After pushing at India’s door for many years, it’s finally been opened from the inside – much to Bernie’s delight
By Adam Cooper
There was a telling sight at the front of the grid just before the start of the Indian Grand Prix. A minute’s silence for Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli, with drivers and team principals, had already ratcheted the level of emotion up a notch. Then shortly after they headed off to focus on the normal business of the day, the national anthem started to play.
Chatting with Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone and other key players, Dr Vijay Mallya suddenly stood to attention and began singing along. It was clear just how much this moment meant to Mallya and the rest of his countrymen. Against all the odds, India had built a Grand Prix circuit – and a pretty good one at that – and now the country was about to show the world that it meant business.
A couple of hours later the consensus among visiting Formula 1 folk was that the event at the Buddh International Circuit had been a huge success. The grandstands might not have been full, but there was a large and enthusiastic crowd. The paddock had a real buzz to it, and every time a test cricketer or Bollywood star was ushered past amid a sea of photographers visitors experienced a taste of what real celebrity is like in such a massive country. It was a marked contrast with the near-deserted paddock at the grey and soulless Yeongam venue in Korea a fortnight earlier.
Most members of the F1 community enjoyed the experience of being in India. There were logistical hurdles at every turn and the lack of traffic rules proved to be a shock for new visitors. So was the sight of Delhi’s bustling markets and back streets – at least for those who ventured into the city and away from the comfort of their five-star hotels. But by the end of the weekend, most people were looking forward to a return in 2012.
As ever, the big picture was a commercial one. The sport now had a foothold in a massive new market of 1.2 billion people, one with seemingly unlimited commercial prospects for Formula 1 sponsors as the country’s middle classes continue to grow and prosper.
Like Turkey, Korea may yet drop off the 2012 calendar, both races the victims of lack of local interest and, more importantly, a lack of enthusiasm for spending any more public money. And that’s where the Indian GP is different from what we’ve seen in recent years – it’s been created and funded not by a national or local government, but by private enterprise in the form of the Jaypee Group. The sudden emergence of such a benefactor came as a surprise even to the men in charge of the sport in India.
Mallya has been the international face of Indian motor racing since he took over the former Jordan/Midland/Spyker team at the end of 2007. He renamed it not after his company Kingfisher, but as Force India. That was as bold and patriotic a statement as you can get.
As chairman of the Federation of Motor Sport Clubs of India (FMSCI), Mallya had worked for years with its president Vicky Chandhok – father of Karun – to further the interests of the sport. Their commitment goes back three decades to when they raced themselves, Mallya having imported an Ensign F1 car as long ago as 1982.
Keen to bring a Grand Prix to India, the old pals wrestled with politicians who ultimately dropped out when the crunch came. Neither man anticipated that someone would one day offer to underwrite the whole thing.
“There’s been a lot of talk over the last six or seven years about people building tracks and state governments being interested in facilitating F1 tracks,” says Mallya. “Nothing really happened. I doubted whether Indian governments either at state or federal level would ever contribute towards to what they have always considered an elitist sport. I didn’t think a private entrepreneur would come and invest hundreds of millions of dollars to actually build a track. For motor sport and for our ASN [the National Sporting Authority of the FIA] this is a very big moment, to have an F1 race in India.”
“It did come out of the blue,” admits Chandhok Sr. “We started with 600 acres in Calcutta, which went out the window. Then it went south to Bangalore. Then there was some noise in Bombay, in Hyderabad… These were all governments.
“Then finally somebody came up to me in Madras at one of our national races and said, ‘I’m from the Jaypee Group, we’re building an F1 track, can you have a meeting with us?’ I had no clue that there were plans being floated I met with them and their commitment seemed clear. They did their deal with Bernie in 2009 and got started. And here we are…”
Owned and run by the massively wealthy Gaur family, the Jaypee Group is a huge concern in India with interests in real estate, roadbuilding, hydroelectric power and cement, among other things. The company is developing the Noida and Greater Noida areas to the south east of Delhi, and is building a highway through the region that leads to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
As part of its master plan Jaypee is creating a ‘Sports City’ with an international cricket venue and an F1 circuit as its flagships. There was no great interest in or passion for motor sport within the company – it was purely a business decision.
“They’re building four cities along the expressway,” explains Chandhok Sr. “They’ve got 10,000 acres in this area, and this plot is 2500 acres. Their business model is solid. They’re going to amortise the cost of the track over the entire land, and they’re using it as an investment. This is in the middle of nowhere, but the idea is to create it as a city that’s independent.
“It’s a global platform that they’ve been given and they’re using it as a marketing tool. They want to sell apartments, golf club memberships. It doesn’t matter whether the event makes money or not.”
One can only imagine Bernie Ecclestone’s face as he realised that these guys were serious and had the funding to back up their plans.
