The story of Formula One, and of India, is one that after a common starting point (in this case a year, 1950) meanders down vastly separate trajectories. Years turn to decades, and those paths don’t intertwine. At some point in the 1990s there grows a mutual interest. Yet, for one there are only the broken shards of ambition, not the monument of accomplishment.
For the other, the scene isn’t yet green. Then, an event 61 years in the making happens. An encore, a year later. Now, it’s that time again. Yes, the same when sportswriters use their worn-out vocabulary of automobile puns. Don’t rev it up, no need to apply the brakes either, just be at the Buddh International Circuit. It’s F1 time!
Months after India became a republic on 26th January 1950, the first-ever F1 Grand Prix was held at Silverstone. Back then most Indians were more likely to pedal (their cycles) than to push the pedal to the metal. The F1 environment of that era would also seem a world away from the modern realities. If you don’t like the current drivers’ overalls emblazoned with countless eyesore sponsor logos, then you’ll definitely love the old-world charm of 1950s world champion Mike Hawthorn, who raced with a broad grin and a bow-tie (sometimes he even wore a tie).
The cult of F1
By the 1980s many fans, a majority south of the Vindhyas, had already developed a cult following replete with annual subscriptions of Autosport, a veritable motorsport bible for the ilk, and FIA season-review videotapes from friends and family in the US or Europe. Not all were fans however; for some the interests lay deeper including one pre-teen from Coimbatore.
“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,” reminisced Narain Karthikeyan, who in 2005 became the first Indian to reach the pinnacle of motorsport.
As India’s interest in F1 grew, so did F1 and more importantly Bernie Ecclestone’s interest in a country that was opening up to economic reforms. Such was Bernie’s fascination with the vast possibilities in the sub-continent that for the 1995 season he ‘sold’ the TV rights to a production house owned by current FMSCI (Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India) president Vicky Chandhok free of cost.
The man whose business acumen has turned F1 into one of the world’s most lucrative sporting events isn’t one for charity (especially if there’s no tax benefits involved), and this was a precursor to the future. This generosity, of course, almost fell through. In those nascent days of cable television, Doordarshan still had the widest reach. The problem was the policymakers at Prasar Bharati weren’t too keen on giving a prime-time, weekend slot to such a niche sport.
In the end, however, F1 eventually made it to the small screen, with a little fiscal fitness. “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,” said Chandhok.
Even then the feed only lasted two seasons before Parliament stepped in; the main bone of contention was the logo of tobacco companies that adorned the livery of the cars. The government didn’t want to promote tobacco on the state-run broadcaster. Ironically, this was around the same time the FIA was stubbing the butt out and, under increasing pressure from the European Union, started to outlaw tobacco advertisements.
Greater Noida via Hyderabad via Kolkata By 1998, there was talk of a possible Indian GP. Kolkata was the first city to catch Bernie’s eye. Delhi-based businessman Sundar Mulchandani played the role of facilitator and got the West Bengal government on board, but the funds couldn’t be generated.
In 2003, Hyderabad, under chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, looked front-runner to get F1 to the country. The then AP government invited F1 officials, who came to a site on the outskirts of Hyderabad, at Gopanapally. The AP govt even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bernie and Formula One Management. That site has now been converted to an IT hub. What happened? Naidu’s Telugu Desam lost the state elections to Congress. The new government didn’t want to spend over Rs. 1,000 crore on F1.
Suresh Kalmadi and the IOA also got involved and were Jaypee Group’s partners initially, but with the government making its stance on F1 clear, Jaypee were left to build the circuit and foot the annual $40 million race-hosting fee on their own expense sheet.
Safe as a house?
Over the past five years, Jaypee have spent over Rs. 3000 crore to build the circuit and host the last two editions. After this season’s race, there will be an 18-month gap, at least, to the next Indian GP.
Rumours are abuzz that this year’s edition could even be the last, despite Jaypee Group having contractual agreement with FOM for two more races. A myriad of legal clauses and stipulations that is as safe as a house. But, for a real estate group that has an estimated debt of Rs. 63,000 crore, even that age-old simile is not without a sense of irony!