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Rising star sends Sachin to back seat

Barcelona, May 7: For once Sachin Tendulkar was not the story.

The world’s greatest cricketer wandered down the Barcelona paddock almost unnoticed. In the domain of fast cars, the attraction of leather on willow is lost. But that suited Tendulkar just fine. He was more than happy to play second fiddle to his great friend Narain Karthikeyan, India’s first Formula One driver.

'This is my down time. To be at a sporting event and not have to work is great for me,' Tendulkar said. At his side enjoying a light lunch sat Karthikeyan and their wives.

The topic of conversation was the first qualifying session for Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya. Once again Karthikeyan had the better of his Jordan teammate Tiago Monteiro. This time by half a second, a monumental gap in a sport that deals in fractions of seconds.

Karthikeyan’s dominance of Monteiro is the aspect of the season that has pleased his employers most. It is no longer a question if he will drive for the team in 2006 but when the contract will be signed.

Tendulkar, who knows a thing or two about delivering at the highest level, was just as impressed. 'We know that the Jordan car is not the quickest. It is also quite difficult to drive but Narain seems able to get the absolute best out of it. He has the timing and instinct that all top sportsmen must have to succeed, plus the desire to win,' Tendulkar said.

The batting genius has experienced first hand the lengths to which Karthikeyan is prepared to go to come first. 'I have known Narain for some time now. We both love racing in karts. We have had some great battles. I have to use my elbows to get past him these days,' he said.

Karthikeyan’s rise is timely as it offers Tendulkar an added excuse to indulge his passion. The Spanish Grand Prix is not the first he has attended, but it is the first time he has been able to marvel at an Indian behind the wheel of a Formula One car.

'I love F1. Watching on TV does not convey how quick these cars are or how hard they are to drive. I would love to drive one. Narain is the lucky one this weekend, but he deserves his chance. He has done very well in the first four races of the season. I’m sure he will go well again here.'

Karthikeyan is learning the importance of patience. Though improvements on the Jordan car are filtering through at every race, Karthikeyan will have to wait until 2006 to see the benefit of the new owners’ investment.

Alex Schnaider, the Russian-born billionaire who bought the team from Eddie Jordan last year, was also in the Barcelona paddock, attending his second race of the season.

The acquisition of the Jordan wind tunnel last month will speed up the development programme. Not that Schnaider looked too unhappy with his lot as he sipped champagne in the Spanish sunshine surrounded by the kind of beautiful women that come as standard in F1.

Nor should he be. In Karthikeyan he has unearthed a star. As the car gets quicker so Karthikeyan’s rise through the ranks will accelerate. To such an extent, maybe, that Tendulkar will have to follow in his wake at home in India as he did here. 'I would be delighted if that were the case,' Tendulkar said.

'Narain has earned his right to be in this company, to be racing against the best drivers in the world. It is only right that his achievements are properly recognised at home, too.'

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