Will there ever be an F1 race in India?

 by G. Venkat Ganeshan
February 7, 2006

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India is the world's largest democracy

There is 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 be.

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 reasons.

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.

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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