Stuttering at zero mph: Indian motorsport screeches to a halt

  • Sukhwant Basra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2015 16:21 IST
Narain Kartikeyan between races at the finale of the Japanese Super Formula at the Suzuka circuit on November 8. (HT Photo)

For close to two decades this writer has been listening to motorsports aficionados talk of creating a launch pad; of evolving a domestic racing setup in India that would offer young enthusiasts a training ground to prepare to take on the world.

This zeal became a tsunami of speculation with the advent of an Indian F1 race in 2011. The circus stayed around for three years and even attracted some Indian corporate ad spend. But staging the pinnacle of racing did not ripple into a host of sponsors trickling their way to the domestic series we have. Nor was there any spectacular interest amongst brands with a history of motorsports abroad.

Spokes awry

Sponsor and spectator interest are two spokes to this wheel which are crucial. But these two can only be added when the other spokes are aligned. India’s best rally driver Gaurav Gill barely survived the scrutiny of the Arjuna awards selection committee for about a minute. The sport is not WADA (world anti doping agency) compliant as no testing is done in our Indian events. That ends any chance of a national award in motorsports.

Two of India’s most iconic cross country events — Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm — have a section that allows quads to participate. Now, these vehicles can’t be registered under Indian law. The merit of that logic notwithstanding, quads are not allowed on public roads. Yet, quads have dominated at these long-distance events. It’s surprising the national federation is not being particular.

A number of organisers don’t seem to be bothered about the comfort of the participants. In fact, a whole load of glorified machismo is attributed to suffering at events like the Raid. Closed areas called parc ferme, where participants must aggregate by a certain time, are cordoned off as much as two hours before some of the competitors are flagged off. That means being there at five in the morning in frigid high altitude. Which, in turn, implies getting up an hour earlier.

I have heard many an official allude to the Dakar – one of the world’s toughest cross-country events – as the epitome of suffering for competitors. Sure, the Dakar is tough when out on track but each bivouac is like an oasis. Also, there is no silly parc ferme (except at start and marathon stages), every competitor just has to be present at his start time.

That medical evacuation stays a joke was illustrated in the very first stage of the Raid this year. Biker Mohit Verma broke his leg in three places and had to depend on a friend’s car for the over 300 km haul to Chandigarh.

Petty infighting

There are about two-and-a-half important people in the Federation of Motorsports Clubs of India, the national body. All of them seem to hate each other. Consistent infighting and petty politics mean that rights to national titles can be manipulated while rules can be tinkered with to suit an automobile sponsor when a rival starts winning its events. A lack of shared vision means the sport has no united utopia to work for — even that fantasy is missing, forget the basic bare-knuckle planning.

The FMSCI, in a way, is fortunate that few people care about motorsport in the country. If it was to invite the kind of scrutiny that the BCCI has in the recent past, innumerable conflict of interest issues would be found lurking in its seamy underbelly. People holding important positions in the federation run race teams and coach — many times in the same events they officiate at. Important commissions like racing and rallying have guys who conduct events also. Many a time a complainant has backed off as the judge and the accused appear to be the same.

Stop duping

Consistent misrepresentation of information has been a major issue with the sport. Even now, brands consistently drop the ‘amateur’ category winners tag when issuing loud ads proclaiming their vehicles have conquered tough cross country events.

A motorcycle company can rub out the name of the actual manufacturer on the engine block and run the machine under its Indian brand name. They keep winning and giving out ads. A naïve Indian media at one time would hail podiums got in races that had single digit grids – these were, after all, releases sent out by the federation. No wonder editors are far more wary of giving publicity to overseas winners now, they would rather cross check.

There has been consistent talk of India offering a ladder to the upper echelons of racing but it appears this ladder does not have enough steps. Like a wit remarked, let’s just say there are two very long poles. The brightest spark on the horizon is Jehan Daruvala.

Apart from him, no matter how hard Arjun Maini and Tarun Reddy are trying, there doesn’t seem to be much hope from others. While we may have top-notch karts, an average of eight competitive weekends over the year doesn’t spell out much against kids abroad who may have as many as 30-35 such outings. Year after year our local champs wilt when up against the tighter, more cut-throat grids abroad.

There are a lot of grey areas in Indian motorsport and till the basics are figured out, it can’t sell itself to sponsors. Given that the entrenched powers-that-be are all more concerned with maintaining their segment of the pie, it does seem a forlorn hope for now.

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