For three days, beginning 26 October, the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida will resonate with the rolling thunder of Formula One (F1) engines. The highways will be jammed with cars and buses carrying spectators to the Indian Grand Prix (GP) venue, and throngs of people will add to the buzz at the circuit. It will be no different from last year, when the first GP was held at the circuit.
But the two crescendos of motorsport mania have been punctuated by almost a year of silence at the country’s premier racing track.
Apart from the inaugural F1 race in October 2011, no other competitive motorsport events have been held at the $200 million (around Rs.1,056 crore) circuit. Sameer Gaur, the managing director and chief executive of Jaypee Sports International Ltd (JPSI), which built the circuit, told Mint just before last year’s race: “The track will be available to us for 300 days and we can definitely do a lot more. In 2012 alone, we will be hosting two-three international racing events. The MotoGP and Superbike (World) Championship have shown interest. We are in initial stages of talks with MotoGP and we aim to hold this in 2012.”
None of these plans have come to fruition. A deal to host the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) GT1 race at the circuit in 2012 fell through. The year 2013, though, will see BIC make its debut in the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) Superbike World Championship calendar, with the first-ever international motorcycle track race in India. JPSI has signed a four-year contract with the organizers.
“It takes time to get international races to a new venue since it involves that particular championship to change its calendar,” says Gaur now. “Once last year’s race was over, our priority was to improve the circuit, analyse the lessons learnt from the race so that the second one can be even better. But we’ve had lots of offers since then; the FIA World Endurance Championship has approached us, for example.”
Grand Prix organizers across the world have wrestled with the stress of hosting F1, which delivers international prestige, but at a high cost. The FIA controls F1 sponsorships, and charges a stiff licence fee from hosts, who have only ticket-sale revenue to fall back on.
Over the last decade, France and Turkey have been forced to withdraw from the F1 calendar, Australia and China have suffered severe losses, and South Korea, which hosted its first F1 race in 2010, is waging a desperate struggle to stay in the race.
“It takes a few years at least (for new circuits to be successful),” says Narain Karthikeyan, who drives for F1’s Hispania Racing Team. “F1 brings instant recognition but it takes more than that for the circuit to be successful. The Korean GP track locks down for the rest of the year as nothing happens there.”
Gaur says BIC will not face the same problems, partly because unlike the countries mentioned above, the Grand Prix of India has no government funding. “For us, from a brand and marketing point of view, this is a massive investment,” Gaur says. “It is how we are globalizing our image, not just Jaypee Sports, but the whole Jaypee group. It gives a huge boost to our real estate business, and what it adds to brand value can’t be measured.”
Jaypee owns a 2,500-hectare site around and including BIC. Thirty-five per cent of this is being developed as a sports facility, including a 100,000-seat cricket stadium, a golf course and a shooting range, and the rest as commercial and residential space.
As for boosting the fledgling motorsport community in India, the country’s top racing drivers believe F1 and BIC have set the ball rolling. “There hasn’t been much change yet, but things don’t happen overnight,” says Karthikeyan. “The Indian GP has brought motorsports in the limelight, and I can see the awareness about the sport has multiplied manifold. The trickle-down effect will be slow to begin with, but it would take Indian motorsport to a new level.”
Karun Chandhok, who was a reserve driver for F1’s Team Lotus during last year’s Indian GP, and is now competing in the World Endurance Championship with JRM Racing, says manufacturers involved in motor-racing events are interested in coming to India. “It’s probably the only country to show continuous growth in the auto sector for the last decade or so,” Chandhok says. “So there have been a lot of corporate events as well as ‘manufacturer’s days’ at BIC. BMW, Audi, Mercedes have done events at the track. These are the sort of things that actually help bring in the money.”
There is compelling evidence that F1 has helped motorsport in India take quick strides forward. The first MRF Delhi International Challenge 2012 for Formula 2000 cars will be held at BIC as a support race for F1, as will the Indian leg of the JK Racing Asia Series, which made its debut as a support race during the 2011 Indian GP. Toyota hosted its first Etios Motor Racing Weekend in August in Chennai. Mahindra Racing, the first Indian team to compete in a motorcycle GP event, won the 125GP category constructor’s title in its debut season at the Italian National Motorcycle Racing Championship this year. MSD RN Racing team, co-owned by Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, also made their debut this year in the World Superbike Championship.
The racing tracks at Coimbatore and Chennai, though, remain the hub of national track racing events.
“It costs Rs.5-6 lakh to hire the Madras track over the weekend, and maybe around Rs.30 lakh for BIC,” says Vicky Chandhok, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India. “Sponsors for Indian motorsport events have not yet felt the need to invest enough to host events at BIC, but we will soon get there.”
JPSI has plans to change this. “We have to be pragmatic and positive about making the circuit popular, so we are out to attract as many races as we can, national or international. This November, BIC will host both the JK and the MRF national championships,” says Gaur.