x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

F1 grand prix on track to be a hit with India fans

This could be a breakout year for Formula One in India. The country will host its first race and it is a second chance for Narain Karthikeyan to make an impact in the sport.

Construction of the Jaypee International Race Circuit in Uttar Pradesh, 50km south-east of the Indian capital New Delhi.
Construction of the Jaypee International Race Circuit in Uttar Pradesh, 50km south-east of the Indian capital New Delhi.

The delightful smell of fresh crops and clean air will be replaced by petroleum and burning rubber. The grazing livestock will morph into revving machines of speed and India's serenity will be smashed by palpable, pulse-quickening noise.

For the fourth consecutive season, the new Formula One calendar sees Bernie Ecclestone's motorsports circus roll up for the first time on a brand new circuit in a city and country that have never before experienced the shock to the senses that comes with F1.

The Jaypee International Race Circuit in the state of Uttar Pradesh, located 50km south-east of the Indian capital of New Delhi follows in the footsteps of Valencia, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and South Korea and will host its inaugural race later this year.

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As the only new race of the season, intrigue in the subcontinent was already high, but with the presence of Force India in the championship and the return of southern Indian F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan, the 34-year-old who has not competed in a grand prix since 2005, interest is intensifying.

The race will take place on October 30, subject to "homologation" - the inspection and approval from the Federation Internationale d'Automobile that the track meets all predetermined requirements - three months prior. It will mark a monumental journey that began more than a decade ago and has coursed its way across the country.

An agreement was reached as early as 2003 for Hyderabad to host the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2007, but the following year Kolkata and Mumbai expressed an interest in hosting and plans were postponed. Within 12 months all three cities had been ruled out of the running, while plans for Karthikeyan to perform an interest-generating demonstration along Mumbai's Marina Drive were cancelled due to the road not being smooth enough.

"Even a two-inch bump could send Karthikeyan into the sea," said Nitin Dossa, the chairman of the Western India Automobile Association.

June 2007 saw Ecclestone confirm an Indian race would take place in New Delhi in 2009, but less than four months later and the project had been delayed a further year and the venue had been moved to Greater Noida.

By September 2008, a two-year timetable did not appear viable and, once again, the first race was pushed back 12 months to 2011.

"The India GP has been a point of discussion for the past 10 years," said Vicky Chandhok, the president of the country's motorsports club and father of Karun, the F1 driver who raced last season with Hispania Racing Team (HRT).

"The original plans all involved various governmental agencies and bodies, but eventually, a private company - an infrastructure group - decided to do it as part of a land development."

Jaypee Sports International was established in 2007 in Noida and quickly set about constructing their race circuit as the focal point of Jaypee Sports City, a massive site that will also feature several sporting arenas. "It was the only way where it made logical sense," Chandhok said.

"Rather than just having a Formula One facility, they are literally building a township around it. It is spread across 2,500 acres of land, expanding to 5,000 acres. There will be a cricket stadium, a hockey stadium, apartments, golf resorts - it will be the whole shooting match.

"It will have all the world-class sporting facilities that are needed and Formula One will be a part of that."

With Karun Chandhok losing his HRT seat midway through last season and having to make do with being test driver for Team Lotus this year, it was unclear whether an Indian driver would compete in the country's inaugural race.

However, Karthikeyan announced in January that, with the financial backing of the Tata Group, the multinational conglomerate based in Mumbai, HRT would once again provide a seat to an Indian driver.

Born in Coimbatore, southern India, Karthikeyan began his Formula One career with Jordan in 2005, becoming his country's first F1 driver and securing a fourth-placed finish at the United States Grand Prix. When Jordan were rebranded Midland under new management, Karthikeyan left and spent two seasons as a test driver with Williams.

In 2007, following Karthikeyan's loss of sponsorship, also from Tata, with it went his involvement with Williams and he explored opportunities in other forms of motorsport, including A1GP, Nascar and the Le Mans Series.

Now, five seasons since his last competitive Formula One race, the 34-year-old returns to the grid this weekend in Australia.

"With the Indian Grand Prix coming in this year, that was a big factor for me to get back into Formula One," Karthikeyan said.

"A lot of things have changed since I was with Williams in 2007 and the cars are definitely different, but I should be able to find my feet again quite fast. It's going to be an incredible feeling to be driving in my home country.

"Everybody is excited for India's first F1 grand prix and we will have a lot of people watching it."

Precisely how many Indians will turn up - or tune in - to watch the world's best drivers negotiate the 16 turns spread across 5.14km of asphalt in Greater Noida remains unknown, but with 110,000 seats and plans to add a further 90,000, JPSI are clearly expecting the sport to capture public interest.

The country's Auto Car magazine recently claimed record readership figures, but Karthikeyan appreciates garnering support is a long-term project. India signed a 10-year contract with F1.

"Motorsport in India is very small to be honest," he said. "Things are happening, but very slowly - it is not even minute; motor racing just doesn't even register on the sports field.

"I hope things will change with the exposure to motorsports that will come with the grand prix, but it will take time. The publicity for motor racing in India is very small, but F1 is quite popular on TV. When I made my debut in 2005, overnight it attracted a lot more viewers."

Vicky Chandhok, having been involved in and around the paddock for more than a decade, was there in 2005 and has witnessed first-hand the evolution of interest in Formula One.

But he says that while support on the subcontinent is rising, more needs to be done by local companies to show their backing. Without sponsorship drivers such as Karun and Karthikeyan have little chance.

"Three years ago when Force India joined the F1 calendar, the TV viewership in India went up 17 per cent. When Karun came on it went up by more than 35 per cent," said Chandhok, who explained that while countries such as Germany, Spain and the UK have several drivers, India lacked a role model to follow.

"Every country wants an icon, but at the moment Indian drivers' pockets are not deep enough for motorsport because all new drivers need to bring in tonnes of money.

"There are new teams that need money and if a driver's got money then he gets a seat - whether that is right or wrong is debatable, but that's the fact of the matter."

Karthikeyan, on October 30, will not be arguing.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae