x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Gearing up for new challenge

Indian Grand Prix will enhance Asia's influence on F1 and help encourage young drivers from the subcontinent.

The news that India will host a Formula One Grand Prix next year, despite the financial differences between promoters and government officials, caught my eye on Friday. It was the same day the curtain went up on the third staging of the Indian Premier League. It did not get pride of place in Saturday's newspapers in India but it is no less significant than the cricket circus, which promises to come back each year and bring India to a standstill.
So what does the country gain by becoming a Formula One venue? A lot actually, considering there is huge following for the sport (many believe it should not be called a sport as it is all about the car, but never mind) in this part of the world. Apart from the event being a big draw for youngsters, Indians like their share of speed, skill and adventure. One only has to look at how they negotiate some of the dicey roads everyday of their lives.
A race in India will also mean the Asian influence on Formula One is more or less complete - with Singapore, the UAE, Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, China and Malaysia as venues. It was also the weekend when Karun Chandhok, the Indian driver, made his debut for Hispania F1 team. His first Grand Prix in Bahrain on Sunday was a big disappointment when he retired after just two laps, but even the best sporting exponents have to be given time to settle down on a bigger stage. It is in India's sporting culture to be impatient and even the most talented are subjected to unfair scrutiny.
Chandhok is not the first Indian to take part in contemporary Formula One. Narain Karthikeyan, who was on the Jordan team in 2005 and a test driver for Williams in 2006 and 2007, has been an inspiration to many drivers. It is a pity he is not involved with F1 anymore and many believe Vijay Mallya should have had him on his Force India team. The more patriotic felt Mallya's decision to have India mention on his team label was warped when he did not have a driver from his home nation racing for him.
Racing fans had expected Karthikeyan to be in a Force India car. That he did not even get an opportunity to test for the team was a heartbreaker. Who knows what the future holds for Chandhok and Karthikeyan, but India must have representation at the wheel for the first race to be a success. If not it will be another of those high-profile events which do not leave a mark on the country's sporting history.
Champions in any sphere do not pop out of thin air but from a system that is held together by vision, desire and belief. Sure, Indian drivers will not be on the podium straight away, but they should be given a chance to prove themselves. Next year's event in India will not mean much if there is no sustained interest. Every sport needs skilled individuals for it to take off. Skills may vary, but as long as the gap between the good and the great is not too wide, it is not going to be disastrous.
And while India should accept that they may not be top of the pile, they should not lose hope. Only the highly optimistic will visualise a big pool of driving talent from India, but if Chandhok shows enough promise this year, he will do wonders for his country's home event and its future. Karthikeyan cannot be called a forgotten star because he is still involved in racing with A1 Team India, but he is not a Formula One driver.
India will need a face like him to cheer, and hopefully Chandhok will be around for quite some time. It may sound funny to those who believe winning is everything, but in India it is not paramount. That is why a sportsperson like the Indian tennis star Sania Mirza is hugely followed despite her constant failings on the world stage. India is waiting for Mirza to do something very special, but at the same time no one can say she has not been inspirational to the country's youth.
This holds true for other sports. Vijender Singh did not win gold at the Boxing World Championship in Milan, Italy, but his bronze medal was enough infuse a sense of belief in his fellow and younger boxers. In fact, there are four Indians through to the finals of the Commonwealth Boxing Championships in New Delhi in October. India will be good hosts next year, but it is important to prosper even after the guests have said their goodbyes.
Clayton Murzello is the Group Sports Editor of the Indian news- paper Midday.
sports@thenational.ae