The Great Escape – Tiago Monteiro & Narain Karthikeyan

While Grand Prix Rejects primarily writes profiles for the official list of Rejects – those with 2 points or less under the classic F1 points system – it is no less important to stress that there are drivers who absolutely befit the spiritual definition of rejectdom, and who but for one race would be rejects themselves. For this profile series, we are going to present some of the luckiest non-rejects who, while they have the literal points to escape classification, for one reason or other need their heroic stories to be recorded. These are the Escapees.

The Great Escape: The 2005 United States Grand Prix

Jordan’s new Russian backers from Midland had the team launch the EJ15 in Red Square, Moscow, complete with ushankas for Narain and Tiago!

In the context of current F1, just as the spirit of rejectdom is inherently different, so is it hard to find real one-hit wonders in an age of 22-race championships and such selective driver processing. It takes events such as the 2005 United States Grand Prix, where a one-in-a-thousand event occurred that saw the Jordan drivers Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan in the right two cars in a six-car race in order to escape rejectdom.

This event is perhaps the farce of all farces when it comes to the last 40 years of unified motorsport governance: a combination of rigid tyre rules in 2005; teams that were split by the make of tyre they were using; the uniqueness of the Indianapolis racing circuit; and the stubbornness of one team that held all the aces in their hand; any F1 fan knows the story through and through. While the general blame was placed upon Ferrari for failing to agree to a compromise that would allow their stunted rivals to participate in Sunday’s race, there was another team that broke ranks at the last minute: Jordan.

Jordan joined Ferrari on the grid after originally remaining in the compromise group. The six-car race just left too many points available for them to miss, and the potential 11-point swing in turn forced Minardi, their nearest rivals and the last Bridgestone runners, onto the track as well.

Eddie Jordan’s heart was not in it during the final years of his eponymous team’s existence, and the 2005 season would be its last. He had been among the nine voters in favour of the chicane compromise, but being strapped for cash, and seeing the potential for his Bridgestone-clad team to firmly avoid finishing the season at the bottom of the table, he gave the order for his cars to join Ferrari on the grid, which forced direct rival Minardi (the last Bridgestone runners) to participate as well.

Six cars took to the grid. Michael Schumacher won it in a procession ahead of Rubens Barrichello, dodging drinks cans and food wrappers along the way that were donated by furious fans. There were no retirements, although Karthikeyan’s shaky start lost him a place behind Christijan Albers’ Minardi for a few early laps. Monteiro had third position in the bag, and with Jordan as the clear second-best team of the three, he and Narain finished the farce third and fourth, unrejectifying themselves.

Monteiro, aggressively oblivious to the mood of the one hundred thousand spectators (those who hadn’t left) or his Ferrari competitors on the podium, broke open his champagne and joyously drank to his and the team’s success. A podium finish! After having received emergency dental care from his boss Dr. Collin Kolles earlier that weekend, the whole grand prix had been a whirlwind memory for the Portuguese driver. It would be Tiago’s only podium, and Jordan’s last before selling up at the end of the year. Karthikeyan, who pulled into the paddock after the race, scored a much quieter fourth place, scoring his only ever points in Formula 1. Their only other success that season would be Monteiro’s point at Spa-Francorchamps, which he took in a race that saw a significant number of front-runners taken out.

Last Known Whereabouts: Tiago Monteiro

Monteiro, who is not related to Manuel Monteiro, Michel Monteiro, or any of the Monteiro brothers, originally rose to success outside of his native Portugal, and being a late bloomer earned his pedigree in France, both in Porsche Carrera supercars and in French Formula 3. Already in his early 20s, he took part in Le Mans, Macau, and various other cameos in the late 1990s on his way up the ladder.

Monteiro, as did so many of his era, got into F1 after a few years in a testing role, in this case for Minardi.

His first career breakthrough had been in Champ Car. A middling debut in International F3000 in 2002 saw him make a sideways move to the American series, where he scored a handful of top 10 finishes. This was enough to convince Minardi to get in contact, and Tiago tested with them for a year. Running formula cars in World Series by Nissan in 2004, he got snapped up by Jordan for the next year.

