India is the
world's largest democracy
an unmistakable slant toward Asia these days in Formula One. The sport,
which was once considered a European bastion and was almost mistaken to be
a prized possession of the Europeans, is no longer just an EU-centric one.
The sport has taken flight to new shores, new countries that are willing to
experiment. Moreover, the power of the internet and television has put
Formula One firmly on pole position across Asia.
In the last seven years, Formula One has gone on an Asian sojourn. Japan has
had a F1 race for many years, but that was the only Asian country until
Malaysia broke the barrier with the Sepang track.
However, the curiosity factor did ensure a large crowd at the turnstiles the
first year. But to retain the popularity, they needed a Malaysian connection
and no longer the Petronas-sponsored Sauber outfit had the power to attract
enough eyeballs. Hence, the next logical step was to have a Malaysian driver
on the Formula One grid to turn on the casual visitor.
Alex Yoong donned the Minardi colors to fly the Malaysian flag. But his
drive turned out to be more calamitous than anything foreseen. And it almost
earned a sneering nickname for Asian pay drivers.
But the foundation for Formula One's strong presence was put in place.
If you thought Formula One's new found market in Asia was just to put the
world's premier auto racing series on the global arena, you would be
mistaken. The ever-shrewd man that he is, Bernie Ecclestone, the czar Of
Formula One, wanted to move out of the European clutches because it would
certainly give him a base where he didnít have to depend on the anti-tobacco
ban that the EU put in place.
When other countries saw the boost in the local economy that Formula One
provided in Malaysia, it drew them to the drawing board. It was time to put
their hats in the ring, so to speak. Now, getting to host a Formula One race
almost became synonymous to some prized oil drilling contract in Iraq.
China then came into the fold in 2004. Shanghai, which is increasingly
getting the name of 'the New York of Asia', fell into the Formula One map and
it certainly boosted the presence of the sport in the world's fastest
growing economy. China was always considered the final frontier by
Ecclestone. Some sort of an Iron Curtain.
And when Formula One became the first major sporting event to make its foray
into the Chinese market, things certainly seemed brighter for the sport.
Then came another Asian into the driving ranks.
When the 2005 season kicked-off, India, the world's largest democracy and
the second-most populous country in the world, finally made a blip on the
Formula One radar.
The long-awaited Narain Karthikeyan, India's premier racing driver, donned
the Jordan colors when he turned up on the grid at Melbourne.
When this writer met Ecclestone at Indianapolis in June 2004, India was on
the front burner of Ecclestone's plans. Ecclestone, the pragmatist, opined
that he would first rather see an Indian driver on the grid before getting
to figure out the maze that India was. How prophetic his words turned out to
The next season, Narain enjoyed a more than mediocre season with Jordan, a
team certainly on life support for most of the year. It's more than a fact
that Narain brought with him oodles of greenbacks to bag the drive.
Condescendingly-put, he is viewed as another Asian pay-driver by many of the
owners. Of course, there is some credence to that phrase, too.
The key question here is now that Narain has broken the ice for India on the
Formula One circuit, can India possibly host an F1 race in the future? To
that the answer should be, "but why not"?
But it isn't as simple as saying it is so. Formula One officials might have
a sterner task at hand in convincing a government-sponsored race in India
when there are other issues to which resources need to be allocated. It's a
tough sell, for sure. The government, of course, would come under criticism
to involve in what common people would call, such excesses. It requires both
deft PR and adept handling of the issue.
However, Formula One has generated false alarms several times on Indian
soil. During the late '90s a bunch of Non-Resident Indians (NRI) formed a
core group called Grand Prix India Inc. in the U.K. and signed a memorandum
with one the West Bengal government (a province on the Eastern part of
India) and almost were allocated huge acres of land near the metropolis of
Calcutta (now Kolkata). However, the project was abandoned for various
Next up, when the technology boom was happening in India and when IT moguls
from Bill Gates to Craig Barrett visited the southern city of Hyderabad, it
prompted the local government to ponder over having a Formula One race,
which they thought would certainly boost the image of the city.
The head of the state formed a delegation and went to Monza in 2004, the
site of the Italian Grand Prix, to get a look at what F1 was all about. The
site for the construction of a track was chosen but when a deal was about to
be inked, fate had something else in store. The government in power lost in
the elections and the new incumbent didn't warm up to an idea of having a
Formula One race.
Narain's presence, of course, has brought a glimmer of hope for avid Formula
One fans in India. News reports about various State Government officials
expressing their intent to host a F1 race do crop up from time to time, but
nothing concrete has so far emerged.
With Narain's entry into Formula One, the TV ratings received a massive
boost in India. Already, Formula One is the second-most watched sports event
in the country and with the Jordan driver carrying the hopes of almost a
billion fans, the image of the sport skyrocketed.
Ecclestone is sure to cash in this new-found craze for the sport in India.
Hence, the now dormant talks of hosting a race might soon erupt in the near
future. The race to host a Formula One event is now between Mumbai and
Bangalore. But to get a spot in the pinnacle of motor racing, there should
be a free-flow of money toward improving the infrastructure of roads,
transportation, airports, hotels and hospitals.
However, the government is slowly inching toward achieving this erstwhile
dream. But it's miles to go before can become reality.
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