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How F1 came to India, why it took long

india Updated: Sep 18, 2011 10:55 IST
Rohit Bhaskar
Rohit Bhaskar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The greatest motorsport circus is coming to the country and don’t we all know it! The airwaves are abuzz with the eardrum-splitting noise of revved-up 800bhp engines, the hunt is on – for tickets, grid girls, a walk with the stars. The last weekend of October will be one grand party as the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida near Delhi readies to host India’s first-ever Formula One race, and the 17th race of this season. India is embracing F1 with arms wide open and bags of cash in both hands.

The irony isn’t lost on the man who first tried to take F1 to the Indian masses through the medium of television. In 1995, the present Federation of Motorsports Clubs of India president Vicky Chandhok’s career as a journeyman motorsport driver was all but over. However, in his travels he had built up good contacts and his production house held the rights to broadcast F1 in India.

Formula 1Paid-per-view

In a nation that was just warming up to cable television, Chandhok and his associates wondered if going pay-per-view was the right way to take things forward. The safest bet, and the one with the widest reach, was showing it on the national network, Doordarshan. But there was one tiny problem: the policy makers at Prasar Bharti weren’t too keen giving prime-time weekend air space to what they essentially perceived was cars going round a track.

So much so, that Chandhok and his associates had to pay Doordarshan just to broadcast F1! “When we first went up with the proposal, they (Doordarshan) didn’t show any interest. In fact, the only way we got them to agree was by paying them a fee. Imagine! The broadcasting rights of one of the three biggest sporting spectacles in the world (alongside the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics) was not just given to them for free, they were actually paid for it,” reminisces Chandhok.

But even this generous gesture fell by the wayside. A storm erupted when the logos of international cigarette biggies like Rothmans and Marlboro, adorning the livery of the F1 cars, were seen on the small screen. Promptly, Parliament decided that promoting international tobacco companies on national television was just not on, and the telecast of the races was cut. By 1997 the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the world motorsport governing body), under pressure from European Union policy-makers, anyway began putting an end to tobacco sponsorships and by 2000, Williams became the first tobacco sponsor-free F1 team. At present there is a ban on tobacco sponsorships in F1, and barring Marlboro’s muted association with Ferrari, no tobacco majors are involved with the sport.

“I think they (Doordarshan) must know what a big opportunity they let slip. If they don’t know already, they’ll know after the inaugural Indian Grand Prix (GP) in October this year. That race will be the greatest sporting spectacle in the history of the nation,” says Chandhok.

Winds of change
In the mid Nineties, just as F1 was slowly breaking into our consciousness, an Indian was charting his route to the upper echelons of motorsport. Narain Karthikeyan was well into his teens before he could see F1 live on Indian television. The first time he saw a live F1 race, he was not your average motorsport fan. He was a driver who was competing in the support race that weekend.

"I drove the Formula Ford support race during the 1994 Portuguese GP in Estoril. That was the first time I saw and heard the thrill of F1 live," remembers 34-year-old Karthikeyan. In his pre-teen years, with cable television not yet in the country, he was as dependent on his postman as the motorsport buff of today is on his DTH operator. "In those days I subscribed to some international racing magazines to keep abreast of the happenings in F1. They always arrived almost a month late in the mail, but that was the only option I had back then," he says.



Formula 1 racingPretty soon, his interest in the sport grew and watching races (albeit recorded ones), was the next jump. "In 1989 I got my hands on a tape of the FIA official season review. This was the first time I saw F1. From then onwards, I used to get recordings of races from America."



Ironically, by the time F1 races started beaming live across television sets in the country, the Coimbatore racer no longer had the time to sit and watch. He was already travelling far and wide in his quest to become the first Indian to make it to the pinnacle of motorsport, a dream which he would fulfill in 2005 with Jordan GP.



"Before getting there, I had to chart a route that most European drivers follow – starting with the British F3 championship (1998). Back then there was no definite progression ladder to F1 like there is today, with a feeder series like GP2. I had to go around quite a bit, from Formula Nippon in Japan to the Nissan World Series before I got a chance to test an F1 car in 2001. But it wasn’t until 2005 that things fell in place, including the funding required to compete in a full season of Formula 1," he says.



While Karthikeyan was going about his pioneering efforts, Indian interest in F1 grew, as did F1’s interest in India. Even in 2003, talks of an Indian GP were already doing the rounds, with Hyderabad the early favourite to host the event. The then Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, even ear-marked a location before it came to naught. However, when a consortium led by liquor baron Vijay Mallaya bought the Spyker F1 team in late 2007 and re-christened them Force India, it was only a matter of a time before an Indian GP was a reality.



