Melbourne, March 6: The early signs of Karthikeyan-mania erupted at Albert Park after India's first Formula One driver successfully completed his debut grand prix. As many as a hundred expat Indian nationals gathered at the fence opposite the Jordan garage on the start-finish straight to seek the signature of their new hero.
Narain Karthikeyan duly engaged, posing for photographs and signing autographs. It had been quite a day. The 28-year-old rookie overcame an awkward start to finish the Australian Grand Prix, won by Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella, in 15th place, one ahead of his teammate and fellow debutant Tiago Monteiro.
The team's new management, who hailed the performance of their rising star, shared the delight shown by Karthikeyan's growing fan club. Team owner Alex Schnaider, who has yet to return to his Toronto home since departing for the launch of the car in Moscow more than 10 days ago, said: 'Narain did all that was asked of him. He brought the car home. He had a few moments early on, but performed very well in his first race.'
Karthikeyan started from 12th on the grid following the second qualifying session on the morning of the race. But an error on the clutch when the lights went out at the start of the race cost him vital seconds and he dropped like a stone to 18th, one place behind Monteiro.
Another mishap on the entry to the pit lane during his first stop when his car snapped out of line might have been more costly than it was. However, he was able to get the jump on Monteiro during the first round of stops.
Thereafter, Karthikeyan settled into a tidy rhythm, growing in confidence as the race progressed. To manage the race as he did, coping for the first time with left-foot breaking, which led to a problem with his foot, and the greater performance capacity of a Formula One car, augured well for the season ahead.
'I messed up the start a bit. I was just a fraction out letting the clutch go and that cost me. I had a big moment in the pit lane because it was so slippery. After that it was fine. I had a clean race,' Karthikeyan said.
'When the fuel loads were down we were quite quick. I was happy with everything. I think the team was pleased with what I did, so it was a good start to my career.'
Ahead of Karthikeyan, Fisichella drove a flawless race to record the second win of his career. The Italian benefited from the random influence of the weather during Saturday's qualifying session, which left him with a two-second advantage over Jarno Trulli's Toyota coming into the second session yesterday.
From pole, Fisichella disappeared into the distance establishing an early advantage over Trulli. The Toyota was too slow to apply any pressure but quick enough, at least until the first round of pit stops, to keep the quicker cars behind at bay.
Fisichella was followed home in the end by Rubens Barrichello, who drove a brilliant race for Ferrari after starting from 11th on the grid.
Fisichella's teammate, Fernando Alonso was equally productive, racing from 13th on the grid to third. Barrichello and Alonso, benefited from staying out longer on their first stints. When they did stop, both were able to beat the traffic.
World champion Michael Schumacher had a day to forget, retiring on lap 42 after a collision with Williams's Nick Heidfeld.
The highly-fancied McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya disappointed for different reasons. Raikkonen stalled on the grid and had to start from the pit lane before losing his barge board and finishing eighth. Montoya changed his race set-up on the car before qualifying and lost speed as a result.
Sixth place was not where he expected to finish.
Just to be among such august names in the first place was a triumph for Karthikeyan. He was not overawed. He already had the respect of his team.
Now the rest of the Formula One community knows what he can do.