In Formula One, money talks.  A tale of two young drivers

 by G. Venkat Ganeshan
September 11, 2001

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In this world of competitive world, a thin line separates the winner and loser.  In any sport, to reach the pinnacle of that particular sport; it requires sheer determination and a unique trait that demarcates one from the others. 

Motor racing is no exception, where just a few seconds separates instant stardom and distant oblivion; there is fierce competition for gaining entry into one of the 22 cars in Formula-1, which is considered the apex in motor racing. However, Formula-1 like all other major sporting series in the world has a take-no-prisoners attitude. Hence, the battle between the drivers in the junior formulae is intense to grab a coveted spot in Formula-1. 

Healthy rivalry is the integral part of motor racing. There are battles that are raged right from the junior formulae to Formula-1. The world has witnessed the gladiatorial battles in Formula-1 mainly between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Even the winningest driver in Formula-1, Michael Schumacher had locked horns with Heinz Harald Frentzen right from the days when both competed in German Formula-3 championship. Even, David Coulthard was just beaten to the 1991 British Formula-3 Championship crown by one certain Brazilian called Rubens Barrichello. Hence, the battles that are waged in Formula-1 is just a continuation of the earlier battles in junior levels of racing. 

One such rivalry that brewed from the junior level was between India's Narain Karthikeyan and Malaysia's Alex Yoong. Both embarked on a common mission _ to land a drive in a F1 car. The rivalry was fierce since they had to race against time to grab the coveted tag of the first non-Japanese Asian to drive in Formula-1 in recent times. (if one could exclude the heroics of Prince Bira of Thailand in the early fifties). Both after climbing their local racing ladders, first met face to face in the Formula Asia Championship in 1995. The Championship was a two-horse battle between these two drivers, but the Indian prevailed upon the Malaysian on that day. 

Alex Yoong then made the grade to Formula Renault Championship in Britain and their rivalry came to a temporary halt, but the battles renewed when both these drivers competed in the 1998 British Formula-3 Championship. That battle was short-lived since Narain ran out of sponsorship money and had to get back to India to scout for sponsors. Hence, after a mid-season hiatus, Narain Karthikeyan returned toward the end of the season. 

Alex Yoong and Narain Karthikeyan started their 1999 campaign in the British Formula-3 Championship, but the Malaysian was bestowed with more financial support, hence he managed to compete in five races of the Italian Formula 3000 Championship, a series that is normally considered as a cousin to the main European F3000 Championship. However, in such short span of time, Alex Yoong managed to finish second in one of the races. 

One strong point for Alex was the continued patronage he received from the Malaysian Government. In fact, Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mr. Mahathir Mohammed, a big fan of racing himself, had laid concrete plans in promoting Alex Yoong's career. The Malaysian Tourism Ministry so far has supported his whole campaign. The Government had a clear vision in developing Alex Yoong had a potential Formula-1 driver; hence the necessary greenbacks flowed automatically. 

Sepang F1 Circuit was built lure a Formula-1 race, which Malaysia has been successfully doing for the past three years. The World Motorcycle Championship makes it a point to stop at Malaysia every year, and Petronas, the Malaysian Petroleum company sponsors both the Sauber Formula-1 team and also the TVK Motorsports Yamaha Team, which competes in the World Motorcycle Championship, with Sharol Yuzy (another Malaysian) as their main rider. 

Hence, the Malaysian Government made the path for Alex Yoong towards Formula-1 smooth. For Narain Karthikeyan on the other hand it was a rough and bumpy ride, as he had to run from pillar to post for securing the necessary sponsorship. However, to Narain's help came Ford India, and with the major car manufacturer's backing, Narain drove for the Stewart Team in the British Formula-3 Championship, but later shifted to Carlin Motorsports for the annual Macau and Korea ventures. His storming drive earned him an emphatic win at Korea. However, the Stewart deal gave him an opportunity to test the Jaguar Formula-1 machine. 

The unfinished battle between Narain and Alex continued this year in the Formula Nippon Championship. Though, Alex was slightly more experienced, having competed in the championship last year with Team Malaysia, Narain Karthikeyan came grips with the Formula Nippon machine quickly, as driving for the Excite Impul team. However, neither driver did well, as they were bogged down by mechanical failures. 

In 2001, the long overdue F1 testing knocked on Narain's door. This sounded alarm bells in Alex Yoong's camp. Hence, they started negotiating with various teams. With the necessary big bucks arranged, Yoong tested for the Minardi team in July and then in August. However, the behind-the-scenes lobbying continued. Minardi struck a deal with the Far East based Asiatec engines for engine supply for the 2002 season. With a secured engine option, they took Alex aboard the team. Yoong finally will race in Formula-1 for the Minardi team in the last three races of this season and if one goes by the frenetic activities between the two parties, Yoong might be retained for next season. 

Recently, Minardi's boss Paul Stoddart visited Malaysia's number one car manufacturer, Proton, prompting a deal with the Malaysian auto manufacturer. Incidentally, Proton is part of the Mitsubishi group. This surely has helped Alex's cause. 

But for Narain, he is now a stranger in a strange land. Having got a handful of laps in a Formula-1 machine, a full-time F1drive remains elusive.  Perhaps, CART, with the vast amount of Indians in the USA, is an alternative.

Such is the tale of two fine young drivers, struggling to make it to the top in the dog-eat-dog world of European open-wheel racing.  Neither of these drivers have a major junior formula championship to their credit, unlike Michael Schumacher or Mika Hakkinen. But one thing is certain in Formula-1, especially with the lower rung teams - Money Talks. (yes, the Charlie Sheen-Chris Tucker flick).

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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