As the Buddh International Circuit gears up to host the grand spectacle, not only is there an assured presence of an Indian driver (Karthikeyan) and team (Force India), but by all accounts, it could be a double bill with Karun Chandhok likely to get the nod to race in front of his home fans for Team Lotus – owned by Malaysian aviator Tony Fernandes, whose family tree has its roots in Goa and Kerala.



As good as it gets

While Indian drivers have now broken into F1, with the advent of the Indian GP, will we soon see an Indian fighting for podiums and championships? You might just want to hold your guns on that.



"The new generation of racers in the country definitely have it easier than I did. There are many options to build a systematic racing career leading all the way to Formula 1 that didn’t exist when I was starting out. But having more options doesn’t guarantee a career in top-flight racing unless you have the speed. We must also remember that our counterparts from other countries in Europe and Asia are still ahead of us in terms of motorsport development," Karthikeyan says ominously.



The caveat aside, Indian motorsport is riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, and the Indian GP is the high-water mark. "You don’t need to delve deep into each car’s technical specifications to enjoy the racing. Two cars driving wheel-to-wheel at 300 kmph before braking into a corner – I don’t think you need any technical insight to enjoy that!" says Karthikeyan.

Nope. None, at all.

wtf1?
F1 Grand Prix: A race run according to F1’s sporting and technical regulations as defined by the sport’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA). With the exception of Monaco, a race runs until 305 kilometres are completed.
Pole position: The term used to define the very first slot on the starting grid of an F1 race. A driver earns pole position if he sets the fastest time during the hour-long qualifying session held on the Saturday of a race weekend.
Fastest lap: The fastest lap recorded over the course of an F1 race.
Points system: The top ten finishers of an F1 race are awarded points on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis. This points system has been in effect since the 2010 season.

Home front heroics
There’s no credible single seater racing series in India. The number of usable race tracks in the entire country – two – is nothing to write home about either. Till the construction of the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida makes it three, here’s taking our hat off to two Chennai speedsters who have made it to Formula 1:

Narain KarthikeyanNarain Karthikeyan

Date of birth: January 14, 1977

Born: Chennai

Active years in F1: 2005, 2011

Teams: Jordan Grand Prix, Hispania Racing F1 Team

Starts: 26 | Points: 5 | Wins: 0 | Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 0

Narain Karthikeyan is the Indian circuit racing’s trailblazer in the truest sense of the word. The soft spoken ‘fastest Indian in the world’ became the first driver from India to win a race in Formula 3, one of the important stepping stones to F1. He even set the lap record for pole position at the prestigious Macau F3 race in 2000. By the time he made his F1 debut in 2005, however, the chance to drive for a good team had passed and Narain has struggled to prove to the higher-ups in F1 that he is worthy of

being more than just a back-marker.

Karun Chandhok
Date of birth: January 19, 1984
Born: Chennai
Active years in F1: 2010, 2011
Teams: Hispania Racing F1 Team, Team Lotus
Starts: 11 | Points: 0 | Wins: 0 | Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Chandhok doesn’t deny that having friends in the right places has helped. He is the son of Vicky Chandhok, the president of FMSCI, India’s motorsport governing body. Still, the 27-year-old, who is in F1 today for his two wins in the GP2 series, is eager to prove his worth for a decent team on the F1 grid.

Karun Chandhok‘It’s much tougher than you think!’

'Being a professional motorsport driver is a physically demanding task and requires rigorous training', says Karun Chandhok.

Fitness in motorsport is a fairly underestimated, misunderstood and generally ignored subject. People, even in my own family, very often ask me: “Why on earth do you train for so long? You’re just sitting in a car driving round and round!”

That statement, while being vaguely true, doesn’t even begin to describe the amount of effort it takes to drive a serious racing car. The fitness required is quite comprehensive in that you need strong cardio-vascular endurance combined with strength, particularly in the upper body. Most importantly, you need strong neck muscles. I was never an athletic kid and in fact when I was 16, I peaked at 96 kg. So I was very much the fatso in class! I soon realised that racing needed a huge commitment from the driver to perform at the highest level and have slogged away for the last few years to achieve that.

