How India made its dream race come true

Racing against time India managed to build one of the worlds great sporting stadiums, the Buddh International Circuit

The Indian Grand Prix, which ran for the second year last month in Greater Noida, outside New Delhi, was one of the Formula One races that it had once seemed would never happen, could never happen – and then not only did it happen, but when it did it wowed the world.

McLaren Formula One driver Jenson Button of Britain drives out from the pit lane during first practice session ahead of the Indian Formula One Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida last year. REUTERS File Photo

After Formula One came to China with its race outside Shanghai in 2004, there remained no market in Asia more important for the elite racing series to break into than India. With a population of 1.2 billion and a growing middle-class, the powerhouse on the subcontinent was a vast and potentially lucrative market for the series and its sponsors. Moreover, India even had a small auto-racing tradition of its own.

The British had started running rally races in the country in the 1920s, and there were Indian single-seater series. But most racing had not taken place on permanent, Formula One-style racetracks, of which there were only two in India, in Chennai and in Coimbatore, and neither was even close to meeting Formula One standards.

Formula One races had begun to be televised in India regularly in the 1990s, and the Kingfisher beer and airline company, owned by the racing fan Vijay Mallya, had been sponsoring teams since the 1990s.

Mallya then went on from sponsorship into team ownership, creating the Force India team in 2008. “It has always been my dream to bring Formula One to India,” Mallya said, when introducing the new team’s car that year.

“The government of Delhi I think really wants Formula One in India and I am optimistic that maybe we will be able to host our first race in 2009.”

There had been Indian drivers in the series. Narain Karthikeyan raced with the Jordan team in 2005 and was a test driver at the Williams team for a couple of seasons after that. This year he is driving for the HRT team. Karun Chandhok started racing in the series at the new Hispania team in 2010 and also drove for Lotus in 2011.

Indeed, all that was missing was an Indian Grand Prix. Mallya and Chandhok’s father, Vicky, had been pushing for one for years, via the Indian auto-racing organisation.
But in the modern version of Formula One that was expanding around the world, virtually all of the new races had come about thanks to funding by local governments.

In India, where poverty levels and need for development are a priority despite the booming economy, government support of a car race was not a priority, although the government did show some interest.

The tale of trying to hold the Grand Prix is indeed a long and convoluted one. As early as 1997, there had been talk of holding a race in Calcutta. But by 2003, the idea shifted to holding it near Bangalore airport. At the same time, the chief minister of the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh had set aside land to build the circuit near the airport at Hyderabad, and then a seven-year agreement was signed to hold the race elsewhere outside Hyderabad, starting in 2007.

Then, early in 2004, Mumbai began to show interest, and it was decided that the race would take place either there or in Hyderabad. By the end of that year, however, the deal fell through as the government changed its mind about spending money on racing.

By 2007, five sites around the country were being considered. In the end, Formula One signed a deal for the race with the Indian Olympic Association. It was decided to build the circuit in Greater Noida, outside New Delhi, with funding entirely from the private sector.
Even then, it looked as if the race would never really happen. The Grand Prix was announced for 2009, then 2010, and finally 2011.

Given this tumultuous history, but also because of the widely criticized organisation of the Commonwealth Games staged in New Delhi in 2010, skeptics around the world wondered if India was capable of hosting an international sporting event of such magnitude.

Then, racing against time and employing thousands of workers – many of whom lived in tents at the circuit site – the Indians managed to build one of the world’s great sporting stadiums, the Buddh International Circuit, with a gargantuan, curved awning overhanging the 13,000 seats in the grandstand of the main straight and a world-class pit and paddock area. The organizers had fulfilled their commitment to Formula One to perfection.

The track itself also surpassed expectations. Because it had been completed at the last minute, many drivers and teams had feared that it would not be ready for racing. It was covered with dust, and many expected a fiasco of a race.
In the end, however, the opposite happened.
It was difficult for drivers to overtake, there were only a few minor incidents, and Sebastian Vettel won, taking his 11th victory of the season for the Red Bull team.
“We enjoyed the country, and the circuit was pretty good, the layout,” said Heikki Kovalainen, a driver at the Caterham team. “Maybe the facilities were still a bit half-ready but the circuit was good.”

India itself came out looking like a winner, as the world’s media painted a picture of great accomplishment against the odds. There was barely a negative report about the race, despite some lingering difficulties and local colour, such as cows herded down roads outside the circuit and journalists and Formula One personnel occasionally having to use motorised rickshaws.


It was also the race at which teams, drivers and journalists on the whole had to deal with the most bureaucratic paperwork, and there were last-minute problems involving driver and team taxes and importation of equipment. Although some team personnel came down with food-related illnesses, on the whole the race passed without serious incident.

The fans proved to be among the most knowledgeable in the world. A total of 100,000 attended, filling the grandstand with the promise of a great future for the Indian Grand Prix and helping justify the private enterprise that had created it.

According to some of the teams and drivers, the infrastructure at the circuit was challenging in some areas. But the complaints on their checklists have since been remedied – which was not the case at the South Korean Grand Prix, which had debuted the year before.

Nor has attendance increased in South Korea. In India, too, it looked as if there would not be the same high attendance for the race this weekend as there was last year.
“But normally there is a little bit of a dip with the second year,” said Karthikeyan, the only Indian driver now in the series. “But there is definitely a lot of interest in Formula One. And people are aware of the sport in a much bigger way than two years ago because we have had a Grand Prix.”

“But it is still very expensive for Indians to go to the Grand Prix,” he added, “and to have nice seats, you’re looking at 400 euros. But there is suddenly a lot of interest in the sport and I hope it will be for many years to come.”

In fact, although it is still out of reach for the majority of Indians, the Indian Grand Prix ended up fulfilling one of its main roles for the wealthy: As a place for business-to-business activity, it instantly became one of the most popular for the corporate team sponsors, potential sponsors and their guests to meet.

“Last year, India was our third-biggest attendance of the Paddock Club and sponsors and guests, and this year it’s probably about the same again,” said John Booth, director of the Marussia team, referring to the corporate hospitality business. It’s very popular for them. “India has really sparked people’s imaginations,” he added. “It is really exciting. Even the traffic jams are interesting.”

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)