Power of the mighty rupee comes to the fore: Narain Karthikeyan
India's Narain Karthikeyan is an ordinary driver with a powerful sponsor
With the Indian Grand Prix on this weekend, this column poses the question: what's the point of Narain Karthikeyan? This is purely in racing terms, as I'm sure he's a splendid fellow.
This weekend is the only time when the sport's spotlight is likely to shine with any intensity on the Indian. It's his home grand prix and if there's something the sports-mad nation loves more than having top sport in their backyard, it's having one of their own involved. The rest of the time it's hard to know why Karthikeyan is still at the top table of motor sport.
Super licence or no, his record is poor and he's hardly young and full of potential. Even back in 2005 when he had his first F1 outing with Jordan it didn't go well. Getting a grip of your clutch and being able to get away from the grid smartish is a basic requirement of any driver, but it seemed a step too far for Karthikeyan. The next season he was testing with Williams and sounding upbeat, but it would have been a brave person who bet on him gracing the grid again.
And yet there he was last year, lining up for HRT. New teams like this always need a driver of experience to help them as they navigate the choppy waters of Formula One, a driver who can give valuable feedback and take responsibility for helping to bring the team on. It was Pedro de la Rosa who gave the team that. De la Rosa spent a long time with the McLaren set-up and has seen most things in the sport.
Karthikeyan has hit the headlines this year, but for all the wrong reasons. He was involved in an unseemly spat with Sebastian Vettel after the two clashed in the Malaysian Grand Prix. Vettel called him an idiot; Karthikeyan called him a cry baby. All very mature. The rest of the season was nothing to write home about. A sequence of qualifying last and mostly running towards the back of the pack, if not crashing out, didn't set the pulse racing.
Karthikeyan is at the team for one overriding reason - money; more specifically the cash he brings to HRT with his Indian sponsor Tata. The sad truth is that he's not the only driver who is there because he has pulled together a big wad of cash that helps the team keep racing.
Bernie Ecclestone clearly isn't the only guy in the paddock with negotiating skills. This weekend Tata's money will allow it to promote its tea products to India and beyond. Check Narain's helmet and car chassis for more details.
If you think the concept of pay drivers is all a little unedifying, you are going to have to put up with it. In soccer you have selling clubs and buying clubs. Minnows have to sell their best players to survive, putting finances before performance. Only the biggest clubs have the luxury of not having to sell to survive (or even balance the books if a billionaire happens to be the owner). In F1, the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull can all afford to pay big bucks for the best drivers. Most of the rest can't, and until they can the likes of Karthikeyan will always have a route into the sport.
On a slightly lighter note, this column has always lauded the brilliance of Red Bull designer Adrian Newey. He proved in South Korea that he continues his ongoing quest for innovation in all aspects of the sport. Pulled up to the podium to accept the trophy for winning constructor, he donned some ski goggles before the drivers champagne came flying his way. Whether it was a moment of inspiration from the great man or a new health and safety directive remains to be seen.