x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

F1 culture in India is catching up fast

In a country that never slows down, Formula One has soared in popularity but it would be a big mistake to suggest that India's racing culture is a new one.

Force India's introduction in 2008 has helped raise the awareness of Formula One in the country. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Force India's introduction in 2008 has helped raise the awareness of Formula One in the country. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

You only have to sit in a rickshaw zipping through traffic in any of the major cities to know that the need for speed is an integral part of Indian life.

That fascination will be taken to its logical conclusion on October 30, the weekend after Diwali - the festival of lights - as the country hosts its first Formula One race at the Jaypee Group Circuit in Greater Noida.

Think F1 tracks and you might consider the iconic figure-eight one at Suzuka in Japan or the picturesque circuit around Albert Park in Melbourne which will stage this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

You are unlikely to imagine the dusty plains of western Uttar Pradesh, but the long-cherished dream of two generations of motorsport fans is now set to become reality.

The track is expected to cost US$350 million (Dh1.285 billion) once complete and is part of a planned sports city. Designed by Hermann Rilke, who supervised the changes to several European circuits, including Hockenheim, it is just over five kilometres long. The race will be over 60 laps.

Interest in F1 has skyrocketed since the Force India team became part of the paddock in 2008, but it would be a big mistake to suggest that India's racing culture is a new one.

Barrackpore in Kolkata used to host races, but the real centre of Indian motorsport for decades was a converted Second World War airstrip at Sholavaram, on the northern outskirts of Chennai.

They raced there for three decades before moving to a purpose-built track at Irungattukottai.

One of the luminaries on the scene was the Coimbatore-based Sundaram Karivardhan. Not only did he race, but with a background in engineering, he designed and promoted cheaper race cars to make the dream affordable for many more.

The Formula Maruti series that he helped create provided a stage for the likes of Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, both of whom have driven in F1.

Karivardhan's death in a plane crash in 1995 was a massive setback for Indian motorsport and a racetrack in his hometown is now named in his honour.

Awareness of F1 started to seep in during the 1980s with the advent of video cassette players. Lending libraries would get footage of races and the diehard fans would watch even if it was a few weeks delayed.

The intense competition during that era — with Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet going wheel to wheel — helped the sport gain a small but committed following.

That was greatly enhanced once satellite television became a part of urban life. Starting in the early 1990s, the Indian sports lovers' horizons expanded limitlessly.

It became possible to watch every F1 race live, and restaurants and clubs took advantage by planning special promotions around race day.

Vijay Mallya's United Breweries was at the forefront of that and having raced a little himself, it was no surprise when he eventually decided to take the F1 plunge with Force India. After the expected rocky start, the team has consolidated. They scored 68 points last season.

With India now part of the calendar, it is only natural that team principals look to Indian drivers to try and maximise marketing possibilities.

Karthikeyan scored just five points in his 19 races, but at the age of 34, and after a six-year hiatus, he has been granted the most unexpected of second chances.

Having last raced with Jordan, he then went to the Le Mans Series and Nascar. Now, Hispania Racing have paired him with Vitantonio Liuzzi. With the car slow and uncompetitive, it remains to be seen whether he will even make it to the main grid - the 107 per cent minimum pace rule is back in place - for most races.

One of those he replaced in the Hispania set-up is Chandhok, who drove 10 races last year before being jettisoned. He finished 14th in Monte Carlo and also at Albert Park, but the team's perilous finances forced him out.

This season, Chandhok, now 27, will be the backup driver for Team Lotus, behind Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen. If the October race is a big success, there is a strong possibility of a team trying to cash in by giving him a seat for next season.

In a country where poverty is such an issue, the move to bring in F1 has obviously been controversial.

Back in 2003/04, Hyderabad was the front-runner to host a grand prix, with Chandrababu Naidu, then chief minister, taking a personal interest in the project.

But with millions of farmers facing crippling drought, the expected cost of $200m was a deterrent and the dream died with his election defeat.

Now, it has been resurrected, and if the new generation of Indian drivers like Armaan Ebrahim can make an impact in the near future, F1 will be here to stay.

It has been a long journey from abandoned airstrip to a purpose-built circuit.