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Narain beats beginner's nerves

Melbourne, March 5: The first rule of Formula One: beat your team-mate. Narain Karthikeyan obliged, posting a time 2.5 seconds quicker than fellow Jordan driver Tiago Monteiro in his historic first qualifying session at the Australian Grand Prix.

Even more remarkable, Karthikeyan's time of 1:44.357 was ninth quickest overall and 13 seconds quicker than that set by seven times world champion Michael Schumacher. The outcome was influenced by the heavy rain showers, which played havoc with the session. Nevertheless, an excellent day's work for India's grand prix debutant.

Karthikeyan, who struggled initially to come to terms with the enclosed nature of the circuit during Friday's opening practice session, was the third driver to run after the Minardis of Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher. Though the rain had stopped, there was a lot of water on the track, making the conditions as tricky as they could have been.

Jordan's sporting director Trevor Carlin explained earlier how nervous Karthikeyan had been after his installation lap on Friday, disturbed by the proximity of the walls and barriers that border the track.

At Silverstone in England, and Barcelona in Spain, where he had done his previous running, the circuits are set out in wide open space.

By the close of play on Friday, Karthikeyan had adjusted and begun to feel the car underneath him. His confidence grew on Saturday morning, leaving him in a positive frame of mind for the opening qualifying session.

Hearts were in mouths in the Jordan camp, however, when he spun on his out lap, but no harm was done and when the clock started ticking he hardly put a foot wrong. His time was five seconds inside that of Albers, giving him pole, if only until Jenson Button went out fifth in the BAR.

'I was a little nervous,' Karthikeyan said. 'The conditions were very tricky for a rookie because the weather has been so bad. The problem with this circuit is that there are a lot of white lines across the track making grip difficult. It was a very steep learning curve. The difference between F1 and the other forms of racing I have done is huge. It has been a big eye-opener for me. But once you get in the car it all calms down.'

Karthikeyan was helped on his way by a message from Sachin Tendulkar. The growing friendship between the two is one of the endearing elements of Karthikeyan's F1 journey.

Tendulkar is a huge F1 fan and likes to attend races when he can. 'Sachin called yesterday. We spoke for a long time. He wished me well for today and the race. It's good to know that I have his support,' Karthikeyan said.

On Sunday, Karthikeyan makes history as the first Indian to contest a grand prix.

Barring a calamity in the second qualifying session on Sunday morning, he ought to start the race ahead of the mighty Schumacher. The world champion was unfortunate to pull out of the garage for his installation lap just as the rain started to fall again. His lap was ruined as a result.

Karthikeyan added: 'Because of the rain it looks like I will have some very quick drivers behind me at the start of the race, including Michael, so I have to be careful. I finished ninth today, which looks good on paper, but the rain played a big part in that. Nevertheless I was happy with my lap.'

Giancarlo Fisichella of Renault takes an advantage of more than two seconds into the second qualifying session. For the first time in the history of F1, qualifying positions will be determined by adding together the times of the two sessions.

With rain again forecast there may be more surprises. If Karthikeyan shows the same composure as he did today, a fine start to his grand prix career is assured.

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