At a time when we have been increasingly used to new F1 events, the arrival of the World Championship circus at the Buddh International Circuit has produced an enormous reaction; not only from a huge Indian audience being introduced to this most high technology of sports, but also to a sometimes jaundiced F1 community which could not ignore the fact that F1 coming to India is very big, very different and very exciting.
The steady move by Formula One into new territories, starting with Malaysia in 1999, has seen China, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Korea join a series which, for the first time in its history, can really lay claim to being truly ‘global’.
What was different about this weekend’s Indian Grand Prix is that F1 already has significant Indian interest, so while the other new venues have sometimes seen poor audiences, little support from the indigenous population and a media unable to create many ‘local’ stories, this new race saw Indian drivers and an Indian team able to play a central role. Key, one would say, to helping to ensure a turn out of 95,000 spectators on race day and an estimated 180,000 for the weekend. As journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay wrote on website www.asiancorrespondent.com, India’s vast and growing middle classes appeared to like what they saw.
If neither Narain Karthikeyan in his HRT nor the Sahara Force India cars could promise an Indian victory, they went a long way towards giving Indian fans the sense of belonging in a sport where all too often the players, teams and show can seem irrelevant to all but the governments paying for F1 to grace their shores. Whilst there was disappointment that the popular Karun Chandhok did not get to race for Team Lotus, he did at least take part in practice, and the commitment of private enterprise within the sport was another reason for Indian pride to be boosted. Karthikeyan’s HRT displayed the branding of Indian automotive giant Tata, the combined power of VJ Mallya’s empire and that of the Sahara Group funds Force India, and most importantly Jaypee Sports International paid for the circuit and the event to be staged. Jaypee built it, and the fans came.
All told, this was India at its best. Naturally, there were some shocked reactions from visitors unused to seeing the appalling poverty which can be witnessed in India. Certain western media tried hard to claim that F1 had no right to visit the country. But this was a narrow view, and a double standard. If rampant poverty adjacent to F1 was a reason not to host an event, F1 wouldn’t race in Sao Paulo, and the Brazilian Grand Prix is regarded as one of the foundation events on the calendar.
The presence of Indian celebrities including Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and tennis player Sania Mirza added the usual glamour to the event, but perhaps it was the role played by cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar that topped the bill. He waved the chequered flag at the end of World Champion Sebastian Vettel’s lights-to-flag victory, reminding the world that when it comes to sport this is one country that knows how to create some magic.