WHAT DOES THE INDIAN GP MEAN FOR INDIAN SPORT LOVERS?
Six years back if an average Indian, with some amount of knowledge of sports was asked about Formula 1, the only logical answer you would get is probably the name of Michael Schumacher or Ferrari. The seven-time World Champion and his team were among the phrases synonymous with Formula 1 in India, in the early 2000s at least. I remember as when I was younger all the older sport aficionados I knew, who normally discussed Ganguly's latest innings or Manchester United's position in the EPL, talking about Schumacher on and off during weekends when he won a race. Then around 2003, another motor sport-associated name came into the wider Indian consciousness, that of Narain Karthikeyan. It was only in the year 2005 that India was plotted in the global F1 map when this very Narain Karthikeyan became the first Indian F1 driver for the Jordan team. The image of Karthikeyan clad in his canary-yellow driving suit, helmet in hand, flashed on from pages of every newspaper and video clips of him zooming on a race track was a part of every Indian news channel. Media was trying hard to create some resonance in the minds of Indians about this relative foreign sport, called Formula 1 Racing.
India has come a long way since then. Today India is all set to host her first F1 race at the Buddh International Circuit, in Noida, near capital New Delhi. India has finally awakened to a new sport, Formula 1, and things have changed. When asked about F1 drivers most people can confidentially rattle out Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton thanks to their visits for McLaren promotion, this year’s Champion Sebastian Vettel is a name on every young sports follower’s lips, and most people also remember that Ferrari is driven by Alonso and Massa and that Schumacher drives for some other team. But the fact that every Indian is proud of is that we have a Formula 1 team named after our country, Force India, or as it will be called from now on, Sahara Force India. The team was formed in October 2007 when a consortium led by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya and Michiel Mol bought the Spyker F1 team for € 90 million. Since then, F1 racing has slowly but steadily making its way into the Indian psyche as a sport.
Now with the Indian GP finally here, it is time India got acquainted with the sport! What does hosting a F1 race in India mean to our not-so-sport-friendly-unless-its-cricket nation mean? As usual, there are the supports who are all out waving the chequered flag and saying that it is the best thing to happen to Indian sport after our World Cup win earlier this year. And then there are the detractors out with their red flags who think this sport is a waste of money, or even worse, racing cars is not even a real sport! But what about the average Indian sport lover? What do they think? So I decided to do a quick poll among youth who follow some sport and quizzed all my known friends and associates on the topic. Unsurprisingly I found that most young fans were excited at the prospect of the Indian GP. Even those who did not normally follow F1 were looking forward to see the race on Sunday. Many actually consider it as a proud moment for India, and rightly so, this race has firmly put India on the global F1 map. Few of them actually said how the success of the Indian GP would be successful in erasing the shambolic memories of the Commonwealth Games held last year. Another interesting perspective was provided by one of my friends who blatantly sated that this race was Indian only by name and location, nothing else. He says the Force India team doesn’t employ Indian drivers, all off their technical staff is not Indian and the only Indian element in the team is the Indian owner and his semi-Indian son. I strongly disagree with this sentiment, to be honest. Even though the drivers are not Indian, the team very much is. In addition we have two Indian drivers in the circuit currently, with Karthikeyan driving for HRT and Karun Chandok for Lotus and even though the latter will not get a chance to participate in the final race, it doesn’t change the fact that he is part of an F1 team.
One thing I found extremely interesting over the past few weeks is the news promotion for the Indian GP. How the presence of cricketers is being used as the crutch to rope in followers. “Sachin Tendulkar given the honor to flag off the race”, “Sourav Ganguly makes an appearance at a F1 function by Sahara Parivar”, “Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag to attend the inaugural Indian GP” and so on and so forth. Isn’t it interesting that F1 needs the support from cricket to garner popularity in India? A sport which is globally followed has to depend on cricket to find a base in India! Is that how narrow-minded we are towards other sports? I hope not. Then again, the mass appeal will only be restricted to the urban areas in India where the media penetration is high. This, I believe, is a consequence of the sheer size and diversity of India and not because of cricket being the primary sport.
Being an idealist, I think the F1 can carve a niche in the minds of sport lovers in India. If not the fanatical loyalty that cricket and our national team inspires, then at least a regular following. I hope that sooner or later Indians embrace Formula 1 racing as they have embraced the EPL and European clubs. Till then, let us tune on to the inaugural Indian GP and enjoy action like we may have never seen before! Here is hoping that the race weekend passes without any glitches, any calamities and any other issue that will embarrass us as a country. Instead be a stunning success so that no one can ever sat that the only sport India knows is cricket.
Formula 1 in India, it’s time to hit the road!