Formula One is popular in countries around the world, and India is one of those countries. After watching races held worldwide – and many in Asia, with significant success, Indian F1 fans finally found what they had been waiting for – a home race, in 2011. That was short-lived, with the race seeing three iterations – in 2011, 2012 and 2013, before it was announced it would not return in 2014.
Fans have called for the race to return to the calendar since, but this endeavour has been in vain; despite this, FOM have added a new race to the circuit – the European Grand Prix returns to the calendar, this time at the brand new Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan, with a return for the Indian Grand Prix seeming like a distant blip on the horizon.
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has spoken of his issues with the circuit, and it seems unlikely, for now, that the race will make a return.
I analyse why that decision is justified.
For that, we need to look into...
History of the Indian Grand Prix
The Buddh International Circuit became home to the subcontinent’s first ever Formula One race after years of bureaucracy and even more years of lobbying by several states to gain rights to the tournament.
But Haryana had never been the first choice for the race. Several other locations in India had been fielded before it, each of them with more racing and motorsport history than Buddh. With the country’s only two racing tracks both in Tamil Nadu, one in Chennai and the other Coimbatore, each of those locations was considered ideal.
Bengaluru was also considered as a venue, but in 2003 an agreement was signed for Hyderabad to host the Indian Grand Prix. Both that and plans for the race to be hosted in Mumbai eventually fell through, with India’s F1 hosting aspirations temporarily halted.
It was not until 2007 – a decade after plans were first floated, that a decision was finally arrived at. The Grand Prix was to be held in Gurgaon, Haryana, and designed by famed F1 track engineer and designer Hermann Tilke.
The German is responsible for the design of 9 of the tracks on the current Formula One calendar, including its newest – the Baku City Circuit, a street circuit in Azerbaijan and the venue of the newly reinstated European Grand Prix.
FOM finally arrived at a final decision at the end of 2007, when all parties involved decided on Greater Noida as a venue; although 2010 had been the initially desired commencement date for the race, Ecclestone announced the inaugural race would not be held until the 2011 Formula One season.
The difficulty of arriving at a decision as to the venue of the race, drawn out for over a decade, would be the earliest – and biggest indicator of the issues to come.
Legal issues early on
Deciding on a venue had never in the sport been as contentious an issue as it was in India. Several countries had multiple tracks, which saw races shift in increments from one track to another, dependent on a number of factors.
India already had Coimbatore’s Kari Motor Speedway and Irungattukottai in Chennai. Both were permanent raceways, and given each already hosts racing events, the two tracks could have alternated as venues depending on availability.
As to aany issues with the track potentially being unsuitable, several tracks in Formula One’s past have been tweaked or redesigned; this would have had a smaller budget than designing and constructing a new track outright – and given that each venue is tried and tested, would have not been an unsound decision to take.
But instead of advocating for a specific track or venue, the proverbial ball was passed from one to another – eventually virtually traversing five states before Uttar Pradesh was ultimately decided on.
That would not spell the most promising of beginnings for the first race of the subcontinent.
The venue had got off on the wrong foot, and the race, although now decided upon, would soon follow. A key name associated with the race was also assocciated with India’s Commonwealth Games in 2010. Unfortunately, that association was not a pleasant one.
Suresh Kalmadi, the Chairman of the Games, attempted to bring Formula One to India in 2007; Formula One Administration signed a contract with the now-disgraced former minister – a contract, it was later found, Kalmadi, his daughter, and son-in-law were all beneficiaries of.
His son was a shareholder in another firm part of the deal – making it essentially a benefit for one family – not in the best interests of the sport; it is difficult to tell if there was, in fact, any interest in the development of the sport in the country given Kalmadi’s lack of association with Formula One.
It would seriously foreshadow the corruption allegations that soon followed.
This culture of corruption and under-the-table deals, disguised in private interests, has, if anything, become even more pervasive than it was in 2007; with no parties working for the sport and all involved focusing on individual needs, it is the sport that suffers. It is also a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in India in the years since, spelling doom for the return of the race.
