The noisiest circus in sport—more raucous even than the cacophonous Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket—is coming to town.
The inaugural Formula1 Airtel Indian Grand Prix (GP) was staged in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, at the end of October last year and now the rowdy roundabout is returning, even more brashly confident than it was 12 months ago.
But is Formula One’s (F1’s) chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, to be taken seriously when he says that the sport will eventually be bigger than cricket in India? How relevant is this most ostentatiously expensive of events to the modern India, where poverty is still widespread despite the increase in the nation’s wealth?
The much respected F1 commentator Steve Rider says in his autobiography, My Chequered Career, which is getting publishing this month, that there should be a reduction in the number of venues “in anodyne arenas in desert locations hosted by dodgy regimes”.
But then this sport has never been hampered by an excess of scruples. The worst example on the calendar is the Bahrain Grand Prix, which took place in April against a background of civil unrest, with tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades and plastic bullets all used against pro-democracy demonstrators while race officials attempted, in vain, to paint a picture of pastoral tranquillity.
Human rights is a major issue in China, which has hosted a race since 2004—and in oil-rich Abu Dhabi. In November, there will be a race in Texas, the state with the worst capital punishment record in the whole of the US. The race in South Korea takes place in a impoverished part of the country where there are allegations of corruption, and there is more than an echo of that situation in Greater Noida.
Meanwhile, attendance has often been disappointing in the newer venues, especially those remote, white elephant stadiums built a long way away from major cities, and there has already been speculation about the sustainability of these venues, particularly in China and Korea, as F1 continues to spread, avariciously, outside its traditional European homeland.
This seems less of a problem in India. Superficially at least, last year’s race was a success. There is often an aggressively aspirational personality in the Indian middle classes, and they flocked to the Indian GP in their thousands.
More recently, however, a giant power cut in India which affected an estimated 700 million people, including members of the usually unaffected elite, was a reminder of the fragile state of the country’s infrastructure, and a reminder that the India Shining slogan does not always work.
Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets equities and global macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, says in his recent book, Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, that India has only a 50% chance of becoming what he describes as “a breakout nation”. Jason Burke, The Guardian’s correspondent in South Asia, wrote in August, “It is increasingly difficult to reconcile the optimism surrounding India with the reality.”
He added: “A whole world of top-class hotels, coffee chains serving cappuccino, glitzy domestic airlines, shiny new airports, information technology companies, quality private clinics, art galleries and the odd mass urban transit system has been dropped on top of the old India and partly obscures the heat, the crowds, the filth and the misery, as well as the cultural riches, for which this extraordinarily varied country has long been known.”
This, then, is the most recent home of the F1. One of India’s most respected voices, Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, has misgivings. “There is still scope for introducing more sports that would contribute to better fitness in the population, enable more Indians to participate and even to excel through more training facilities—in hockey, athletics, football, etc.
“But F1 fulfils none of these criteria. It is a luxury indulgence of the rich, another means of flaunting wealth. Far from creating employment, it can destroy livelihoods because of the demands it makes on land—which usually has to be reasonably near urban areas—and it is extraordinarily wasteful of resources in a country that still does not provide basic amenities to around half of the population.”
None of this, of course, bothers the F1 at all. Perhaps it’s because of the awful din that is generated by its screaming engines—but this is a sport that seems deafened to the voices of its critics. It is also a strangely self-important sport—if it is a sport at all, for there are those who describe the whole shebang as nothing more than an overblown trade fair, a vast, travelling motor show whose solitary ambition is to sell cars for Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari. There are times when it feels more like an industry than a sport.
It still has as its chief executive the remarkable and diminutive Ecclestone, who will be 82 on the day of the Indian GP, but whose astonishing ability to pull off deals is undiminished. Ecclestone may know nothing about cricket, or Indian culture for that matter, which explains his bizarre notion that F1 could overtake cricket in this country. But he does possess an amazing ability to export his noisy business to the unlikeliest corners of the globe.
His real genius lies in persuading countries that don’t really need F1—and perhaps don’t even want it—that this is what they must have, that in return for a small fortune they can show off to the rest of the world for one very loud weekend.
F1, traditionally, has always been Europe-dominated. That has all changed. Of the 20 races this year, only eight were staged in that continent; this is the era of the “flyaway”, as the far-flung events are referred to in the sport.
Outside Europe, the anti-polluting lobbyists are less strident, and Asia, with its growing wealth, was the obvious place to go. F1, essentially, will go wherever the big money is (America’s awful record with pollution has not dissuaded the organizers from staging a race in Texas and next year, two races are scheduled in the US).
Asian race organizers are also expected to be compliant when it comes to staging races which fit in with TV timings in Europe.
The one night-time event in the calendar, in Singapore, is actually run at lunchtime in Europe, and for the entire four days of the festival, everybody involved keeps their watches set appropriately, going to bed in the early hours of the morning and rising at 1pm, or even later. There is now talk of another nocturnal adventure, this time in Thailand.
There are, of course, voices, Indian voices, that are all for the Indian GP, and none is more prominent than the head of the country’s own F1 team, Sahara Force India, formed in 2007 under the leadership of Vijay Mallya. He is perhaps better known for heading the UB Group and the Royal Challengers Bangalore IPL team, and has been in the news recently because of his beleaguered Kingfisher Airlines.
Mallya has raced cars from when he was a teenager. “Motorsport in India was considered to be only for the elite,” he says. “But then we became more aligned with the global economy and market forces.
“Now there is this great middle class in India, which is 300-million strong—and that’s the size of Europe. We have been transformed into a spending economy and the success of the first Indian Grand Prix was the icing on the cake.
“Formula One represents glitz, glamour, speed, technology, excitement, all this. ‘I’ve arrived,’ people are saying, ‘I’m successful, I want to follow Formula One.’”
India has produced two F1 drivers, Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, but Force India launched a “One From A Billion Hunt” search for a home-grown young driver, their own Lewis Hamilton, and it attracted an enormous response. “Force India has to represent India,” says the team’s deputy principal, Robert Fearnley.
Does the Indian GP represent the Indian people? For the vast majority, the overwhelming majority, the answer, of course, must be no. But the noise in Greater Noida at the end of the month is likely to suggest another tale. The roads around the stadium will once again be teeming and the demand for tickets will again outstrip supply.
Whatever the realities of this complex land, the Indian Grand Prix is here to stay.
Paul Weaver is a senior sportswriter for The Guardian and has also been the newspaper’s Formula One correspondent for the past three years. He has made several visits to India since covering England’s cricket tour here in 1984-85.
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