My weekly schedule generally has five or six cardio sessions which are mainly cycling combined with some swimming and indoor sessions on the cross trainer. I have a knee problem that limits my running, but I still have an occasional run as it’s the simplest way to train when travelling. My swim sessions are generally between 2,000-2,500 metres and the cycle rides are anywhere between 60 km to 120 km depending on the day and the route (obviously a hilly route means less distance). I really enjoy my cycling and have now got a good group together to ride with. I also cycle at the race weekends where I ride a lap of the track with Jarno Trulli, Bruno Senna or Team Lotus CEO, Riad Asmat.

During the off season, the weight training gets a bit more intense, but once we get to the end of February, it’s more circuit and resistance training for the rest of the season. The circuit training is really intense with about 20 different weight-training exercises with lower weights and more repetitions to build muscle endurance.

Core and back strengthening exercises are also very important as they are the key to having stability in the car while going round corners at over 250 kmph. People often underestimate the importance of core training, but it’s amazing how strong core and back muscles can make a difference.

The neck muscles are very specialised in motor racing. There is no other sport in the world where your neck muscles are subjected to such high loads for such a long period of time. To be honest, I’ve seen pretty much every type of exercise to build up neck muscles, but there is nothing in the world that compares with driving the car. It’s amazing how much stronger my neck gets during the season and also how quickly it weakens during the winter despite all the training in the gym.

To give you an idea, just try lying on your back, supported up to your shoulders, with your neck and head hanging off the end of your bed. Now try lifting your head up and down slowly 30 times, then look left and right 30 times and then hold it flat for 60 seconds – that will give you an idea of what just a few laps in an F1 car does to your neck!

Food and hydration is also really important on a race weekend. While it’s mainly a protein-based diet during the week, you need carbohydrates during a race weekend to keep you going. It’s amazing how much nervous energy gets burnt off when you’re at a race weekend! On race day, I eat breakfast at about 8 am and an early lunch at 11.30 am but already by 1.30 pm, before the start of a race, I’m absolutely starving! My physio normally carries some energy bars to the grid for me to snack on just before the start.

Fluid intake is very important, especially in the hotter races like Malaysia (Sepang) and Budapest (Hungaroring). At these places, five to six litres of water, combined with isotonic drinks that are high in mineral salts, potassium and magnesium, are a must. Even during the race, we carry about half a litre of fluid in the car to drink to stay hydrated.

This year, I’ve actually started using karting as a way to stay fit. I bought myself a proper racing Rotax Max go-kart and have been out once or twice a week. This workout is hard on its own but also a great way to keep the reflexes and race craft sharp.

Overall, fitness in motorsport has become a very serious subject now and team bosses and engineers study the drivers’ fitness levels very seriously before hiring them. At the end of the day, it’s our job to make sure that we can do the last lap with as much commitment as the first – so it’s time for me to get back on the bike !

The best of the best
Every sport has its roll call of the very best people to have taken centre stage. Here are five F1 legends synonymous with greatness:

Juan Manuel Fangio (1950-51, 1953-58)
Well before his performance in the 1957 German Grand Prix that cemented his place in F1 history, this Argentine had earned his nickname: The Maestro. Winning 24 races from 51 starts and five world championships with four different teams had something to do with it too.

Jim Clark (1960-68)
The quiet Scotsman dominated F1 in the ’60s until his demise at a Formula 2 race in 1968. Blindingly fast, mechanically adept and free of controversy, his untimely death meant that he was unable to improve upon his already impressive tally of 25 victories and two world championships.

Alain Prost (1980-91, 1993)
‘The professor’, as he is known, was famous for a cerebral approach to F1 racing. One could always count on the Frenchman to plan a win and beat drivers who were naturally faster than him. Four world championships and 51 wins testify to the effectiveness of his approach.

Ayrton Senna (1984-1994)
Everything about the Brazilian, who believed that no one was his equal on the track, exuded speed – from his surname to raw statistics. Sixty five pole positions from 162 races is a monumental record. Three world championships and 41 wins are pretty darnn impressive too.

Michael Schumacher (1991-2006, 2010-2011)
A record seven world championships and 91 race wins, but that’s not all! Stunning wins against faster cars, near misses and plenty of controversy, Schumi is the complete F1 driver in more ways than one.

SennaRemembering Ayrton Senna

'A stunning new docu by an Indian filmmaker recreates the life and times of an F1 legend', says Vivek Mukherji.



