We’ve had a few strange F1 comebacks in the past 12 months or so. Michael Schumacher kicked it all off late last year by signing a deal to return to the sport with Mercedes after three years of blissful retirement. But then Michael is a seven-time champion; he can basically do what he wants (within the confines of law – he’s not Colonel Gaddafi).
Then there was Sauber’s baffling decision to bring Pedro de la Rosa back to competitive F1 after three seasons without any racing and seven without a full-time drive. We still don’t really understand that one. When the team fired the Spaniard and brought in Nick Heidfled for the final six races of 2010 there was a collective murmuring of ‘why didn’t you just hire him in the first place’.
Next Hispania gave us two comebacks to get a tiny bit excited about. First Sakon Yamamoto returned to F1 after three years absence. Money was obviosuly the reasons he got his turn in the seat not, as team boss Colin Kolles insisted, ‘to evaluate his ability’. When the team fell out with Sakon late in the season we were treated to the return of Christian Klien, who hadn’t raced since being fired by Red Bull late in the 2006 season. In fairness to the Austrian he did a good job.
But by far the weirdest, most “where did that deal come from” comeback is Narain Karthikeyan’s link-up with Hispania, announced by the India yesterday and confirmed by the team today. After five years away from racing in Formula One he will return in 2011 aboard a car we’re pretty sure will be the slowest on the grid, perhaps scrapping to beat the 107% rule in qualifying. He will be 34 by the time the season starts, and he comes off the back of a year in NASCAR’S third tier Camping World Trucks Series. Yes folks, he’s been racing trucks.
If you began watching F1 after the 2005 season you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Karthikeyan is; you’d also be forgiven for not knowing who he is if you’ve been following the sport for the past few decades. He was hired by Jordan in 2005, shortly after the team had been sold to Russian-born Canadian billionaire Alex Shnaider. Colin Kolles (yes, him again) had been put in charge and wasn’t too fussed about driver performance, more that the team’s finances were secured ahead of their transformation in to Midland in 2006 (remember how well that went?). So the well-funded Karthikeyan got the drive, alongside Portuguese racer Tiago Monteiro, who also brought cash.
The season didn’t go too well for Narain. He took fourth at the U.S Grand Prix, though only six drivers started the race following the Michelin runners’ decision to boycott the event. Crucially, Monteiro beat him to him to the podium. The Portuguese racer also secured a point in a race that the whole field entered, taking eighth in Belgium. It wasn’t too big a surprise when Tiago was retained for 2006 and Narain shown the door.
Since then he’s been a very busy lad. He was a test driver at Williams in 2006 and 2007 whilst also competing for India in A1GP. He won two races for his country during three seasons in the series before turning his attention to sportscars in 2009. Funnily enough he was hired by Colin Kolles team (are you noticing a pattern?) to race in the Le Mans Series. Karthikeyan was supposed to contested the Le Mans 24 Hours but was forced to watch from the sidelines following a bizarre injury. After the out lap and grid form-up the Indian jumped over the pit wall for a somehow managed to dislocate his shoulder in the process. The Le Mans medics ruled him out of the race and, to make matters worse, Kolles’ team’s reserve driver hadn’t done enough laps in qualifying to start the race, meaning just two racers were forced to complete the full 24-Hour distance.
Whilst Karthikeyan’s comeback seems strange it is in fact all pretty straightforward. He comes with large backing from Indian company Tata, who are naturally keen to have an Indian representative on the grid when the country hosts its first Grand Prix in October. Hispania need the money (any money, from anywhere) and Kolles and Karthikeyan have known each other for several years now. When you put all that down in writing the deal is a no-brainer.
That said it still came rather out of the blue. If someone said Hispania were on the verge of singing an Indian driver for 2011 you’d have been sensible to assume it was Karun Chandhok. Honestly, it’s a shame it’s not.
And that’s not just because we really like Karun. No, it’s more due to the fact that Karthikeyan’s F1 experience from 2005 is largely obsolete now. It’s fair to say that any of the four drivers who competed for Hispania last year – yes, even Yamamoto – are more prepared to race an F1 car in 2011 than he is. That’s not to write him off as totally useless – he’s shown flashes of ability in the past – he’s just been away a long time. Racing sportscars and trucks is a world away from F1 and that experience, vast as it is, still leaves him less prepared than someone ten years his junior who’s coming off the back of a few seasons in GP2. Make no mistake, 2011 is going to be very tough for both driver and team. We wish them luck.