he takes the wheel for Jordan Grand Prix, the F1 team started by Ireland's Eddie Jordan, in Melbourne. It's a huge achievement for Karthikeyan, known as the "fastest Indian on wheels." Born in Chennai, he has been fighting for a place in the biggest competition in motor sports
for nearly a decade. Now, as he starts his engine, his sponsors Tata Group, JK Tyre and Bharat Petroleum Corp.—Indian companies finally entering into the aggressive marketing world of F1 to compete with giants like Shell and Marlboro—are steering themselves into pole position too. NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf spoke to Karthikeyan about his achievements and ambitions, as well as those of his giant country. Excerpts:
OVERDORF: You've been struggling to make it into Formula One for a long time. How does it feel to finally make it?
KARTHIKEYAN: We were all waiting for the right opportunity. I'm really happy to be the first Indian Formula One driver. It means a lot to the motor-sports fraternity.
Aside from cricket, Indian sportsmen don't get much support, yet you've been successful in getting some of India's corporate giants to sponsor you. How did you attract their interest?
Tata is a global company, and Formula One has the right image for them to get brand exposure. Bharat Petroleum has everything to do with cars. It suited their package, so they came onboard. They're also my long-term sponsors. Tata has been supporting me since 1999. Now I need to make it work. First we just need to finish some races—Jordan is not capable of winning yet. Then we'll be looking for more Indian sponsors so we'll have the money to make the car more competitive.
How difficult is it for Indian athletes—aside from cricketers—to break into the big time?
You need to be a standout. If you're pretty good and you're getting results internationally, you'll get some sponsors, like me. But in the beginning it's very, very hard. Cricket has been getting all the support, but slowly that's starting to change. Hockey, tennis and motor sports—these are getting more and more support. You need more international sports persons in these fields. You need some icons like me in Formula One. As this happens, more and more sponsors are going to look at different sports, and more and more kids will take them up.
How popular are motor sports in India?
It's getting there. F1 was the second most-watched sport on TV last year. [Viewership] is pretty high on the satellite channels. Now that's going to go up a lot more because I'm there. There are going to be a lot more Indians watching Formula One. This is a start for motor sports to grow bigger in India.
How do you rate your chances at success?
We have to be realistic. The Jordan car is not the best, for sure. We can't expect to compete with the [Michael] Schumachers of the world. If we finish in the top eight in some race and get the points, that would be great. Even if we finish among the top 14 qualifiers [out of 20 competitors], that would be good. But first we have to bring the car home in every race. In this sport, finishing itself is a big thing. I've been successful in Formula Three and Formula Two and beaten some pretty good drivers when they were competing at that level, so I think I can be very competitive given the right equipment.
Which makes you more nervous, driving on the track or driving on Indian roads?
Driving on Indian roads, by a long way. It's really crazy in some places, though it's getting better. [Foreigners] always ask me, "Which side of the road do you drive on in India—do you have right-hand drive or left-hand drive?" I say, "Whichever side we want." It's pretty dangerous out there.
Formula One has been trying to increase its presence in Asia over the past few years, opening races in Bahrain, Turkey and China. What role can you play in building interest in India?
Formula One at some point needs to grow in more Asian countries, and India is the perfect place. It's going to take government support, and the Indian government should realize that it would be a great thing [to have more Formula One races in India]. It would be great for the image of the country and have a lot of spinoff effects. And China is already ahead of us. Now [that I'm driving] we'll have a lot of viewers in India, a major market with a lot of people.
For Formula One, India has not been exploited yet, so they need to see if they can get something out of it. A lot of Indian companies will be interested in getting global exposure, so there will be a lot of marketing opportunities.
Have you seen a leap in commercial offers?
I am getting some offers, but I need to choose the right ones. So far I've only done ads for my sponsors.