Once in a lifetime there comes a sportsperson who continues to cast his shadow on the sport long after departing from the scene. These sportspeople go on to become the 24-carat standards of excellence because they perform so high above the existing levels. In Formula 1, Ayrton Senna da Silva was one such character. Even 17 years after his tragic death on May 1, 1994 at the Autodrome Dino Ferrari in the San Marino GP, Imola, at the wheels of Williams FW 16B, the Brazilian continues to inspire racing drivers, writers, filmmakers and fans in equal measure.



Senna, the movie directed by British filmmaker of Indian origin, Asif Kapadia, scripted by Manish Pandey and produced by James Gay-Rees, is a product of that inspiration. The haunting docu-drama brings to life the legend who many believe was the greatest F1 driver ever. Before Senna, 33 drivers lost their lives on race weekends, but he was the first driver to meet his maker when Formula 1 had become a globally televised sport. Millions across the world watched Senna inexplicably veer off the track and plough into the concrete wall at the infamous Tamburello corner at over 217 kmph. In a few fleeting seconds, the triple world champion sat lifeless in the car. The live images on TV of doctors trying to revive Senna beside the car’s wreckage left a searing impact on racing fans. For the first time, millions understood that beyond the glamour, fast cars, pink champagne, pretty women and glitter lurks the hand of death.



Senna’s death tormented Gay-Rees and Pandey for a decade. In 2004, Gay-Rees, a producer with Working Title Films, started working on an idea to make a film on the death of Senna. He casually discussed his latest project with Pandey’s wife, who asked him to discuss the film with her husband, a hopeless Senna fan. Shimla-born Pandey, an orthopaedic surgeon from Cambridge, had written four unproduced scripts earlier. He convinced Gay-Rees that a full-length feature capturing the life and times of Senna would be a better tribute to the racing driver.



"For me, Senna was the greatest sportsperson. And being an immigrant, I could identify with the kind of alienation he had to deal with when he came to England from Brazil," Pandey says.



After working on the script, the producer and the scriptwriter settled on the highly talented Kapadia, who had by then already acquired fame in the British film industry with his movie The Warrior, for which he won the BAFTA. "This was my first documentary and we didn’t want to use the conventional format where the voice-over and talking heads link the narrative," says Kapadia, a Royal College of Art graduate. "We wanted to use real characters who knew Senna."



And that turned out to be biggest challenge for the filmmakers. The production team dug through over 5,000 hours of archival material, including thousands of hours of race feed, drivers’ briefing and home movies made by the Senna family. It took more than 450 hours for the filmmakers to cull the relevant bits from the footage vaults of Formula One Management. "We didn’t want to show Senna just as a racing driver. We wanted to bring to screen the complete man that he was," says Pandey. Over two years, the film was pieced together at four locations – UK, Brazil, Japan and France.



Senna unfolds in three acts – his arrival in Europe and his early years of struggle, his entry into Formula 1 in 1984, his ascent to three world championships and ultimately his death. At the core of the film lies the Brazilian’s fearsome rivalry with French driver Alain Prost. Their skirmishes on the track, and off it, are well-documented in Formula 1 folklore.



SennaSenna was able to acquire all the material comforts – a private jet, powerboats and houses in Monaco, Portugal and Brazil. Yet he was acutely aware of the back-breaking poverty in Brazil, his native country. "Life can be very difficult in Brazil. You have all the extremes. You have fantastic nature; you have all the good material things that money can buy," he philosophises in a sequence taken from a home movie. "But at the same time, you have lots of problems, social problems. You have poverty, some violence as a consequence."



Senna grossed $1 million in the first weekend in the US markets, where F1 is hardly a widely watched sport. It picked up the World Cinema Audience award for the best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and gushing reviews around the world. If all goes well, Indian fans will be able see the movie during the F1 race weekend. It’s the kind of film that leaves you craving for more.



Current F1 superstars:

Sebastian Vettel (2007-2011) The 24-year-old German became the youngest driver to win an F1 race in 2008. Since then, he has been the youngest driver to finish second in the F1 championship (2009) and the youngest to win a world championship (2010).

Lewis Hamilton (2007-2011)
The McLaren team has supported its golden boy since his days in karting and fittingly, he has driven for no one else since his F1 debut in 2007. Since then, the 26-year-old been known more for his on-track altercations than his natural speed and aggression

Jenson Button (2000-2011)
Already a ‘veteran’ at 31, this talented Briton had to transform from a notorious playboy to a mature racer in order to become a serious contender. This patience paid off with an F1 title in 2009.

From HT Brunch, September 18

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