| Karthikeyan in Imola. (AP)
Imola (Italy), April 23: The first sight that arrests visitors to the Imola paddock is the machinery in the car park assigned to Formula One drivers. This is where metal muscle is flexed before the action starts for real on the track.
If we were to judge the impact on F1 made by Narain Karthikeyan on the basis of the car parked in his slot, there could be no doubt about his standing.
There, with twin headlamps set proud either side of the famous grill, stood an Aston Martin Vanquish worth a cool '150,000.
Parked next to Narain's supercar was a small utility vehicle made by Ford worth a tenth of the price. This was the car of Tiago Monteiro, Karthikeyan's teammate at Jordan.
The difference in the performance potential of the respective vehicles in the car park was symbolic. On his first visit to Imola, Karthikeyan has been quicker in each of the four practice sessions than his Portuguese teammate, which follows the general pattern established in the opening three races away from F1's European heartland.
And this on a circuit at which he has never raced before and one that runs anti-clockwise, one of only two on the 19-race calendar alongside Interlagos in Brazil.
The strain on the neck is huge through corners anyway, but when you are invited to make a left turn instead of the more common right at 150mph, the g-force acting on the muscles that support the head take a terrible bashing.
Karthikeyan's deportment in and out of the car since his debut in Australia has been very impressive given the limitations imposed on performance by Jordan cars that are routinely three to four seconds slower than those powered by engines supplied by major manufacturers at the top end of the grid.
'These two months have made a man of him,' the Jordan managing director, Colin Kolles, said.
Kolles has endured untold frustration watching his cars lapping at the back during the opening three races in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain.
Matters will not improve until the wind tunnel acquired last week in Brackley, close to the team's Silverstone headquarters, and the new chassis, currently being built in Italy by Dallara, come on line at the start of next season.
Nevertheless, he cannot find fault with his drivers, particularly Karthikeyan, whom he singled out for special praise. 'I'm very happy with Narain. He has good speed and is doing a good job. Tiago did a very good race in Bahrain, finishing 10th, so he is quite reliable also. But for sure Narain is a little bit quicker than Tiago. That's the reality.'
Karthikeyan can do no more than keep his employers happy. To that end he has embarked on a fitness programme to help build the stamina and strength required to compete successfully in F1.
'I've been listening to what my father has been saying. He's pushed me a lot. I can feel a huge difference,' Karthikeyan said.
'I'm sure there is more to come. I need to just keep up the progress. By the middle of the year I should be much fitter. I've built up my neck and stuff. The neck is the killer in F1. And the back. Left foot braking puts a strain on both.'
Karthikeyan's retirement in Bahrain meant he was third out during yesterday's preliminary qualifying session, nine spots ahead of Monteiro. That is a huge disadvantage. Circuits are at their least accommodating early in sessions when there is more dust than rubber on the surface and traction is hard to find.
Not that Karthikeyan was too put out, positing a time 1.3 seconds quicker than Monteiro. 'I'm driving okay here at the moment. If I can keep up the momentum it will be hard for him (Monteiro) to beat me in the race.'