India banking on grand prix to create a buzz for F1 racing
NEW DELHI // With names like Sachin Tendulkar already being linked to a racing franchise concept, India's usually overshadowed motor racing fraternity is banking on the arrival of Formula One to spark a surge in domestic interest in their sport.
As workers put in overtime to get the Buddh International Circuit into shape, officials are growing in confidence that the October 30 Indian Grand Prix will change the face of motor racing in this country of 1.2 billion where almost all sports take a back seat to cricket.
"It's a dream come true," said Vicky Chandhok, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs in India. "For the motorsport fraternity, it's fantastic to get F1 on home soil."
Chandhok dismissed concerns about any delay in completion of the US$215 million (Dh789m) track about 40 kilometres from New Delhi in the satellite town of Greater Noida.
"It will project India as a technologically driven country, since F1 is the most technology-driven sport in the world," he told the Associated Press. "We already have a few drivers in the international arena and you must note that F1 has huge television audiences. So you can expect a lot of youngsters to take to the sport."
The 5.14-kilometre track is part of a sports city being developed by the Jaypee Group, which has vast interests in real estate. Jaypee Group has 10-year rights for the Indian F1 race. The venue has been designed by German architect Hermann Tilke, who has designed many of the new circuits that have been added to the sport's calendar in recent years, including Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the penultimate grand prix of the season on November 13, two weeks after India.
Seeking to capitalise on the predicted boom, a motorsports management company has announced the launch of a city-based franchise competition this December, albeit using star cricket icon Tendulkar as its brand ambassador.
Motor racing joins an increasing group of sports launching pro leagues in India following the stunning success of cricket's lucrative Indian Premier League.
American football, field hockey, volleyball, badminton and tennis are among the sports to have either launched their leagues or made announcements already.
The i1 Super Series, which has sought clearance from motorsport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), will feature teams from nine Indian cities competing in seven Asian cities: New Delhi, Chennai in India; Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai in the Gulf; Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia; and Pattaya, Thailand.
"Cricket and Bollywood stars as well as some top industrialists have shown a keen interest to own teams," Machdar Motorsports' chief executive M Darshan told reporters in Mumbai last week.
It is expected to further fuel interest in the sport initially evoked by Narain Karthikeyan, who in 2005 became the first Indian to race in the high-profile series for Jordan.
Karthikeyan, who drove for Hispania Racing in the early part of this year's F1 championship, expects the Indian Grand Prix to make motor racing a mainstream sport.
"I'm absolutely sure that its success will be the starting point for a big surge in Indian motorsport. We've been on the threshold for a few years now and this should give us a shot in the arm," Karthikeyan said.
Vicky Chandhok's son Karun, who emulated Karthikeyan when he made his debut with Hispania last year and had since switched to Lotus, feels business support is vital.
"More people will want to be associated with the sport," Karun Chandhok said. "Our biggest challenge has always been funding. I hope more corporates step forward and see the benefits of being associated with the sport."
Indians have taken some interest in the performance of Force India, an F1 team run by Vijay Mallya for four years now.
Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta had shown improved form after a sluggish start to the season, and will be eager to perform well on the team's home track.
"There has been huge interest in F1 for many years, so the fan base is already there. Last year's Monaco Grand Prix was watched by 27 million people back home. That is more than the TV figures for the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy combined," Karun Chandhok said.
"If only 0.5 per cent of that audience comes for the race, it would give us a crowd of 150,000 spectators."
Like the Korean Grand Prix which debuted in 2010, the area where the circuit is being built was originally agricultural land, but is designed to become a new suburb with apartment and townhouse complexes, which are also under construction.
The developers are hoping to market the area as a sports city, complete with a cricket stadium and golf course.
It is a dusty area right now, with security guards keeping a tight vigil in the vicinity to keep out curious residents and media.
There has been litigation over land acquisitions in other parts of Greater Noida, but not in the area of the circuit, which is expected to seat around 150,000 spectators, with 20,000 in the main grandstand, and corporate facilities for up to 5,000 in the hospitality areas.
Organisers are planning a national racing meet after the FIA inspection on September 1 and before the Grand Prix. Some luxury and media facilities will be completed next year, with work on those not expected to start until after the inaugural race.
Unlike last year's New Delhi Commonwealth Games, which promised to put the spotlight on India's growing power and rapidly-growing economy but caused international embarrassment amid building delays and allegations of corruption, the F1 race is expected to start without any major hitch.
Jaypee Group executive chairman Manoj Gaur played down any concern about construction delays when he last spoke publicly about the F1 circuit.
"Be assured my friends. Our and our country's reputation is there. We are responsible people. The track is ready," he told reporters in April. "It's a privilege to do something for India. Before the champions are born, we have to give them the infrastructure."
Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM