Full throttle


Many think he is too flamboyant to be taken seriously. But nobody can doubt Vijay Mallya’s ability to spot a trend ahead of others. When he bought the Spyker Formula One team in 2007 for €88 million and renamed it Force India, he built an instant association with a lifestyle sport that was catching up in India. Less than four years later, motorsport in India is ready to take wings.

Mahindra & Mahindra will make its debut at the MotoGP in the 125-cc category. The company has for the past few years organised off-road events called Mahindra Great Escape to exhibit the ruggedness of its SUVs like the Bolero and Scorpio. With its foray into the highly-competitive motorcycle market, MotoGP, it hopes, will become its USP. Tata Motors, too, launched its motorsport initiative called Full Throttle to capitalise on the potential of motorsport in the country. Maruti Suzuki has always been active when it comes to motorsport with events like Desert Storm and Raid de Himalaya; these events are now on a larger scale.

Vicky Chandhok, president of Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, is delighted to see corporate support coming in big numbers. “We are a country which loves the speeds and thrills but always fell short because of money; so it’s good to see companies getting serious about motorsport,” he says.

Why now? The obvious reason is that with their incomes on the rise, Indians have developed an appetite for motorsport. And with New Delhi set to host an F1 race in October, interest in the sport could soar. Bernard Charles “Bernie” Ecclestone, the charismatic F1 CEO, has declared his satisfaction with the work in progress at Greater Noida. The Jaypee group, which is building the track at a cost of $350 million, has ambitious plans — the track will be in use for one event or the other for almost a quarter of the year. Apart from other things, it wants to sell apartments in the vicinity of the track at a huge premium.

The company has worked on motorsport for the last 13 years now. Its latest act is to popularise motorsport in the North-East by launching a talent-search programme in the region.

Mahindra & Mahindra wants to look at all motorsport platforms — bikes, NASCAR, rallying et al. But it’s MotoGp which could be a landmark for it. Mahindra Racing will make its debut later this month at Qatar in the inaugural race of the MotoGP season. Team principal Mufaddal Choonia is excited at the opportunities that lie ahead. “We are a new team and look forward to the challenges that MotoGP will bring,” he says. Mahindra Racing has recruited two riders, German teenager Marcel Shrotter and Danny Webb from Britain. The company is keen on looking at Indian talent as well but for its debut has gone ahead with young foreign talent.

Tata Motors has made a comeback in motorsport. The company has earlier participated in several international rallies with the Safari. Tata Motors Vice-president R Ramakrishnan says: “The platform will help the company organise and synergise all efforts and activities in the area of motorsport including development and testing.” Tata Motors has used the conventional entry into motorsport — participate in rallies, get its cars (the Safari and Xenon XTs) tuned for rallies and then look ahead. At least that’s what Ramakrishnan reveals so far. “We have plans for motorsport and will work actively throughout the year,” he says.

Will the motorsport tag help automobile makers in the value-conscious Indian market? Harish Bijoor, the CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, feels that while there are immense opportunities, the path has to be treaded carefully. “We have seen too many false dawns in the past when it comes to motorsport and brands,” he says. When Narain Karthikeyan became the first Indian driver to participate in F1, it was thought that motorsport will eclipse every other sport. “There were some noises made but nothing that changed the landscape of motorsport,” says he.

Brands are betting big on the F1 race — an event which should propel India into the world of sports. They are aware that the money is there. Over 600 million people watch the F1 season all over the world.

In India, the numbers have gone up since Mallya bought Force India. In 2008, an estimated audience of 22 million watched the F1 season. The number grew to 25 million in 2009. It is expected to touch about 40 million in 2011. While brands haven’t been able to leverage much out of F1 so far, the opening up of other avenues might just change the landscape of motorsport in India.

This could be a bumpy or an extremely thrilling ride. So, fasten your seatbelts.