The Indian Grand Prix is just over three weeks away. The journey has only just begun, or so it would seem. The inaugural race has been 13 years in the making, there have been many pit stops and an equal number of black flags. Everything from changing governments to government apathy has stood in its way, but now the moment is upon us.
In 1996, an F1 race in the country was still a dream, and not a very likely one at that. Current Federation of Motorsports Clubs of India (FMSCI) president Vicky Chandhok remembers a conversation with former MAI (Motorsports Authority of India) chief and a permanent F1 steward Nazir Hoosein. "We were talking about the future of motorsport in the country. I asked Nazir if he felt F1 would ever come to India. He wasn't too sure," reminisces Chandhok.
What followed in the years ahead only added to the uncertainty.
The first time India was looked at as possible venue by Bernie Ecclestone & Co. was in 1998, with Kolkata the city primed to host the event. The man who played a pivotal role in India's first tryst with F1 was New Delhi-based mover and shaker Sundar Mulchandani. He played the role of facilitator and got the West Bengal government on board. Bernie was also impressed and a provisional understanding was in place. However, the requisite funding could never be arranged and the plan died a natural death.
In 2003 Hyderabad, under chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, looked front-runners to get F1 to the country. The then AP government even invited F1 officials, who came to a site on the outskirts of Hyderabad, at Gopanapally. Th AP government even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ecclestone and Formula One Management (FOM). That site has now been converted to an IT hub. What happened? Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party lost the state elections to Congress. The new government didn't deem it prudent to spend `1,000 crore on F1 and the race again failed to take shape.
The next concrete steps were taken jointly by the Jaypee Group and the Suresh Kalmadi-led Indian Olympic Association (IOA). In 2007, the Indian GP was back on with New Delhi in the hot seat this time. Famed architect Hermann Tilke inspected the prospective sites before finally approving one at Greater Noida.
However, the Indian government played spoilsport, saying it didn't consider F1 a sport, and backed out of its financial support.
"There's been many starts, many stops. Along the way many people have come forth, but all said and done Jaypee Group has been the only one to put their money where their mouth is. They paid $40 million as an annual hosting fee to FOM, and spent about 10 times the amount to build the circuit," says Chandhok. "Talk is cheap, it's the end result that counts."