x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tendulkar flies the flag

With the i1 Super Series and also the World Series Hockey scheduled to start next month, these are exciting times for Indian sport.

In the week since Sachin Tendulkar waved the chequered flag for Sebastian Vettel at the first Indian Grand Prix, debate has raged over Formula One's place in the Indian sporting firmament.

Several million, including the 95,000 who made the journey to the Buddh International Circuit on the outskirts of New Delhi, are thrilled that the country has finally found a place on the motorsport map.

Others, who decry F1 as an elitist sport, wonder why the two billion rupees (Dh149.7 million) that was spent on the circuit wasn't utilised for something more worthwhile.

If recent events are any guide, though, the F1 race is only the beginning. Motorsport, whether it be cars or bikes, has always sought pastures new.

The developing nations of Asia are fertile ground, with huge captive TV audiences and corporations eager for exposure on the world stage.

In India, the success of Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket has opened many people's eyes to the possibilities that involvement in sport offers.

In just over two months, Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit will host the first two races of the i1 Super Series, with 18 cars lining up on the grid.

Tendulkar may be in Australia with the Indian cricket team, but his absence at the finish line won't detract from the spectacle. This time, he won't be a fan. He is one of the investors, owning a 26 per cent share in the league, along with Anjana Reddy.

His involvement with the Mumbai Indians in the IPL has seen thousands of blue No 10 jerseys sold, and his backing for this racing endeavour has been enough to convince some of India's rich and famous to put their money into it.

Vijay Mallya, who owns the Force India team that has improved so rapidly on the F1 grid, is a notable absentee, but several others who have also staked some of their fortunes on the IPL will be part of the i1 Super Series.

Given how fans bought into the city-based franchise model for the IPL, motorsport is looking to replicate the same formula. There will be nine teams based in Indian cities, with two cars on each team, and the season that begins on January 8 and ends on February 26 will see 12 races, two on each weekend.

The Buddh circuit will play host twice, with Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, Bahrain and Qatar the other venues. Given the number of expatriate Indians in each of those territories, the series is likely to generate considerable interest.

Organised by Machdar Motorsports, the i1 series will use the Radical SR3 chassis, which weighs 570kg and is an open-top car that can reach a top speed of 250kph. Each team will have three drivers, one of them a non-Indian.

Unlike the IPL, which auctioned off the original eight franchises - the Mumbai Indians were the most expensive at US$111.9m (Dh411m) - these teams, costing around $20m each, have been put together by invitation.

There is no lack of stardust, however, with Shah Rukh Khan, one of the kings of the Bollywood box office and the Kolkata Knight Riders owner, said to be part of the Mumbai franchise.

Mohit Burman, who has a stake in the IPL's Kings XI Punjab, has invested in the Delhi team, while Tony Fernandes, whose sporting involvement includes F1's Team Lotus and Queens Park Rangers in the English Premier League, is one of the backers for the Chennai team.

The cricketing angle isn't restricted to Tendulkar, with Sourav Ganguly said to be involved in the Kolkata franchise and Yuvraj Singh investing in the Chandigarh team. With a broadcast deal already arranged with Ten Sports, the project has no shortage of backing. Tendulkar, who was once gifted a Ferrari when a brand ambassador for Fiat, is central to its success, though. In many people's eyes, his involvement gives the enterprise the sheen of legitimacy, and if he manages to make it to any of the races, it will attract quite a few extra fans.

Most of all, this is a wonderful opportunity for young Indian driving talent to push for the big time. Narain Karthikeyan raced in Delhi last Sunday, but was a backmarker, while Lotus didn't even give Karun Chandhok a ride.

For them, and others like Armaan Ebrahim, rated the best young prospect in India, it's a chance to show off their skills in front of big crowds and a sizeable TV audience.

With World Series Hockey - a city-based competition that will feature more than 100 international stars - also scheduled to start next month, these are exciting times for Indian sport.

The emergence of these alternate activities, after years of shoestring budgets for anything that wasn't cricket, are sure signs that urban India is ready to move on from its one-sport obsession.

The stars will be there in force at Yas Marina. It's now down to India's racers to show that they deserve their moments in the sun.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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