With a former Indian rally champion as a father, Narain Karthikeyan’s interest in motorsport started early and he wasn’t afraid to set his sights high, with his main ambition to become India’s first Formula One driver. And after he graduated from the ELF Winfield Racing School in France in 1992 and won his debut race in the Pilote Elf Competition for Formula Renault, it was clear his goal - however ambitious - was achievable.
The following year he competed in the Formula Maruti series, but also tackled the Formula Vauxhall Junior championship, which gave him more experience of European racing. In 1994, he stayed in Europe, becoming the first Indian to win the British Formula Ford Winter series. He also took a podium in Estoril at the Portuguese Grand Prix support event.
He journeyed back east in 1995 to compete in four races of Formula Asia, taking a second place at Shah Alam in Malaysia. In 1996, a full season saw him clinch the championship and set a host of records as he became the only Indian and only Asian to win the International series.
Karthikeyan returned to the United Kingdom in 1997 and the British Formula Opel series. He took sixth in the championship, after scoring a pole and a win at Donington. The following season he moved up to British Formula Three with Carlin Motorsport, securing two third places from eight starts, at Spa and Silverstone. A second season - again with Carlin - in ‘99 saw a marked improvement, with two wins, two pole positions, three fastest laps and two lap records. He also ran in the illustrious Macau Grand Prix, qualifying sixth.
A third and final season of British F3 ended with fourth place overall, and fastest lap and pole in Macau, as well as victory in the Korea F3 Super Prix, rounded off a successful year. Over the winter, several Formula One teams came knocking to offer him tests, and in 2001 Karthikeyan became the first Indian to test an F1 car, with Jaguar at Silverstone.
Later that year he completed further sessions with Jordan at Silverstone and Mugello. Beyond his F1 test schedule he competed in Formula Nippon to prevent his race craft getting too rusty, although his Team Impul drive garnered him just two points and 15th in the championship.
Despite his test outings, a Formula One race drive wasn’t forthcoming for 2002, and so Karthikeyan joined the Formula Nissan World Series with Team Tata RC Motorsport. A single podium saw him finish a disappointing ninth overall, but joining Carlin Motorsport for a second season in 2003 proved more successful, and with four podiums, he improved to fourth in the standings. He also completed another Formula One test, this time with Minardi.
In 2004, Karthikeyan tackled a third Formula Nissan World Series season, winning two races and scoring a further two podiums. He also spent time competing in the FIA GT Championship and once again tested for the Minardi. But it was with Jordan that he inked a deal the following February to compete in the 2005 Formula One season, alongside Portuguese driver Tiago Monteiro.
After struggling for so long to break into F1, Karthikeyan’s debut season was disappointing. With an uncompetitive car he struggled in qualifying, never starting higher than 11th, and enjoyed his sole points-scoring finish thanks to his fourth place at the infamous United States Grand Prix, which only featured the six Bridgestone-shod cars after Michelin’s withdrawal.
He failed to retain the seat and for 2006 swapped to a test role with Williams. The position left him with plenty of time to race elsewhere and he decided to tackle the A1GP series for India. He best finish - fourth - came at the British round.
In 2007 he spent a second season as Williams tester and also continued in A1 GP. With test restrictions now in place for F1 teams, however, he spent only two days in the Toyota-engined car. He found some solace in his improving A1GP form, with two wins and one pole position. After losing his test role for 2008, he tackled a third A1GP season, though his best finish was a second place at Brands Hatch.
Karthikeyan still hoped to return to Formula One at some point, but with no opportunities presenting themselves he broadened his horizons in 2009, racing in the Le Mans series for the Kolles team. He made motorsport history again when he became the first Indian to compete in the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours, finishing the endurance event seventh. The Chennai-born driver’s horizons got broader still in 2010 when he raced in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in the USA, as well as in the Superleague Formula in Europe, where he won a race at Brands Hatch.
Then, just as Karthikeyan’s Formula One dream looked to be over, a surprise announcement in January 2011 saw him sign for the fledgling HRT squad, led by his former team boss Colin Kolles. Given his five-year F1 absence (and HRT’s trying debut in 2010), nobody expects it to be an easy return for ‘the world’s fastest Indian’.