Indian GP will put the country among elite
When the five red lights go off at the Buddh International Circuit on October 30 and the 24 highly-tuned Formula One cars roar off on the first of their 60 aps, it would transform India from a pin-head on the world motorsport map to an annual destination for the petrol-heads.
It has taken 107 years for motorsports in India to mature from a pastime of the rich and famous to hosting a Formula One race.
Perhaps it is only fitting that the pioneers of the sport in India are remembered in the run-up to the inaugural Formula One Indian Grand Prix.
The first motorsport event of any type was held in 1904 by the Motor Union of Western India. The race began in Delhi and culminated in Bombay (Mumbai), covering 1,300 km.
Fords and Rolls Royces took part in the event that had the blessings of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon.
It was virtually a Wild West scenario with events being held with no set rules or regulations, leave alone governance. The “action” was mainly in the cities such as Bombay, Calcutta (Kolkata), Madras (Chennai) and Bangalore, where enthusiasts abounded.
After the Second World War, disused airstrips in Juhu (Mumbai), Barrackpore (Kolkata), Sholavaram (Chennai) and Yelahanka (Bangalore) got converted into racing tracks. However, none of these tracks is currently in use.
Although the Deccan Motor Sports Club in Pune used to conduct races in late 1940s, it was Sholavaram that became synonymous with motorsport in India and occupies the pride of place.
The first organised event was held on Oct 25, 1953, on a disused airstrip in Sholavaram on the outskirts of Chennai.
The programme included a five-lap race for motorcycles (handicap) and sports cars, a three-lap relay for motorcycle teams and a four-lap handicap relay for cars, followed by a driving test with the usual hard, soft reverse into marked space events, among others.
One John Dye, driving a Triumph Twin, emerged the fastest and averaged 72 mph for an “L” configured lap.
The landmark event had its genesis in a race between an Englishman, Rex Strong, and an Indian, K Varugis, on the streets of Chennai, from Chesney Hall to Catholic Centre, that summer and this was followed by a race at Sholavaram involving six British MGs and stock cars. GM Donner, driving a Jaguar Mark 7, clocked 84 mph. over a measured mile.
A year later, in 1954, the Madras Motor Sports Club came into existence. GM Donner was the president, KV Srinivasan the treasurer and K Varugis the secretary, with Rajkumar of Pithapuram, Raja D V Appa Rao, H Dye, P Mathen, K A Sillick and Rex Strong as committee members.
Subsequently, it was the likes of Gopal Madhavan, Indu Chandhok (father of Vicky, the president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India and grandfather of Karun), Jayendra N Patel, Anil Bhatia, C Prabhakar and S Muthukrishnan who gradually transformed the club into an edifice that it is today, and later were to play key roles in the formation of the FMSCI.
On February 17, 1957, the inaugural all-India meet was held at Sholavaram and it attracted racers from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Bangalore. The event grew in popularity and soon had competitors from other parts of India. So much so that the two weekends in February assumed the proportions of a pilgrimage for racing enthusiasts.
The Sholavaram track was subsequently reconfigured into a “T” shape and the race weekends paraded an array of global brands such as Citroen, Chevrolet, MG and Jaguar, besides a bunch of imported motorcycles. A young Vijay Mallya even imported a Formula One car and drove in one of the races.
As the years rolled by, the need for a national federation to bring together diverse clubs and to regulate motorsport through a centralised organisation grew. It eventually led to the formation of the FMSCI in 1971. The FMSCI was registered as a private company in 1973 and secured affiliation with world bodies FIA (1979) and FI (1986).
Sholavaram continued to be the hub of motorsports until the scene shifted to the current track at Sriperumbudur in 1990. The entry of two tyre majors, MRF in the 1980s and JK Tyre a decade later, took the sport to the next level, even as Coimbatore businessman B Vijaykumar constructed a race track in his hometown besides introducing a generation of Formula cars in the new millennium.