x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Yellow flag for India's 'King of Good Times'

Vijay Mallya first found his taste for speed as a teenager, racing souped-up versions of the Fiat-designed Premier Padmini in Kolkata, India, in the 1970s.

Force India's owner Vijay Mallya built the team up from the ruins of the old Jordan-Spyker team at the end of 2007.
Force India's owner Vijay Mallya built the team up from the ruins of the old Jordan-Spyker team at the end of 2007.

Vijay Mallya first found his taste for speed as a teenager, racing souped-up versions of the Fiat-designed Premier Padmini in Kolkata, India, in the 1970s. He then went on to win India's non-championship grand prix of the 1980s twice, driving Formula One cars borrowed from Morris Nunn's Ensign team. He has India's largest collection of vintage and luxury cars - about 250 at the last count - including a 1924 Rolls-Royce and a 1903 Humber, and he still enjoys racing a go-kart around a track.

There is even a rather unlikely story going around Alibag, the town near Mumbai where Dr Mallya has a mansion, that he sometimes sends a team of 10 or more staff down to the beach, before gunning one of his older cars down on to the sand. The staff then lift the car and turn it around for the return journey. So Force India, the F1 team that Dr Mallya has built from the ruins of the old Jordan-Spyker team, is as much a creature of his passions as a marketing tool for his business empire.

And that is very much the way that India's most flamboyant magnate likes to do things. The self-styled "King of Good Times" is nothing like the traditional, conservative Indian business patriarch. He is known as "India's Richard Branson", but he has none of Mr Branson's understated humility, and with his silver locks, goatee, diamond ear studs and gold jewellery, he looks more like a 1980s rock manager. The doctorate is an honorary one awarded by the University of Southern California.

Dr Mallya has so fused his lifestyle with the marketing for Kingfisher, India's leading beer brand, and his Bagpiper and Royal Challenge whiskies, that it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. He bought a luxury 95-metre yacht, Indian Empress, with shareholders' cash and packs it with models and film starlets, whisking them back and forward from Mumbai's Gateway of India on a fleet of Kingfisher-liveried speedboats. But the boats are just as likely to contain his business partners, and while his parties, both on board or in glamorous locales such as the French Riviera, are legendary, Dr Mallya often appears only briefly, before disappearing to run his businesses from a darkened room nearby.

He lives notoriously unconventional hours, often starting his day in the afternoon and holding business meetings well into the early morning. He is constantly flitting between houses in London, the south of France, Bangalore, and Delhi - where he was an MP - and even a castle in Scotland. Motor racing is not the only passion that Dr Mallya has tied into promoting his brands. His thoroughbreds are an annual fixture at Mumbai's Mahalaxmi racecourse, where he sponsors the most famous derby. And his Royal Challengers cricket team, captained by the former Test spin bower Anil Kumble and including the legendary batsman Rahul Dravid, made it to the final of last year's Indian Premier League.

When Dr Mallya launched Kingfisher Airlines in May 2005, it, like his more recent sports dalliances, was widely seen as an advertising venture. Advertising of alcoholic beverages is banned in India, and the airline, the thinking went, offered him the chance to mark his beer forever as the drink of high flyers. Flyers are still greeted by a video of Dr Mallya informing them in a deep, self-satisfied drawl that he has personally selected all of the flight attendants.

Dr Mallya grew the airline with typical boldness, increasing the number of planes in operation from four to 72 in four years and offering full service while other airlines were resolutely low cost. In 2007, Kingfisher Airlines carried 12.5 million passengers. The commercial logic of Force India is equally clear, and you can be certain the likes of Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 supremo, and Max Mosley, the former president of the governing body, are keen to lure a slice of India's cricket-mad sports fans and more than approved of Dr Mallya's involvement.

Mr Ecclestone has long been trying to bring some Indian drivers into the sport ahead of a planned 2011 Indian Grand Prix. Some 22 million Indian viewers watched F1 races in 2007, and given India's 1.2 billion population, tripling viewer numbers should not be impossible with a little success for the team. From the launch of Force India's first car, VJM01, to today's VJM02, Dr Mallya has maintained his ambition to get on the podium when India hosts its own grand prix 50km from Delhi. And when Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella managed to make second position in the Belgian Grand Prix last month, after Force India's rather lacklustre performance last year, Dr Mallya's ambition no longer looks quite so unattainable.

The recent stunt by the former Red Bull driver David Coulthard, racing at top speed along Mumbai's new cable-stay bridge, the Bandra Worli sea link, has also helped build F1's name in India, as has speculation over the potential new Indian drivers Narain Karthikeyan, Karun Chandhok and Neel Jani. The main obstacle now, it seems, is the sharp deterioration in the finances of Force India's high-rolling backer.

When Dr Mallya made the Force India acquisition at the end of 2007, he was revelling in India's new economic strength. But it now looks like Dr Mallya may have made one big bet too many in the boom. He was one of 29 Indians to drop off Forbes magazine's billionaire list in March this year. According to Forbes, his various holdings lost between half and 90 per cent of their values from March last year, and Dr Mallya's fortune, estimated at US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) then, went with it. These shares have now partially recovered, but Dr Mallya is still unlikely to make the Forbes list next year. And So the F1 team is likely to see more competition for its annual budget, while Dr Mallya has his work cut out to bring his empire back to health. Then again, this may be exactly the challenge that gets his adrenalin flowing.

@Email:business@thenational