The successful staging of the Indian Grand Prix has led to a feeling of hope of better things to come, but there is still work to be done. "The fact is that there is still no programme for the grassroots in India and this needs correction," says JK Tyre's motorsports head Sanjay Sharma.
This lack of grassroots motorsport extends further to drivers attempting to get help from corporate sponsors in order to financially support a career in the sport. Vishnu Prasad, this year's Volkswagen Polo R Cup champion, has firsthand experience. "Sponsors only seem willing to assist a driver when he reaches the top level in his chosen discipline," says Prasad. "For example, if I want to do touring cars, they will ask me what the top level of racing in touring cars is and then say that they will support me only once I get there."
There is one consolation for aspiring drivers like Prasad, though. "Thanks to F1 coming to India, people don't ask me what motorsports is when I tell them what I want to do," says Prasad.
The top-to-bottom approach is here to stay, though. At least, as far as India's first F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan is concerned. "Well, that is how things work in India," says Karthikeyan. "Nobody would have paid attention to karting or other basic forms of motorsports had F1 not come here first."
Off the beaten track
India's most prestigious off-road endurance event, the Raid de Himalaya, has already been listed on the International Motorcycle Federation's (FIM) calendar of international events from 2000 to 2008. "The event attracts attention of international participants," says Vijay Parmar, head of Himalayan Motorsports, organisers of the event. "It also becomes easier for foreign riders to get insurance while competing on an event listed on the FIM calendar."
The first non-Indian rider to triumph at the gruelling 2,000km event was Great Britain's Damon I'Anson in 2006. His win on a Yamaha prompted the previously dominant Indian rider, Aashish Moudgil, to choose a Yamaha as well instead of the Indian-built Hero Honda Karizma that he had used to win the event previously.
The stakes were raised again this year after Austria's Helmut Frauwaller triumphed riding the Swedish-built Husqvarna (a subsidiary of BMW motorcycles). Frauwaller was joined by three other Austrian riders in the top five, who rode BMW and KTM-manufactured bikes; brands that dominate global off-road endurance events.
Given the variety and extent of motorable terrain in India, the growth of rallying and off-road events seems like a logical extension. However, organisers like Parmar and representatives of car manufacturers like Volkswagen India Motorsport boss, Prithviraj Siddappa, are aware of the commitment involved in bringing such events to the public. "Rallying cannot be packaged for television as easily as racing," says Siddappa. "Apart from that, the events are held in remote areas, roads need to be closed for public use and there is a lot more transport involved. It requires a great deal of investment."
Back on the racetrack, Volkswagen has not only invested in the preparation of cars for drivers to race in the Polo R Cup, but also on the training of young drivers to be more self-reliant. Aware of the problems faced by drivers like Prasad in attracting sponsors, VW took the step to charge drivers just R2 lakh for their participation in the series' inaugural year in 2010. "We took upon the job of finding sponsors for the cars as we knew how hesitant companies are when it comes to supporting grassroots racing," says Siddappa.
The approach has started to reap dividends, with drivers being given more space on the cars for personal sponsors, which has allowed VW to upgrade the cars and justify charging the drivers more than the cut-rate participation fee that was initially charged. With the success of the Polo R Cup concept and the construction of an F1 grade facility, Toyota has also decided to throw its hat into the ring with a one-make series using its Etios saloon car.
The interest shown by these two manufacturers is a good start, but still far short of the ideal scenario.
"Ultimately, motorsports has to be a competition between brands," says Parmar. "MRF and JK Tyre understood this when they competed in rallying but not many car manufacturers in India have the stomach for a fight," he says. Parmar cites the example of Maruti-Suzuki, whose Vitara SUV is seen by competitors in the Raid de Himalaya's Extreme four-wheeler category as the next step from the outdated Gypsy. "People want to race the Vitara, but Maruti is wary about the possibility of its cars competing against the likes of Mitsubishi or Toyota."
Ultimately, this competitive scenario trickles down to racing drivers themselves who get supported by a manufacturer to compete in global events.
Twenty-three-year-old Aditya Patel is a good example as he has risen through the ranks in VW's global motorsports programme and is poised to land a drive in Germany's GT Masters. Michael Schumacher was similarly backed by Mercedes-Benz. "Michael came to us when he was a junior driver in 1990 in our sportscar team," Mercedes' motorsports head, Norbert Haug, says. "We promoted him and helped him get to F1. Now the circle is complete. He is back with us."
Miles to go
For racing in India to become an attractive prospect, a series' spectator value would need to be high according to India's first Formula 2 driver, Akbar Ebrahim. "A series needs to have a lot of close racing. If it starts to come down to engineering and other variables, it will become boring."
Tata's committed backing of Karthikeyan's career is an example of what drivers from India can achieve even without proper domestic infrastructure. While the recent changes may have come too late for the current generation, future generations can expect to be better prepared.