Every event, especially one on the scale of a Formula One race, and a debut Formula One race at that, is bound to present logistical issues as a result of the sheer scale of organization and coordination required.
Despite this, however, all parties involved tend to work overtime to ensure all is complete and in place ahead of the race. That was not the case at the Buddh International Circuit, which struggled with track completion ahead of the race. Metal legends Metallica had been due to perform at the track – as is the case with most races, which see a musical act close the weekend or open it.
The Kirk Hammett-fronted band cancelled their show hours after spectators had already arrived, and it was later revealed there had been issues with fines and permissions – permissions that should have been in place several months before the event, as is the case with events on this scale.
Soon after, the band, who became aware of the Commonwealth Games controversy, completely distanced themselves from the situation – a move they cannot be blamed for.
But there is a lot of potential F1 talent in the country going to waste as well.
No driving sponsors for young talent
India has had driving talent in the past – although no Indian driver has had any definable ‘success’ in Formula One, unable to win a podium. Several Indian motorsports drivers and experts – including racing prodigy Armaan Ebrahim, works with young talent to hone their skills.
In an interview, Ebrahim told us he strongly believes there is talent fast enough to race against the best, or be the best in Formula One in the future – but a lack of sponsorship has meant that those unable to self-fund are forced to quit the sport.
What is that lack of sponsorship up to? There is interest, he tells us, but because the sport does not have an Indian connect like it used to, that is lost.
It is then therefore a catch-22. Various issues have added up to spectacularly deleterious effect with respect to the Indian Grand Prix; that has affected sponsors, who in turn do not put money into helping find India’s next Formula One talent. There could be another Sebastian Vettel in the ranks of the JKTyre karting competitions, but that talent fades into obscurity without the backing to shine.
Is the answer, then, forcing sponsorship as part of corporate-social responsibility initiatives? Perhaps if there is some sort of ‘forced’ sponsorship, that will bring much-needed attention to young karters looking to move into single-seater racing.
That, in turn, will help put India on the map with respect to the sport – which could then bring in sponsors, both national and international, facilitating the way for an actual Grand Prix to occur – and thrive.
Bernie Ecclestone famously said he could not deal with the immense corruption involved; and the history of how the sport was handled seems not to suggest otherwise. Could it change anytime soon? There have been younger forces interested in the sport, forces that could take over to help hone interest.
But there are more problems, too – significant ones that have to do with Indian interests.
Force India and the Vijay Mallya saga
Sahara Force India are a firm midfield team. They’re on Mercedes power and looked good in 2015, with Sergio Perez scoring a podium at the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. The squad finished at a decent 5th in the championship standings, with Perez the stronger of the two, finishing in the top 10 in the drivers' championship standings.
This year has been less than ideal for Force India for a number of reasons – the first of which has to do with their drivers. Only one driver from the team each finished inside the points in the last two races, with neither in the points this time around.
But the squad, India’s biggest connection to the sport for now, has bigger issues. Following issues with former co-owner Subroto ‘Sahara’ Roy, it is now Vijay Mallya’s turn to be under fire. The Indian liquor baron was named in the Panama Papers, the data reveal that showed a number of influential political and business figures were evading tax. Nico Rosberg and former driver Jarno Trulli were also named, but have escaped scrutiny for now.
Mallya, meanwhile, has been in trouble in India and abroad. After he departed for London, it has now emerged Mallya’s passport will be seized; he also stands to owe hundreds of millions in fines, and given the position of the Formula One team down the pecking order of matters, it could be one of the areas that suffers a cut.
There was also talk last year, and early this year, that Force India would be bought by luxury carmakers Aston Martin and rebranded; that would effectively sever any actual ‘connection’ with ‘India’ as a brand, and making a return difficult.
It was supposed to return in 2015, and then 2016, but tax issues do not permit this.
We would all, as fans, like to see the race return to our home country, but as circumstances stand, it looks like a difficult ask.