At the inaugural Formula One Airtel Indian Grand Prix (GP) in 2011, the central entrance to Buddh International Circuit’s (BIC’s) paddock led straight to the Sahara Force India garage. The significance couldn’t be missed.
Formula One (F1) had finally come to India.
The lasting image from the morning when engines first roared around the 5.137km circuit in Greater Noida was of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone congratulating Sahara Force India co-owner and UB Group chairman Vijay Mallya. “We want a podium from this race,” he declared emphatically to the cameras thrust into his face.
Predictably, Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari were on the pace, and the podium finish didn’t come. Sahara Force India neither had the pace to challenge, nor could they make the tyres work to optimize strategy. Adrian Sutil finished ninth and teammate Paul di Resta was out of points at the 13th. Was this display the key memory for the 95,000-strong crowd that turned out for India’s first-ever race day?
F1 is the most watched sporting event in the world, behind only quadrennial events like the Fifa World Cup and the Olympics. Ecclestone came to this country precisely because it is a feverish, untapped market. Even so, ahead of the inaugural race (and again in the build-up this year for the GP, which starts on Friday), Sahara Force India’s promotional activity wasn’t, and hasn’t been, too enticing in comparison with other teams on the grid. Red Bull beat them to it, being the sports marketing champions. While Ferrari and McLaren have a loyal fan base thanks to their long history, it didn’t really seem that the Indian team was coming home. Like Mercedes, Sauber or Renault (now Lotus F1), they too have been like any other team, arriving on these shores for a race weekend and then setting out for pastures new. There is a distinct disconnect.
For one, the Sahara Force India team is based in Silverstone, UK, the hub of motorsport in Europe. Through the years, when this team changed shape from Jordan to Midland to Spyker to its present-day avatar, it has continued operating from the UK. “F1 is only just coming to India, for whatever reasons. Given how Europe has been traditionally involved with motorsport, it is tough for any team to even think of shifting base from there,” says Nico Hülkenberg, Sahara Force India’s German driver.
After the testing season ended in early March, the two Force India drivers for 2012, Hülkenberg and Paul di Resta, landed in Mumbai for a few days en route to Melbourne, Australia, ahead of the opening race. The idea was to garner some PR momentum in their “home away from home” ahead of the new season.
A difficult connect
For a team bearing an Indian licence (every team has to register itself with Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or the FIA, as belonging to a certain country, and team owners usually register them with their own country; Mallya got Force India registered in India), why aren’t the covers lifted off its cars at BIC?
It is Ferrari (Italian licence) tradition to introduce their new cars at their base in Maranello and thereafter have the first run at the circuit. It’s unimaginable that they would do otherwise. Big-budget teams have their own idiosyncrasies—McLaren (British) with Woking and Red Bull (Austrian) with Milton Keynes. Smaller teams—Sauber (Swiss), Scuderia Toro Rosso (Italian), Caterham F1 (Malaysian), etc.—make do with launches when testing season commences. None of them mark out a budget to fly to their “native” countries and make a formal presentation. In this context, it would be a bit unnatural if Sahara Force India were to do their annual unveiling at the Delhi circuit.
The Indian fan’s interest remains, by and large, elusive. As if to compensate, the team set up “Club Force”, an India-specific marketing exercise that hosts “Speed Nights” across the country on race days, showing races on big screens at pubs/lounges/sports bars, organizing games and quizzes and distributing merchandise as prizes. For the Indian GP, they launched a contest, “Raise the Flag”, to garner support.
The rise in popularity reflects in the social media numbers. The team’s page on Facebook boasts more than 200,000 ticks from fans, of which at least 155,000 log in from India, according to Force India. On Twitter, 14,000 of a total of more than 85,000 followers are Indians, a significant number given the tweeting bug is only spreading slowly.
The truth is that India, as a country, is obsessed with the individual. Also, since Mallya formed the team, there has only been one question: When are they going to position an Indian driver on the exclusive F1 grid?
But that’s now how sportsmen look at it. “People within any sport look beyond colour, race or nationality. In F1, it is even truer—you have different drivers at different teams, irrespective of nationality. It might not seem so to the media and fans always,” says Karun Chandhok, India’s second F1 driver, on why he is not driving for Force India.
F1, with its business mentality, stays away from the individualistic approach. Motorsport has elitist status because it is dependent solely on money, more than any other sport. Proportionally then, more championship points equals more money with which to plan and build for the future. Force India had the option of loitering around at the back of the race standings with Indian drivers, or competing for the big pot with foreign ones. They chose the latter.
It has worked well for the team. From zero points in their first season (2008) to 13 in 2009, when they also won a first podium with Giancarlo Fisichella finishing second at Spa-Francorchamps (the Belgian GP). A year later, they finished with 68 points, five times better. Consistency finally came into play in 2011—Force India finished sixth in the constructors with 69 points, coming a long way from perennial back-benchers. In 2012, they have 89 points with four races to go, with Hülkenberg and di Resta giving them more momentum coming into the Indian GP than they had last season.
As much as this represents the makings of a team sport, there are always hidden individualistic lines. Hülkenberg serves as a prime example—he is rumoured to be moving to Sauber F1 in 2013, after only one season with Force India. He is jumping ship, it is assumed, because Force India is expected to run into financial trouble.
“United Spirits has $1.6 billion (around Rs.8,572.8 crore) of net debt and drinks giant Diageo (a McLaren sponsor via its Johnnie Walker brand) is circling the company with a view to coming in to take control if Mallya is forced to sell,” wrote F1 commentator James Allen on his website JamesAllenonF1.com on 13 October, a day before the Korean GP.
The problem, however, runs deeper, with 42.5% stake-owner Sahara India in some trouble with market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi). If Hülkenberg then does get that elusive podium at their “home” race on Sunday, it will be cherished, of course, but for how long?
“Tell me, honestly, is there an Indian driver out there with whom Force India can compete better than they currently are?” asked Anthony Hamilton, father and ex-manager of 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton, at the 2011 Indian GP. As good or bad Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan are, the answer to that question is no.
“Force India launched the ‘One From A Billion’ initiative in a bid to nurture young talent in India and give them exposure in motorsport before throwing them in the mad world of F1,” says Anthony Hamilton, one of the judges of last year’s competition that selected three youngsters in the first talent hunt. Arjun Maini (14), Tarun Reddy (14) and Jehan Daruwala (13) received a fully-funded European-based driver programme which will also take care of their education. This year, they have been busy participating in various junior formulae, a first step to proper racing. Daruwala, in particular, has developed into one of the most competitive drivers in European karting.
Three weeks ahead of the Indian GP, at Suzuka, Kamui Kobayashi finished third for Sauber, winning the first podium for a Japanese driver at his home race in 22 years. The crowd chant of “Kamui, Kamui” was loud enough for goosebumps and jealousy among Indian fans.
How long before an Indian driver steps on to the podium at BIC? As the harbinger of this singular hope, Force India will, perhaps, become a truly Indian F1 team only then.
Chetan Narula is the author of India’s first book on F1, titled History of Formula One: The Circus Comes to India, published in 2011.
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