Saturday, May 30, 2009

India: The Future of F1?

India has its very own F1 team, the first among Asian countries apart from Japan and also had Narain Karthikeyan as its first and only driver in F1 so far and with the Indian GP expected to join the FIA world championship calendar by 2011 things are looking good for the country. But all this has not happened in the last few years as Indian motorsports goes way back in time and it had a humble beginning in the industrial town of Coimbatore often called as the motorsport capital of India. It is in Coimbatore where the first open wheel racing was started in the mid 80’s and originally it had wealthy industrialist customizing their own cars and racing among themselves.

The dream of an Indian GP and India’s first F1 team began in the year 2007 when Vijay Mallya thru his Kingfisher Airlines decided to sponsor the Toyota F1 team and promised to bring F1 to India. Though the initially there was some talk in 2005 about the potential of either Hyderabad or Bangalore as possible venues but nothing materialised and it was in 2007 that Mallya after his takeover of Spyker F1 s along with Bernie Ecclestone had a provincial agreement with the Indian Olympic Association to bring F1 to India and Delhi was chosen as the venue and it is expected to hold its first race by 2011.

2005 will be the most important year for the country with relation to F1 as Narain Karthikeyan after years of competing in the British F3 and Formula Nippon series made in debut for the Jordan F1 team. Though he did nothing spectacular that year as Jordan was in a deep decline and he managed to score points by coming 4th in the controversial USGP as only 6 cars took the field. But he was consistent and proved that he can put some decent performances provided he had a decent car. But due to various sponsorship issues that happened to be his last year as a driver in F1 as the next two years he spend time testing for the Williams F1 team. Though he was in F1 for only a year but he proved that India can also produce F1 drivers and it is possible for an Indian to compete in the championships. Though none of the actual fans expected Narain to actually even score points during the 2005 season but the Indian press which at times does show blind patriotism over-hyped his team there and could be one of the factors which led to his decline.

When Vijay Mallya bough the Spyker team and renamed it as Force India, there was a buzz in the paddock that Narain Karthikeyan could well make his comeback with the new Indian team but Mallya felt Narain was too old for the long term future of the team and decided to bring in ex-Renault deriver Fisi and young German talent Sutil for the 2 seats. This was the end of Narain Karthikeyan’s F1 dreams and he right now competes in the A1GP and also made his Le Mans debut this year.

Though India is yet to have a proper systemic structure like other counties, it still able to produce drivers of International quality and currently two of its drivers Karun Chandhok who competes in GP2 series and Armaan Ebrahim who competes in the new launched FIA F2 World Championship are both touted as potential future F1 drivers. Karun has already tested the Red Bull Racing car and if he manages to have very good 2009 GP2 season, well he could either land a driver’s seat or even a testing role with the Force India or even the STR team.

The future for F1 is looking very good especially with expected Indian GP in 2011 and the Force India F1 team currently on the grid; all it needs is an Indian driver to score points in the Force India team to really have a big boom. Currently among global sporting events F1 is the most watched sport after Cricket and the English Premier League. Many cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi have sports pubs which show the races and you can lot of people in both Ferrari and also McLaren gear. These two apart from Force India are the most popular teams in India and it is very common to see F1 fans discussing who is superior between Ferrari and McLaren.

Things look bright but the media will play a crucial role and currently there is more than enough coverage for F1 but then with Cricket being the only major sport which gets the attention of the nation, F1 may never become the mass sport but it surely will become the favourite sport among the urban educated Indian people as they belong to the 25 to 35 age bracket and many of these fans even go to Singapore to Malaysia to watch the races. Only an Indian GP will tell the true story of how successful can F1 become in India.

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