“They were never buddies, but I’ve got to know them over the last couple of years,” says Mallya. “And full marks, they’ve done an outstanding job. The FMSCI has given whatever guidance, help and encouragement they’ve asked for. That will continue.”
One story which emerged is that having agreed the annual fee with Ecclestone, and signed off the $250 million (£155m) construction cost of the track, Jaypee hugely underestimated the actual running costs of the event.
“I don’t think they underestimated it, they just didn’t know,” argues Chandhok Sr. “But fair enough, they’ve learned. And they haven’t backed off.”
“I’m surprised they got it running,” admits Narain Karthikeyan, who was inevitably a focus of attention all weekend at the HRT team. “In India there are always so many challenges – government permissions and other bullshit. It’s an incredible feat. There is so much bureaucracy and politics, and they’ve overcome all that. Previously our sports minister said it’s not a sport. He’s changed his view now.”
Inevitably the man Jaypee entrusted with creating the track was Hermann Tilke. The German architect may not be popular with purists, who dislike the generic look of most of his creations, but to some degree his hands are tied by the requirements of the FIA and Bernie.
Presented with a flat piece of land, Tilke nevertheless came up with a venue that has equalled or surpassed Istanbul, the track that hitherto was regarded as his best.
“We asked whether we could move some soil and explained that it makes it more interesting,” he says. “Thankfully they said yes. In the end we moved four million cubic metres of soil, and we have these ups and downs, these blind corners. This was one goal of the track design and we also tried to create some fast corners.”
A signature of Tilke tracks is that the grandstands or pit buildings incorporate some kind of national motif or reflect traditional local architecture, but intriguingly Jaypee nixed that. “They wanted to show India as a modern country,” says Tilke. “It’s part of a huge sports complex, but also with some housing and so on. We were involved in the master plan and let’s see what happens now.”
It’s easy to underestimate the scale of such a project. The actual track is just a tiny part of the challenge – the buildings, access roads and other elements of the infrastructure represent a mighty commitment, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Tilke is used to racing against the clock and, as with Korea, he only just made it.
“It was tight,” he says. “I think some weeks before nobody expected we would have an F1 race. We had delays because of the monsoon season, which was longer than expected, but in the end we did it.”
Of course there were many details that needed addressing. Buildings in the paddock had a rushed, unfinished feel to them and early arrivals found a few surprises. It transpired that Virgin’s hospitality unit had been used as a latrine by construction workers who lacked any other facility, while Williams found a family living in its building.
As the weekend progressed the sewage system proved unable to cope with the demands placed upon it, and several teams experienced floods in their kitchens. Power cuts were problematic earlier in the week, but that was addressed. And TV and radio commentators found themselves in windowless rooms with no view of the track.
Most embarrassingly in a country where animals tend to roam free in the streets several dogs got onto the track on Friday morning, one even generating a red flag during first practice, but we’ve seen similar problems elsewhere.
There was nothing that couldn’t be resolved in future years. Most importantly, the track itself received rave reviews from the drivers, most of whom had sampled it through computer simulations before they arrived. The reality proved as good as the virtual world suggested, its fast, flowing sections and dramatic gradients marking it as the best new venue of recent years.
For those at the heart of Indian motor sport it was a huge triumph, one achieved in the face of domestic criticism. “Three years ago if someone had asked me about F1 in India I’d have said, ‘Dream on!’” says Chandhok. “The commitment from the owners is legendary. I’ve never met a family like the Jaypee Group. They know the problems with the drains and hospitality buildings. They’ll take care of that for next year.
“Look at the circuit, it’s the best built in the last 10 years. From that perspective I’m absolutely thrilled. And it’s not just about F1. This is an edifice that’s going to project India worldwide. Many cynics said, ‘It’s an elite sport, do we need it?’ My god, at no cost to you, to the exchequer, to the common man, I think it’s a great thing to showcase us to the rest of the world. If you buy two hours of airtime in 200 countries and show it to 500 million viewers, what are you going to pay for it?”
Often criticised at home for failing to give a chance to Karun Chandhok or Karthikeyan, Mallya has made his own contribution to India’s motor sporting future by running a competition to find young talent. Three promising 13-14-year-old karters emerged from the process and will have their careers bankrolled by Force India.
Karthikeyan would have loved such an opportunity when he was younger, and he’s done his bit recently by supporting young Indian drivers. But will having a Grand Prix really make a difference?
“I’m still unsure,” he says. “It can go two ways, like China or Korea, or like Malaysia. In Malaysia it’s given the grass roots level of motor sport a big boost and the sponsors are getting into it. I think four F1 teams are now supported by Malaysian companies.
“Nothing happens overnight. In Mexico they have a big infrastructure, but after the Rodríguez brothers it took 40 years to get Sergio Pérez in, who’s a decent pedaller. It’s not that we don’t have young drivers competing abroad, but they’re nowhere. What I’m trying to say is that for the next four or five years, Karun and I are the only guys who can really make a difference in motor sport.”