India's F1 debut: The fever ends but the debate continues

India’s F1 debut: The fever ends but the debate continues Photo: Associated Press

INDIA,  November 12, 2011–October, 2011, India successfully placed itself on the F1 map after hosting the first ever Indian Grand prix at the Budh International Circuit in Greater Noida in the outskirts of Delhi.

The track was both spectacular and symbolic of the triumph of private entrepreneurship in the country. The track was built by one of India’s leading private Infrastructure companies Jaypee Sports International, at a cost of $ 400 million, is the greatest sporting infrastructure created by any private company in the country.

The Grand Prix of India is a new chapter in the sporting history of a nation that is known for its obsession with cricket. The first race attracted 95,000 spectators as well as TV viewership that sent the TRP’s [Television Rating Points] soaring for channels covering the race.

It’s been more than a week since Sebastian Vettel bagged the coveted trophy.  The monstrous engines are now silent and the pit lanes deserted, but one thing that’s still creating a furor is the nationwide debate on whether India should spend money hosting such elite sports as F1?

The public memory is short but the Commonwealth games fiasco of 2010 is yet to subside from the minds of the taxpayers who were stunned to see the scale of mismanagement and the ways public money was used to fill the coffers of politicians and bureaucrats with little accountability.

On the other hand, the Airtel Indian Grand prix, solely a private sector initiative, was a spectacular success in terms of event management. The track was built on time, the event was duly marketed and ticket sales soared, with corporates competing for every bit of advertising space, international bands and celebrities like Metallica and Lady Gaga were roped in for the inaugural function. The international F1 guests went gaga over Indian hospitality and culture. Amongst those applauding the clockwork precision of the event were F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Sebastian Vettel, the proud winner of the first Indian Grand Prix. Vettel went overboard and said “I think it is a very impressive country, very different to what we probably know from Europe, but very inspiring. If you keep your eyes and ears open I think you are able to learn a lot, the way the people handle things. They enjoy life and in the end that’s what it is all about. If your life comes to an end it is more the thoughts, the emotions, the friends, the friendships you take with you rather than whatever you have in your bank account,” the German remarked philosophically after his win.”

The F1 event to some extent irons out the dent created in India’s global image by the mismanagement of Commonwealth games and re-establishes India’s ability to organize top-end, world-class events. It also highlighted the difference between publicly organized and privately organized events.  The Airtel Indian Grand Prix showed that a small committed team of young management professionals can do a much better job than an army of politicians, sports officials and bureaucrats in organizing a global event for the nation. These two groups differed not only in age but also in motivation. The successful private F1 team belonged to a publicly listed company which has to show profitable returns to its shareholders and had to seize this opportunity for brand building and to debut successfully on the world stage. On the other hand, the old and corrupt government babus who organized the CWG were using the taxpayers money for the event and were hardly accountable to anyone except the “sacred politicians.” 

Critics of F1 in India fail to differentiate between the event and the sport.  Merely criticizing, the race because it involves money does not suffice. It’s rather naïve to think that India should not spend money on such sports because it is an elite sport and India houses a considerable number of poor people. If such is the case, we should not have any five star hotels, airports, fighter planes and we should stop spending money on research and development and space explorations (who cares if there is water on the moon or life on Mars). The truth is that we need the modern marvels just as we should preserve our cultural history simultaneously trying to bring more equality and opportunity to those who are left out. In a dynamic world, if you don’t move to the next frontier you would become stagnant and will be left behind on the world stage.  As long as the taxpayers money is not utilized, in what is termed as an “elite sport” how does it matter if the organizers are earning profit out of the sporting event?

Motorsports is an industry by itself, and the spin off created from the event for allied businesses would only increase every year. It gives a boost to tourism, business, engineering and public relations to name a few. The industry body ASSOCHAM said “The Formula 1 Grand Prix race in India could generate revenues of over Rs 90,000 crore in the next 10 years and create 15 lakh new job opportunities for technical workers. The Central government who even refuses to recognize F1 as a sport has earned Rs 600 crore in taxes from the organizers.

Sachin Tendulkar raises the flag for F1 race in Budh International Circuit

Sachin Tendulkar raises the flag for F1 race in Budh International Circuit(Associated Press)

For a sport that is driven by cutting edge technology and six sigma [a rigorous quality control mechanism that allows only 3.4 defects per million opportunities], it is imprudent to assume that it would be an impediment on the host’s economy and futile for its citizens.  Anyone who closely follows the advancements in automotive technology would know that technical advancements that happen directly because of F1 are quite breathtaking. The technology and reliability of automotives have significantly improved in the last 10 years and F1’s contribution to the same can hardly be ignored. For example, in the 2009 season, the FIA allowed constructors to use a technology called the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) - a significant on-track advantage and a promising leap forward for the hybrid technology.

The biggest Formula 1 teams like Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Ferrari are the ones that spend a huge chunk of their resources on the development of technology, which has real-world application. However, the ruling body of this F1 motor sport has ‘banned further investment in F1 engines.’ As a result the major teams that participate in the Formula 1 car racing now focus on the “hybrid systems and other eco-friendly means of power production and fuel efficient technologies”

In the backdrop of this debate, it should also be noted that India lacks a sporting culture. The traditional focus on excelling in academics deprives young Indians of realizing their athletic ambitions. However, the larger question that intrigues me is what if we stop dividing sports in the silos of elite and non elite? Why are we unable to create a national ecosystem in which an aspiring teenager can choose to excel in any sport of his choice whether it’s F1, cricket, football or gymnastics? The real triumph of the private sector should not just be in hosting a successful sporting event but in nurturing talent, technological innovation and contribute in churning out more Michael Schumachers.

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Sonal Jaitly

Sonal is a young professional, aspiring writer and an astute observer of life. Born and brought up in India, reciving a mix of both Indian and western education, Sonal earned a Masters in Business Administration, but gave up business to work for Education, her passion.

An explorer at heart, Sonal loves to travel and interact with people, meeting new people, reading about different customs and cultures is something that fascinates her. Juggling between pursuing her passions and her career, Sonal believes it is important to be a perpetual student of life, learn, unlearn and relearn while navigating through the hills and valleys of this beautiful journey called “life”.


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