Do you care that last Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix may well be the last Formula One event to be held in India? Next year’s Grand Prix is off. And while there is a chance that Bernie Ecclestone and the big bosses of Formula One might relent and put Delhi back on the calendar in 2015, nobody is convinced that this is at all likely.
Personally, I have always been ambivalent about the Grand Prix. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, well then, it’s no skin off my back. My feelings, I imagine, are shared by most people of my generation. We grew up thinking of racing as one of those sports that was very glamorous (think Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, James Hunt, novels by Harold Robbins, etc.) but entirely distant. We could get excited about cricket, hockey even, but motor racing belonged to a different world.
All this seems to have changed around two decades ago, one reason why there is such a sharp cleave between the sporting tastes of different generations. One of the greatest achievements of satellite television is the globalisation of sport. Take football. It really meant nothing to Indians outside of Calcutta or Goa. But, today’s kids will tell you all about the transfer fees paid by Real Madrid or the difference in United’s style now that Alex Ferguson has stepped down. Most of them have never seen Real or United play live. Nor do they have any interest in Indian football teams. As far as they are concerned, the sport feels real only because they watch it on TV every week.
Formula One is another example of the same trend. A whole new generation of urban Indians will tell you the rankings of drivers and will discuss why Lewis Hamilton’s world championship was a freak event. They’ve never seen a race live. Many never will. But it’s on TV. And that makes it seem real.
Football is, at least, a game that any of us can play if we get two teams together and find a ground. Failing that, we can kick a ball around our backyards. But Formula One is a closed sport. None of us will ever have access to those cars or to a track. It is one of those sports that is strictly spectator-only. You can watch as much as you like. But you can never play.
That, I guess, is one reason why most people of my generation never got into it. A sport that you can’t play or watch live poses little attraction to us. In fact, the notion of sport as mere televised spectacle comes perilously close to entertainment.
I never went to the first two Delhi Grand Prix because, as I told the people who had invited me, the tickets would be better suited to somebody who actually understood Formula One or had some interest in it. This year, however, when Sumeet Lamba of Pernod Ricard, sent me an invitation, I was tempted. This may well be my last chance to see a Grand Prix. (Nobody in Monte Carlo or Abu Dhabi is likely to invite me.) And I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity.
Sumeet is connected with the Grand Prix because Pernod Ricard owns the grand old champagne house of Mumm, which, since the beginning of this century, has been the official champagne of Formula One. (It was Moët before them.) Those big bottles of champagne you see the winners spraying each other with at every Grand Prix are always jeroboams of Mumm.
Pernod Ricard had taken two tables in the lounge at the paddock. I am guessing that you know as little about Grand Prix seating as I used to, so let me explain. There is a main block where the punters, the guys who pay fabulous sums for their tickets, sit. This area also has corporate hospitality boxes of the kinds they have at cricket matches.
But the paddock is another block, entirely. There are a few lounges, one of which goes to Airtel, the title sponsor of the Grand Prix. Other companies with some involvement in the event get tables in the other lounges. This year, for instance, I saw that Johnnie Walker, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and others had their own tables.
The paddock is all hospitality; everybody is a guest of somebody. This means that a paddock invite is as much a social thing as it is a ticket to a sporting event. So you get the rich, the famous, the notorious and regrettably, not a lot of people who know anything about Formula One. Paddock guests can wander down to the pit before the race, look at the cars, talk to the drivers (if they are very lucky), and enjoy a carnival-like atmosphere. This year, for instance, a bhangra troupe danced around the pit. (I kid you not: this is Delhi, remember.)
Otherwise, they can remain in the lounge, knock back the Mumm and watch the action on large TV screens. They can also enjoy the international ambience. I doubt if I have ever seen as many white people at any event in India. The stewards who check passes are white. So are the chefs who stand behind the buffet tables. All the pit crews and Formula One team members are white. And even the waitresses in the lounge are European. Apparently, in an effort to ensure a uniform experience at Grand Prix events all over the world, Formula One flies its own staff (down to the waitresses) to each city.
Just before the race starts, when all the cars line up on the track, everybody in the paddock rushes to the terrace to watch. The cars are right below you and the proximity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. You get to see the race from very close quarters. But you also put your eardrums at risk. Nothing you’ve ever heard prepares you for the noise of the car engines. Imagine somebody taking an electric drill and holding it by the side of your temple. They give you earplugs in the paddock but even if you use them, the noise can be terrifying.
On the other hand, the noise is important because that’s how you realise that the cars are approaching. Formula One drivers move so fast that they zoom past the paddock in seconds. If you’re looking out for a particular car and you turn your head away for a second, you will miss it as it whizzes past. I have never seen anything tethered to the earth move this fast.
Most people do not always realise that a Formula One race can take over 90 minutes or that there are so many laps. After the first six laps, a certain sameness set in and the crowds abandoned the terrace to return to the lounge to watch the race on the big screens.
But the punters in the main stands who had actually paid for their tickets stayed fixed to their seats, their eyes never straying from the track. They cheered when certain cars passed and held up banners, many of which supported Lewis Hamilton, perhaps on the grounds that he seems like an outsider in a lily-white sport.
As the race continued, I eavesdropped on conversations in the paddock. Only a few people seemed particularly knowledgeable. They discussed whether a Sebastian Vettel victory was inevitable. (It was.) They speculated that Mark Webber, who was in the lead, would abandon the race saying that he had problems with his car so that Vettel could storm ahead. (He did.) And they talked about the time when Michael Schumacher had benefitted from a teammate’s exit. (No idea what this was about.)
I collared Hughes Trevennec, Mumm’s international events director, who travels from Grand Prix to Grand Prix. Why did it make sense for Mumm to spend so much money on Formula One when all the drivers wanted to do with their champagne was to spray it on each other?
Hughes explained that champagne has always been linked to racing. The first French Grand Prix was held, he said, in the town of Rheims in the Champagne district. The association has been good for champagne because it reinforces the image of champagne as the drink for a glamorous celebration. Mumm provides four jeroboams (each equal to four bottles) for every Grand Prix, one each for the three winners and one in case somebody breaks a bottle by mistake.
I abandoned Hughes when he was in full flow to watch the last 10 laps from the terrace. By then, it was clear that Vettel was going to win the Grand Prix and with it, the world championship. When the inevitable did happen, the stands went crazy and Vettel played to the gallery, jumping on to the top of his car and saluting his fans. Given that he did not bother to acknowledge us in the paddock, I guess he knew who the real enthusiasts were.
And then, after some champagne had been sprayed and lots more had been drunk, I slipped away, ahead of the crowds. My feelings about Formula One have not changed. It’s still more entertainment spectacle than participative sport. But what the hell? There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment every now and then.
From HT Brunch, November 3
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