Indian Grand Prix: The Last Lap?
Bernie Ecclestone is to Formula One what N Srinivasan is to Indian – and by extension international – cricket. At 82, the patriarch of the sport is an angry old man. What cheesed him off were the tough Indian tax laws and of course, the ubiquitous red tape which we the natives have come to understandingly embrace as ‘bureaucratic hurdles’. At the receiving end of his ire is not just the future of F1 in India – which is more or less sealed – but also a foetal demise of a very elite kind of sports tourism. There definitely will not be an edition next year and the likelihood of it happening afterwards is as slim as two-second pit stops. Not impossible but very rare.
‘Very political,’ is what Bernie replied when asked about the reason for the scrapping of Indian GP from F1 calendar. In a country where all sporting bodies – although his loyalties are pretty much in a staunch place, Mr Srinivasan is a notable exception – are helmed by politicians, this was long time coming. Then again though the marquee sport took off with much fanfare in 2011, the fan base was missing. Contrary to expectations, the numbers actually waned from close to a lakh during the inaugural episode to 60,000 the following year. Not too way off considering we as a country are besotted with the mileage question: Personally it hurts to know that the pacy monsters return a little over a kilometre – 1.3km to be exact – to the litre. Say I forego the ‘kitna deti hai’ question for adrenaline-sake even then I have a squeal with the current crop.
Where’s the Rush?
Hamilton or Button, Alonso or Vettel…all are a very cautious lot – both on and off track. I will not say the same for Rosberg, at least not yet; his run at the Monaco this year was sheer bravado despite Vettel clocking the fastest lap. (Or was it because Vettel clocked the fastest lap?) Not just the drivers, the sport itself has become too careful for my expectations, you will agree if you rewind to the recent hullaballoo over tyres, treads and debris. Call me a fatalist or nincompoop but I feel when you are talking 900 horses and eight cylinders, 19,000 rpm and top speeds of 200 mph, things gotta be more happening than the Greater Noida Expressway.
More than watching new races I am better kicked reading about the GPs of the 70s. Now those were the glory days of the sport – of captivating, riveting rivalries. You could smell in the air that Niki Lauda and James Hunt were out to destroy each other, whatever it took. In the process the tarmac smouldered, many cars went turtle and some to smithereens. Commentators took sides and they screamed. Once the race was over Niki and James was the best of pals and Hunt went on to party with the half of British Airways’ staff, assuming half of the fleet’s crew were women. The closest to any off circuit excitement I had in recent times was after the Malaysian GP last year when Vettel called Narain Karthikeyan an ‘idiot’. Though Narain did retort with a ‘cry baby’ the outburst itself was uncalled for; it happened because of Vettel cutting in too early. Hunt would’ve lit up another Marlboro and just shrugged it off. He also had to attend to the BA crew. None of the drivers today have the charisma – or the endearing vulnerability – to inspire the kind of worship F1 fans had for him. Media-savvy image managers today manage your perception, understanding, even love for the driver through carefully drafted PR releases. The closest we know Hamilton is that he is in an on-off with Nicole Scherzinger. How exciting.
All things good…
Delhi was not always the first city of choice to host the Grand Prix. Way back in 1997 when we woke to the immense potential of the sporting spectacle to attract the traditionally high-spending F1 aficionados as well as to improve our international standing on the global sports platform, Kolkata was the preferred venue. Over a decade later when it finally came to India – via the Buddh International Circuit in Delhi – we had the fans in exultant legions. Built by Jaypee Sports International and designed by renowned race track designer Hermann Tilke, this 5.4km long track is among the fastest in the world. “What I like about it is it’s different width in different areas, that’s really good to test us, not just to have a fixed width all the way round the track,” Webber was quoted in 2011. Another example of innovation in Buddh design was the differential elevation around various corners making it almost like a motocross track. What pushed drivers made for great gallery. The first instalment was a declared hit. Then like all good things, this one too had to end. Probably that it was very good made for an early demise. Like some believe for people.
The harsh reality is closer than the third corner yet the organisers seem to be languishing in denial. ‘Some international news organisations are trying to spread rumours that JPSI may not host 2014 Indian GP. This is baseless and malicious. Our agreement with the Formula One management is to hold races at Buddh International Circuit till 2015 and we are fully committed to do that,’ goes a statement from Jaypee Sports International. The World Motor Sport Council held in Croatia in September released the Formula One calendar for 2014; while the media in India called it a ‘provisional’ schedule, the FIA website classifies it ‘confirmed’. There are three new entrants – Russia, New Jersey and Austria – but not India. Besides the ‘political’ reason, Bernie had also cited the need to ‘limit the number of races to 20’ following ‘requests from different participating teams’. The confirmed calendar on FIA site has listed 22 races including two provisional and the three new ones. Whose schnozzle is getting longer here?
Let the party begin
Save for ticket sale figures – which have been admittedly sluggish – the organisers are yet to issue a statement in this regard. But with the race itself just round the corner the naysaying can surely wait. As can comparisons to the debacle that was the Commonwealth Games – which was expected to catapult India into international limelight and mark an ambitious foray into generating tourism numbers through sporting events; but which ended up cementing the country’s reputation among the most corrupt countries in the world. Practice and qualifiers begin this Friday October 25 with the finals on October 27, as always, a Sunday. The party has started, so has the packages – deluxe property owners and tour operators are vying for a slice of high-spending F1 devotees expected to land in droves. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel who won the two earlier editions is the punter’s delight and the crowd favourite. The trophy has been designed by a leading industrial designer incorporating elements of sports, technology, glamour, entertainment and the Asoka Chakra. The huge success of the recently released F1 drama Rush is also expected to add to the numbers as well the experience. In case you need more action Ferrari has said that their cars will carry the flag of the Italian Navy – to express solidarity with the naval officers who were detained in India for killing two Indian fishermen mistaking them to be pirates.
If ever sports and politics made for a great mix, this would be it.
(As a befitting curtain-raiser to the hopefully-not last edition, the National Geographic Channel will be airing ‘Buddh International Circuit: A Race Against Time’ at 8pm on October 25, a one-hour documentary on the race track and the labour behind the love.)