Grand Prix indulges dreams of India's rich

Glamour event shows India's financial muscle, as expensive tickets are snapped up.
Mark Webber of Australia drives into the pit lane during the second practice session ahead of the Indian F1 Grand Prix at the Buddh circuit, near New Delhi on Friday.
Mark Webber of Australia drives into the pit lane during the second practice session ahead of the Indian F1 Grand Prix at the Buddh circuit, near New Delhi on Friday.

NEW DELHI // India' first Formula One race stands as a testament to the wealth and power of the new Indian upper class, while the country as a whole hopes the event will shake off the bad memories of last year's scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games.

The fact the Grand Prix is unlikely to turn a profit for several years , perhaps never, is secondary to its role in indulging the dreams of India's rich.

The new 5.14 kilometre racetrack on the outskirts of Delhi cost US$200 million (Dh734m), while premium seats for this afternoon's race have sold for $4,000 (Dh14,692) a person. The string of five-star hotels in the new developments surrounding the track are all sold out, with average rates rising to about $500 a night.

KTS Tulsi, a senior lawyer and president of the Heritage Motoring Club in Delhi, will take F1 champion Sebastian Vettel out for a spin in his 1947 Buick during the pre-race vintage car parade.

"It is beyond my wildest dreams that such a world-class event and track could come to India, let alone that I would be driving on it with the current champion," said Mr Tulsi.

When the show is over, the international jet-set has dozens of after-parties to choose from, the most sought-after being a trackside club night where Lady Gaga will perform a 20-minute set. Tickets start at $800 a head, and go up to $20,000 for a table of eight.

"There were 1,200 tickets and we have completely sold out," said Romola Bachchan, one of the organisers. "It shows the appetite for international entertainment in India, and also the spending power that exists now."

The Forbes India rich list for 2011 contains 57 billionaires. The country's 100 richest citizens are collectively worth US$241 billion and its GDP is expected to double in the next five years to nearly $9 trillion.

"It's a very limited number of people in the top bracket," said Ms Bachchan. "But they spend in a way that we don't even see in the West."

Beyond its luxury brand associations, India's first grand prix is also an unexpected treat for motorsports fans, and about 120,000 of them are expected to turn up for this afternoon's race.

"I'm a huge F1 fan, and I never thought it would come to my country," said 31-year-old chartered accountant Vihar Gupta, as he headed in to watch the qualifying sessions yesterday. "I'm so excited, it feels like I'm on drugs."

Jesdev Saggar, a managing director at Deloitte, flew from Dubai to see an F1 race in his home country. "I don't think Abu Dhabi's Grand Prix has anything to worry about just yet," he said. "But in terms of big projects, this is definitely an improvement on the Commonwealth Games."

That event, in Delhi last year, proved calamitous for India's international reputation. Filthy accommodation, shoddy stadiums and a stream of corruption allegations confirmed visitors' worst suspicions about the government's organisational abilities.

The Indian Grand Prix, by contrast, has had a relatively smooth preparation period, which many see as evidence only the private sector should be in charge of large projects. "We will make up for the shameful memories of the Commonwealth Games," Jaiprakash Gaur, founding chairman of the Jaypee Group which owns the circuit, told reporters.

The event has not been without a few hiccups, however, such as the moment when a stray dog ran on to the track midway through the first practice session on Friday.

Chaotic traffic on the approach to the race track yesterday forced many passengers to abandon their cars and rush to catch a glimpse of qualifying sessions.

The biggest embarrassment happened on the other side of the capital in Gurgaon, where Metallica were due to play their first performance in India on Friday night.

Billed as the main entertainment of the F1 weekend, it ended in disaster after a faulty safety barrier in front of the stage forced the organisers to cancel the show at the last minute, causing some in the furious crowd to raid the stage and demolish some of the band's equipment.

Four members of the DNA Network, which organised the concert, were arrested yesterday on charges of cheating and breach of trust, local media reported.

The deeper criticism of the F1 event is whether such a luxury event has any place in a country as poor as India, where the average income is less than US$1,200 a year.

Questions have also been raised about the manner in which the land was acquired to build the circuit and surrounding facilities, with some reports that disaffected farmers may attempt to sabotage today's race by blocking the roads.

But inside the track, these concerns mean little. The glitz and the glamour of the F1 roadshow create their own realities.

"This shows India has come of age," said Mr Tulsi. "It shows the technical and economic advancement in this country in the last decade.

"We are no longer a developing country."

Coverage, pages, s6-7

Published: October 30, 2011 04:00 AM


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