Monteiro developed a great reputation for finishing races in Formula 1, and used the era’s new hyper-reliability to his advantage by taking the then-record of finishes from a driver’s first race – it was later beaten by the talented Max Chilton. He turned down an offer to test for Williams in 2006, choosing to stay in the racing seat with Jordan’s successor owner Midland. His second season was conversely quite dire, as he lost all his former reliability, and got involved in a variety of crashes, such as famously at the Canadian Grand Prix when he hit teammate Christijan Albers, who had been fifth in Indianapolis the previous year, and remains a GP Reject. He also collided with BAR and Super Aguri legend Takuma Sato a few times – a driver it should be noted who also took his only F1 podium at Indy the year before Tiago did.

“In Tiago, we’ve got one of the best drivers in the business at bringing the car home.” — Dominic Harlow, chief engineer at Midland, shortly before Monteiro took himself and teammate Albers out at the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix

With nothing to recommend him outside of a former reputation for reliability, Monteiro was gone from F1 for good. He had been in the running for the 2007 Spyker seat when the team changed over from Midland, but in retrospect his loss to Adrian Sutil was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to pursue other more successful avenues and build a stable career for himself.

“If I stayed [with Spyker], I could have destroyed my career”. Monteiro spent his time in the intervening years well, entering the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside the legendary Bruno Senna. Photo: ACO/DPPI.

Monteiro’s career after F1 is focussed entirely on the World Touring Car Championship / Cup, in which he has been participating in every season since 2007. He felt that the need to be “specialised” in a discipline outweighed the need to litter his CV with individual outings in various international series. Rather than changing his stable every year or two, he committed to international touring cars and stayed there, occasionally doing very well for himself. He matured and developed good relationships with PR teams, and has had a handy career with SEAT and Honda over the last decade and a half.

His most memorable career moments came in 2016-17, when a series of crashes took him out of championship contention, and the last very nearly killed him. When testing at the Barcelona circuit, a 200mph crash left him with a broken back, loose retinas and a stay at the ICU for many weeks. A long recovery process occurred before a genuinely miraculous return to racing no more than a year later! Tiago believes, in his racer attitude, that he would have won the 2017 season if not for that accident – he had been leading it at the time. Nowadays he coaches compatriot António Félix da Costa, a Formula E champion.

Last Known Whereabouts: Narain Karthikeyan

Narain was from racing blood: his father won the national blue riband South India Rally multiple times. He saw the need for Narain to get racing experience internationally in more established territory than his native India. So, when he was only 14, Narain like Tiago was sent to France and instilled in modern racing discipline with the Elf Winfield Racing School at Magny-Cours. He was taught the correct ways to drive, to eat, sleep, and stay physically fit, which he now believes had put him a cut ahead of many of his talented rivals. Other opportunities came from home: he tested at India’s only FIA Graded circuit down the road in Chennai, meaning Narain had access very few of his compatriots had to the real thing, and at a relatively early age.

After the Elf programme, Narain moved to the UK to take up British Formula Ford, where he coincidentally took his first professional victory on the same weekend of his first F1 grand prix visit: namely the 1994 Portuguese Grand Prix. By 1998 he was in British Formula 3, and after a few years of good results and some wins, he found his ticket to F1 via Tata, who generously supplied him with enough sponsorship money to be taken seriously further up.

Next he was testing for Jaguar in 2001, and causing a storm in his home country. He has joked regularly about his desired aim to be as famous in India as a middling cricket player, and his near-miss signing for Minardi in 2003 nearly helped him achieve that early. Instead, he was put on a testing programme until, like Tiago, he got snapped up by rivals Jordan for 2005. He discovered the F1 experience to be half getting in, and half staying in.

In spite of his heroic efforts to outqualify idol Michael Schumacher on his debut, Narain was just not as quick as Monteiro. He was sacked after 2005 for not being consistent enough, and replaced by Minardi’s Albers the following year. However, it only got more interesting from here. He continued to test for Williams until the end of 2007, represented India in the Race of Champions, as well as A1GP and even broke his ankle at Le Mans jumping the low wall!

Narain takes victory in Brands Hatch in 2008 for the Indian national A1GP team.

Karthikeyan was linked with a few more backmarker drives, before he appeared out of nowhere to co-lead HRT in 2011. The event was nothing short of a surprise, not least due to him being the very last signed driver for that season. Later on he would admit he had turned down the Spanish marque for their debut year in 2010 on the grounds that they weren’t established enough. Even so, his first year back under stronger backing was not a very successful one, and Tata was outspent by Red Bull midway through the year to put a debuting Daniel Ricciardo in Narain’s place. Other than a cameo appearance at the first Indian Grand Prix, Karthikeyan was again gone for good.

Or was he? To be re-signed for 2012 was an even bigger surprise, and he made it all the way to season-end before HRT folded. Narain was there for both of the team’s DNQ results at Melbourne, and was the slower of the two DNQers on both occasions. He broke the lowest-placed finishing record multiple times after first taking it in 2005, and admitted he lacked the consistency of perfectionist teammate Pedro de la Rosa.

Since the HRT episode, Karthikeyan failed to enter IndyCar, so moved to Japan and raced in Super Formula and Super GT, before calling it quits in 2019 and starting up his own company called DriveX, a used motorbike reseller. In the meantime, he helped commission new circuits and karting series in his native India, working with local governments and Tata to flourish a newer generation of Indian drivers. His last race win came quite incredibly at the one-off Super GT / DTM crossover race in 2019, where he and Tadasuke Makino won after a thousand safety car restarts, crashes, incidents, and penalties were handed out.

Turning down HRT for 2010, Karthikeyan was rewarded for his efforts with the Most Popular Driver award in NASCAR Trucks!

Looking Back on their Great Escape

Monteiro, while he doesn’t condone the development of events at Indy, at least appreciates the benefit for him of their outcome.

“Every year on the anniversary I receive hundreds of messages, photos, and videos … For better or for worse, it will stay in the story of Formula 1 forever.” Photo: FIA WTCR.

He also remains firm on the debate, that it should never have been up to Bridgestone’s runners to acquiesce to Michelin in solving the tyre problem. Citing the Bridgestones’ own near-terminal issues at Monza that year, he says:

“We could not accept the fact that Michelin arrived in Indianapolis with a risky tyre, and the best solution they could find was just to stop racing. That was not acceptable to us.”

When asked about his behaviour on the podium that day, he remarks that he had been told in the cool-down room to be sombre and to respect the outside atmosphere:

“So, we walked out to the podium, calm … But then I looked down and saw 30, 40, 50 yellow-dressed Jordan mechanics crying, cheering and all excited. No way could I not enjoy that moment with them. So, I let it go, and enjoyed [it] like it was a regular podium.”

He later goes into a little more detail about how he got sloshed on the plane home with Jenson Button and Mark Webber afterwards too…

Narain is far more circumspect about Indy 2005, and far less quotable. He never really attached too much significance to his fourth-place finish, as it was Tiago in the end who took all the fame from it. When asked if he regretted missing out on his only chance at a podium, he replies in the negative. To him, the one that got away was the 2000 Macau Grand Prix in his Formula 3 days: he had been leading the event from pole comfortably, before crashing into the wall and fluffing it in an incident anyone worth their salt compares equally to Ayrton Senna’s unforced error at Monaco in 1988.

Karthikeyan found his comfort zone in Japan, partnering a young Tadasuke Makino (left) to a victory in Super GT.

Neither Narain nor Tiago ever scored another top six finish again in Formula 1. It was Ferrari’s only win of 2005, and Barrichello’s final podium for the team. Interestingly enough, Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher, who finished fifth and sixth respectively in the Minardis, never scored any other top six finishes either. They, unlike the Jordans, remain rejects in spite of their Bridgestone fortune.