There were plenty of skeptics ahead of the first Indian Grand Prix. People who’d made it to the venue a couple of months before the race were scandalised by what they saw. The track, or what they could see of it, resembled a construction site more than anything else. But the Jaypee Group didn’t break a sweat. They were quietly confident that they’d be able to meet the September 20th deadline for the homologation of the circuit — and when the FIA’s race director, Charlie Whiting made it to to the Buddh International Circuit on that very date, he gave the track his nod of approval. F1 2012 was go!
WAY BACK WHEN
But India’s F1 connection goes back decades. Other than the fact that loyal F1 fans listened to BBC’s radio broadcasts of Formula 1 races, subscribed to magazines that would reach them a couple of months late and ordered friends and family to send them VHS recordings of the races from abroad, India’s F1 connection even included an F1 car being raced right here. That’s right, back in the 1970s when a dusty old airstrip at Barrackpore, near Kolkata, saw some of the country’s hottest racing action, Vijay Mallya brought down an Ensign Formula 1 car and raced it at that very track!
A FANBASE IS CREATED
In order to bring Formula 1 down to India, though, there first needed to be a full-fledged fan following in the country — a whole host of people, instead of the rather niche circle of enthusiasts that existed at the time. And in order for that to happen, people needed a visual connection with the sport — they needed to watch Formula 1. And so, the everyday F1 fan owes a big thank you to current Federation of Motor Sport Clubs of India President Vicky Chandhok. It was Chandhok’s production house which owned the rights to broadcast F1 in India. But in the early 90s, Doordarshan didn’t see the point of broadcasting a sport that it believed was rather obscure. And so, Chandhok’s company paid the country’s national broadcaster to telecast F1. With that single move, Formula 1 caught on in India.
We were able to watch races live — a generation of Indians was introduced to the brilliance of drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. The F1 fan became familiar with tracks such as Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Monaco. The audience was primed — bringing F1 down to the country was the next logical step.
THE FIRST STEPS
Given that a Formula 1 car was first raced at Calcutta (now Kolkata), it’s no surprise that the Calcutta Motor Sports Club was the first to jump at the opportunity to bring F1 home. Things progressed quickly: a site was located, backers and funding for the project was found. In 1998, things looked very good. Then the Indian Government threw a spanner in the works when they decided to disallow cigarette sponsorship of any sort in sporting events. This meant British American Tobacco pulled out of the venture — and once funding was lost, the project went dead. The next serious effort to bring F1 down to India was made by then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. But those plans went down the drain when he lost the assembly elections and wasn’t in a position of power any longer.
Plans, nonetheless, were afoot. The Indian Olympic Association was busy, and they surprised the country when, in 2007, they announced that they had managed to ink a deal with the FIA to host a race in India in 2010. That didn’t work out though — a delay in sourcing funding meant that the deal expired. After which the Jaypee Group stepped in. The race was postponed from 2010 to 2011, a site was chosen and work began in earnest.