Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany gestures in the pit during the first practice session ahead of Sunday's Indian Formula One Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit in Noida, 38 kilometers from New Delhi.
It's hard to imagine that India is finally hosting a round of the Formula 1 (F1) World Championship; I'm still pinching myself in disbelief. The scale of India's first-ever Grand Prix (GP) is huge and it will be fair to say that this is the biggest sporting event that the nation will witness. Yes, in magnitude, F1 is bigger than the cricket World Cup and even the Commonwealth Games simply because it's a truly global sport and not one in which only a handful of countries participate.
Just short of the Olympics, F1 doesn't get bigger than this. The 24 men, who will line up at the starting line of the Buddh International Circuit in Noida tomorrow in some of the fastest cars in the world are the best drivers on this planet. They can dissect a second into its thousand part, have reflexes of an angry mamba and the stamina of an Olympic runner. A glimpse of these drivers racing millimetres away from each other at a speed of 300 kmph is enough to tell you about the inherent risks of the sport. This is what makes them a rare breed and we must take pride in the fact that an Indian is also among these 24 men.
Despite no motorsport history to boast of, India's presence in F1 is impressive. Now, with the Indian GP, we are way ahead of most Asian countries, including China. Though China hosted its first GP seven years ago, it's yet to produce its first F1 driver (India has had two).
Building the Buddh International Circuit is an achievement in itself. It's a brilliantly designed track with a variety of corners and lots of elevation changes, which promise spectacular viewing. Massive grandstands and the sheer expanse of the run-off areas in the Buddh Circuit are huge even by F1 standards. But look closely and you will know it's a bit of a rushed job. In the sanitised paddock area, uneven paving, sloppily-laid cement and plaster and paint that are peeling off are embarrassingly at odds with the slick and ultra-precise world of F1. However, I am sure that all shortcomings will be fixed by next year.
I am an F1 fanatic and have been going to watch F1 races since 1980. I have even named my elder son Niki after my racing hero Niki Lauda. However, the bitter truth is that fans like me constitute the minority. We follow what is essentially an exclusive sport that is alien to the average Indian. The heartland of F1 is Europe, where a long history of motor racing has developed a solid fan base. India, like Malaysia, Bahrain and China, doesn't have a great motor sport heritage or culture. That's why watching an F1 race in these countries is like watching a cricket match in Italy.
But the Indian GP may get a packed house in its very first year tomorrow (about 80% tickets have already been sold). For now the Indian GP is all about celebration and making history. Thousands will watch the first-ever Formula 1 race in India and fulfil what I think ranks high on their wish lists. But will this experience inspire a new generation to take to motor sport? As seen in Turkey, China and Malaysia, once the novelty dies down, there's a danger of dwindling spectators, especially when you factor in the hefty price one has to pay for a grandstand seat.
Though Force India will give the Indian crowd a reason to cheer, the fact is that like most sports we need a hero in F1. Narain Karthikeyan is the best Indian driver so far. But he's no Sebastian Vettel. What's most perturbing is that no other Indian comes close to him in terms of sheer talent. (Karun Chandhok's a lovely guy but he's just not quick). I have watched Karthikeyan race for over a decade and his flashes of speed have made him worthy of his place on the grid.
But for the sport to really take off, we need nothing less than a Sachin Tendulkar on the track. A World Champion. The interest in F1 spiked in Spain because of Fernando Alonso and in Germany because of Michael Schumacher and, now, Vettel.
With the Buddh circuit, there's an opportunity to build an ecosystem for motorsport that permeates down to the grassroot level to foster interest and talent. This is F1's best chance to win the hearts of millions of Indians. Thank Buddh for that!
(Hormazd Sorabjee is the editor of Autocar India. The views expressed by the author are personal.)