Last year, it seemed that people couldn't get enough of it. The world's fastest cars, the men who drove those machines, champagne in the elite stands, the never-ending parties. But this time, something is missing, the tempo has fallen quite dramatically, the city is not hyperventilating as it did before. On the weekend of the inaugural Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, the restlessness approached hysteria. The race is back for a second dash, minus the frenzied fanfare of last year. Over 95,000 fans turned up on race day in the 2011 Indian GP as German double world champion Sebastian Vettel romped to the chequered flag. Mr Vettel may win again this weekend, but the number of fans he entertains would have dwindled significantly - going by the sluggish ticket sales with some estimates pegging them at less than half of the 125,000 capacity, even after ticket prices were slashed and separate one-day passes were issued. Does that mean the initial interest has died down? Possibly. Is that a reason for concern? Not quite.
Since the ban on tobacco advertising in 1997, F1 has shifted from its traditional European base to Asia. Currently eight circuits in the region host F1 races. Almost all these circuits opened with much hype and hoopla but have faced problems filling up the stands. Take the Chinese GP, which made its debut in 2004. Over the first weekend, 260,000 fans visited the Shanghai Intern-ational Circuit. By 2009, that number had fallen to 120,000. In most Asian countries that host F1, barring possibly Japan which has been part of the F1 grid since 1976, it is still a niche sport and doesn't match the attendance or pizzazz of more popular sports such as football, basketball and, in India's case, cricket. However, for the circuit owners Jaypee Sports International (JPSI) that isn't much cause for concern, as hosting an F1 GP is part of a grand plan for the region. The sums invested are huge - Rs. 4,000 crore to build the entire set-up: Rs. 2,200 crore on the circuit and an annual hosting fee of Rs. 214 crore. The owners of the circuit, Jaypee scions Sameer and Manoj Gaur, admit it will take five years for them to break even, in the meantime they stand to gain from real estate development, the group's money-puller.
On his part, Bernie Ecclestone, boss of F1, will take his $1.2 billion circus to wherever car sales are booming. Asia has been an obvious area of interest but circuit owners have to keep the buzz alive for 51 weeks in a year to draw crowds on the one week that the legends descend. Mr Ecclestone hedges his bets against a particular circuit not delivering by getting more built. Next on his radar is a Russian GP. But for the moment, the race is on in India.