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Force of a billion to power India's F1 ambition

India became hooked on Formula One when home-grown Narain Karthikeyan raced for Jordan in 2005 and test drove with Williams over the past two years.
AFP | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 05, 2008 04:31 PM IST

Not even the drivers expect to win a race this season but the new Force India team will not be lacking in support when the Formula One season opens in Melbourne next week.

Millions of Indians, home and abroad, will cheer Force India's gold, tungsten and white cars race past the chequered flag at Albert Park, judging by the media build up in the run up to its debut season.

Bankrolled by beer-to-airlines tycoon Vijay Mallya, this repackaged version of the Ferrari-powered former Spyker team is injecting patriotism to fire up India's cricket-obsessed public in an unfamiliar sport.

"No one believed India would have a Formula One team but we are there," the flamboyant billionaire Mallya said during the team's launch in January.

"I feel proud that an Indian has put its flag on the F1 circuit," Mallya added, pointing to the white, saffron and green of the Indian tricolour in the team's logo.

India became hooked on Formula One when home-grown Narain Karthikeyan raced for Jordan in 2005 and test drove with Williams over the past two years. Compatriat Karun Chandhok test drove with Red Bull.

The sport's commercial rights' owner Bernie Ecclestone is convinced Formula One's financial future lies in India and China in the form of untapped advertising revenues from large TV audiences.

India has been provisionally granted a race in 2010 provided the promoters, the Indian Olympic Association, meet the stuatory requirements - like building an expensive race track.

Television currently reaches around 110 million Indian homes. While cable and satellite are quickly adding to the number, half of India's population is under 25, a goldmine for advertisers.

And Mallya has set a target of 2012 for an Indian Formula One driver to be spraying champagne after a race and is identifying talent in India to be handpicked for training in Malaysia and France.

An Indian driver would clearly help further Mallya's and Ecclestone's cause.

"No Indian fits the bill yet," Mallya said, explaining why he hired Italian Giancarlo Fisichella -- a veteran of 196 Grand Prix -- and German rookie Adrian Sutil to power his 120-million dollar adventure this season.

Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan was roped in as brand ambassador to popularise the sport.

To lure younger Indians, Force One has attracted over 5,000 members into a networking website for blogging and initiating a fan club.

The team will also make its presence felt at go-karting events, which is hugely popular among youth, so that non-Indian drivers are assimilated, recognised and accepted.

The venture will extend itself to training and grooming drivers picked at a young age which are identified at these events. Force India's experienced drivers will have a larger role to play when these efforts start.

For the moment, the best Force One can do is to end among the middle-rung teams this season.

"Our real chance lies in the second half of the calendar and if we get the right direction, I think we can push to make Force India a middle-rung team," said Fisichella.

However, at present, the drivers only have to shoulder the pressure of several million Indians who will watch them closely.

"To have all of you pushing is just great," Fisichella said, when asked about being part of Force India, turning the pressure into a positive.

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