x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Indian interest has entered top gear

As Bahrain hosts the start of the F1 season, the indicators are showing there are other nations willing to collect the baton and race with it.

When Abu Dhabi closed the 2009 Formula One season with a glittering Grand Prix last November at the Yas Marina Circuit, much was made of the Middle East's ability to shine amid recession-induced gloom. This weekend, Bahrain is once again showcasing the Arab world's enthusiasm and commitment to motorsport, this time with the season opener. However, while the Gulf is clearly growing in importance in terms of the development and evolution of F1 - earlier this week in Manama, the World Motor Sports Council held their first meeting in the Middle East - already the indicators are showing there are other nations willing to collect the baton and race with it.

Anybody involved in business knows the benefits and attractions of the BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - and Formula One, with the billionaire Bernie Ecclestone at the helm, is no different. The four highest-growth emerging economies are unmatched by any others in the world. Which could explain the decisions behind the five new faces who will join the likes of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton on the track at the Bahrain International Circuit.

Renault's new recruit, Vitaly Petrov, is from Russia, while Virgin's Lucas di Grassi is Brazilian, as is Bruno Senna of HRT. Senna's teammate, Karun Chandhok, who did not take to the track yesterday because his car was still being worked on, was born in Chennai, India. Only Schumacher's German compatriot, Niko Hulkenburg, of Williams, does not represent one of the world's emerging powerhouses. Ecclestone is also benefiting from BRIC interest, turning his Formula One circus into a truly worldwide series. While countries such as France, Canada and the United States have struggled to ensure their place on the 19-race calendar, Brazil has been steadfast since 1972 and China an ever-present since 2004. South Korea will host its first race this season if the track is complete, while Russia is building a Formula One circuit close to St Petersburg.

But, arguably, it is India taking the biggest strides. The country is scheduled to host its first Grand Prix next year, near New Delhi, while it is already represented on the grid by Force India. With Chandhok having secured a seat with HRT, Indian interest in Formula One racing is going to increase more quickly than the machines lapping Sakhir this afternoon. I met Chandhok a couple of years ago in Dubai. He was competing in the GP2 Series and staying with his family, who have a home there.

Over steaming mugs of chai, we discussed the then 24-year-old's background, his aspirations and his thoughts on the Subcontinent's growing involvement in motor sport. It was April and less than a month since Force India made their F1 debut in Australia. Chandhok spoke candidly and eloquently of his friendship with the team's owner, Vijay Mallya, and it quickly became clear that this was a young man with a dream.

But he was adamant that he would do it his way. "I do not want to be in F1 just to be in F1," he said. "I do not want to be a one-year wonder. I do not want to do a year at Force India, everyone gets their marketing kicks out of me, then I disappear." Chandhok got his wish. And HRT, with perhaps less publicity than Force India would have attracted, now have a driver who is being urged on by more than a billion people. Formula One has always been big business, but now, thanks to financial and personnel investments, it is BRIC business too.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae