For Narain Karthikeyan, his return to Formula 1 last year was filled with obstacles. A small, underfunded team with no pre-season testing or in-season development, he was on for a tough gig in 2011. Added to this, he missed ten races while the team brought Daniel Ricciardo in at the behest of Red Bull.
But the recent restructure of the HRT has given Karthikeyan renewed optimism as we head into a new season. One day before the cars run in anger in the first free practice session at the Australian Grand Prix, we sat down to talk with him about the year ahead.
Most Indian children want to be the next test cricketer when they grow up? What drove you towards a career in motorsport?
I wanted to be different. I enjoyed motor racing and my father used to do rallying in India. So I grew up in a motorsport environment, and all of this made me passionate about the sport, and I guess that’s why I got into it.
HRTF1 went through a major restructure last year, and part of this saw you having to stand aside while Daniel Ricciardo was brought on into the team. How difficult a period was this for you?
Obviously it was hard, but it was what it was. The situation was quite bad, to be honest, with [HRT team principal] Colin Kolles, but I’m here now. It’s all completely new here. We have a new management [structure] in place, which has given us a more stable environment and a lot more resources. We have a brand new car.
Of course we agree that we’re a little behind because of the car build issues and so on, but compared to the position we were in last year, I can already tell you that we’re ahead of that by a long way.
As the only driver who’s had the opportunity to turn a few laps in the new car, what has been your initial impression of the F112?
It seems slightly better [than the F111], but to be honest I can’t really say too much. It was a filming day, we only ran eight laps and it was getting dark. You can’t really say much about the car, and I also hadn’t driven a Formula 1 car since the Indian Grand Prix [the previous October].
It seems better than last year’s car, but we’ll have to wait and see how it runs on proper tyres on the track tomorrow to understand how it behaves. It can’t be any worse, it should be a step forward.
You and Karun Chandhok have been at the forefront of India’s emergence on the motorsport map, and in driving the local fans’ interest in Formula 1. Last year, you were the only driver on the grid at your home race, and it was one of your most competitive showings. What was the experience like from your perspective?
I was very happy to be the only Indian driver on the grid. It had a lot of impact, and we had a full house that weekend. Formula 1 has caught on in India – quite quickly, too – and people are starting to better understand the sport. It’s on an upward trajectory, and it was one of the best put together international events that India had ever hosted, which was just fantastic.
What are you hoping for in the year ahead?
We have planned updates for the car coming in, which we never had last season. This will turn out to be a nice little team. Everybody – including the drivers – has to be a little bit patient, and just to try and stay ahead of the other new teams.
But ultimately, we don’t know. We don’t know how quick the car is in comparison to the opposition, so I don’t really know at this point.
Success in Formula 1 is often down to the quality of the equipment at your disposal, but when the machinery is equalised, you’ve proven you’re as quick as anybody, as was shown by your wins in the A1GP Series with Team India. What was that period like for you?
It is only in Formula 1 where the cars make a huge difference to your results. It’s very hard to compete with the frontrunning teams with the resources that we have, particularly given the aero-dependent nature of Formula 1.
In other categories with equal equipment, you have the chance to win. In every category I’d driven in single-seaters before Formula 1, I have won races. It was a wonderful feeling to return to this environment and to achieve that success while representing India.
What racing circuit is your most favourite?
For me, it has to be Macau, followed by Brands Hatch, Silverstone, and the new Indian circuit. There are quite a few circuits I like.
Images via Corbis Images, Formula1.com, HRT F1 Team,