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India's road to F1 status

How India came to join motor sports most elite club despite hiccups aplenty.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2011 16:47 IST
Vicky Chandhok

With the Indian GP around the corner, it feels good to know all the hard work over the years has not been done for nothing. The idea of India hosting a Formula One Grand Prix in the early 90s was a distant dream and now we are less than three weeks away from the biggest sporting event our country has hosted. However, the road has not been easy.

In 1995-96, I started to wonder if it was possible for India to host an F1 Grand Prix in the foreseeable future as motorsport was becoming more popular in the country. My erstwhile colleague, Nazir Hoosein, didn't give me much comfort when he said, "Not in our lifetime, Vicky". At the same time, though, there were regular interactions with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone who had expressed his desire to have India host a round of the F1 World Championship.

A site in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, was initially the focus from 1995 for a few years and all kinds of stories had begun circulating on the development of the same. That was where it began and ended. Then arrived public statements from IOA chief, Suresh Kalmadi, on the proposed plans to bring F1 to India. While it made for exciting headlines at the time, looking back, I can't really see the IOA funding a $450m-plus project for motorsport.

Then came a serious vision from Chandrababu Naidu, who wanted to put Hyderabad on the world map. F1 plans, however, soon folded up in the hands of democracy. Naidu lost the elections.

Madras was briefly touted as the next hot destination, possibly because of the influence it had on motorsport in our country, but the price of land made it prohibitive to expand on the existing facilities. With a tradition of hosting races since 1950, the MMSC, India's largest motorsports club and its resources of more than capable members showed more than just a cursory interest in bringing F1 further south.

While the cost of constructing a facility at the time could have been imaginable, the sheer monies required to host and pay the rights fees for F1 put that dream to rest.

Vijay Mallya and I then decided to try and work out an economical way to bring the sport to India. Vijay organised meetings with Sunil Dutt (the then sports minister), Delhi CM, Sheila Dixit, and a few others. Unfortunately, when the cost and logistics of putting up temporary Armco barriers, FIA debris fencing and temporary pits came into the equation, Delhi joined the list of cities that were so near yet so far.

While the backdrop of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate would have given the Monte Carlo Casino a bit of a complex, shutting the roads down for days on end just was not a feasible option.

Back to the drawing board…
The various instances certainly left a hollow feeling within a few of us, who had put hours, days and months into trying to make F1-India a reality!

Little did we know then that under the radar, the low-profile Gaur family was on its way to constructing the Yamuna Expressway connecting Delhi with Agra. A casual visit to the Madras track from a few JPSI officials, claiming to have plans of building India's F1 circuit, was initially met with cynicism.

Negotiations with Bernie were soon finalised and thoughts of F1 coming to India were re-ignited.

The 5.137km circuit with 12 metres of elevation changes was finally designed with a 1.2km straight to truly showcase the raw speed of F1 machines. The enormity of the task slowly became apparent! Legendary delays in our 'system' started to take their toll on many administrative issues.

Its not just the stakeholders of the sport but the government that need to exploit this platform to promote India. 28 million Indian viewers watched the Monaco GP, and with a global audience of 527 million in 2010, 16,000 hours of coverage in 187 countries, none today can argue with the brand equity that F1 is.

The writer is the president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India and the father of F1 racer Karun Chandhok.