Indian Grand Prix: Charge of the Light Brigade

Indian-Grand-1

Is Formula One’s Indian sojourn over? Will the roar of engines be silenced on our shores? Will pride and reality collide, because one must lose? maxim goes into the paddocks, into the boardrooms and into fans’ hearts to talk all things F1.

“ There are only three sports: Bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Thus wrote Ernest Hemingway (since retweeted by the matador, the racer and the alpinist). Now, Mission Everest has become a reality show, bullfighting is facing bans in Spain… and motor racing? Well, let’s just say that when the Nobel laureate committed suicide in 1961, F1 cars didn’t even have seat belts!

When Formula One was first launched in 1950 (just to prove how long ago that was, Bernie Ecclestone was still a teenager back then!), safety wasn’t on the agenda. Part of F1’s early appeal was the risk factor involved. Not that it should have been that way… many great lives were lost because of a negligent view on safety. And right up to the mid-1970s, there were very few seasons in which there weren’t multiple fatalities.

In 1970, Austrian driver Jochen Rindt (the man current F1 champion Sebastian Vettel counts as his racing idol) became the first posthumous world champion in any sport. He lost his life at Monza after his brakes gave way at the Parabolica and his Lotus ran into the crash barrier. Having won five of the season’s first six races, he was crowned champion despite dying with three races still to go in the championship.

F1’s first legend, five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, was so skilful behind the wheel that few could ever imagine him falling to human, or, for that matter, even mechanical error. Not that he was entirely free of danger… In 1958, Fangio was kidnapped during the Cuban Grand Prix at the behest of Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader and 82 supporters sailed to Cuba on the Granma with one aim—to start a revolution and overthrow the Batista government. The guerrillas captured Fangio at gunpoint on the day of the race with the intention of releasing him after the race got over, which they duly did.

Fangio, of course, wasn’t the only character in an era which boasted of some of F1’s greatest drivers. There was the thorough English gentleman, Mike Hawthorn, who piloted his car while attired in a neat bow tie (a far cry from the sponsor-infested overalls that modern F1 drivers wear). Then, there was Stirling Moss, known as much for his sharp wit as his sharp turns. Moss, now 84, still visits F1 paddocks from time to time, though he makes no bones about what he thinks of modern F1. “It’s rather like if you flirt with a girl. It’s more exciting than paying for a prostitute, because with one you know you’re going to get it, the other one you don’t,” he once colourfully commented.

If Moss was the one who’d make you laugh, James Hunt was the one who’d elicit emotions far stronger than mere laughter. Tall, blond and a notorious playboy, Hunt’s conquests reached Wilt Chamberlain levels—if you don’t already know, Chamberlain was the basketball giant who once scored 100 points in an NBA game and, according to his biography, scored with over 20,000 women in his life. In the two weeks leading up to the 1976 title decider in Japan, in which Hunt was locked in a battle for the ages with Niki Lauda, he bedded 33 British Airways stewardesses, fuelled by a steady supply of alcohol, cannabis and cocaine. Lauda was earlier in the season trapped in a cockpit inferno and many thought he would never race again after severe burns, much less come back and challenge for the title. The battle has been immortalised by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard in the film Rush, which has garnered much critical acclaim since its release.

But the two men who took F1 rivalry to a different level were Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna who, even as teammates, didn’t give each other an inch. Frenchman Prost was cast as the learned professor who used all his knowledge and skill, while Brazilian Senna was the ultimate racking monk. They were poles apart and that is what eventually made their rivalry so compelling to witness.

While Prost retired a four-time champion, Senna met with a more tragic end. In 1994 at Imola, Senna lost his life after a high-speed crash while driving for Williams. The global grief at the loss of a genius ensured that safety standards would never be compromised again. Indeed, in the near 20 years since, F1 hasn’t recorded a single fatality.

The loss of Senna left a huge gap in fans’ hearts, but a German was about to take over his mantle with not just dazzling speed, but also the ruthless streak that Senna himself possessed. Michael Schumacher won his first title in 1994 and by the time he retired for the first time—in 2006—he’d added another six.

His return in 2010, though, showed that the sport is always evolving. Like many predicted, it was a German who won the title that year, just that it wasn’t the German they’d figured. Sebastian Vettel won the title all three years of Schumacher’s second coming. Is it time now for number four? Let the races continue, but first...

The Indian Grand Prix 2013

The anticipation and exultation of the first race is now ancient memory. Even the usual second race dip (when attendance dropped from 95,000 to 55,000) has been consigned to the nether regions of the hippocampus. Now, as F1 returns to the Buddh International Circuit a third time, the din of the V8, 800-bhp beasts has somewhat been drowned by the hubbub of the numerous stakeholders.

The race in the last weekend of October still has a lot going for it—the 5.14-km,
$400 million, Hermann Tilke-designed circuit with its steep elevations and declines is a drivers’ favourite. Plus, the fact that the race is held around the festive season only adds to the joy. But the clincher for you to rush to the nearest ticket counter, of course, is the possibility of Sebastian Vettel sealing his fourth straight driver’s title here. We should mention the lure of the beautiful pit babes and grid girls but, you devil you, we don’t need to elucidate that any further. We know, you know, and we know you know how good it looks... er, feels.

With the good, however, there’s also always the bad and the ugly. There are unfounded fears that this could be the last F1 race to be staged in India, especially after the 2014 race was cancelled by F1 circus ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. When the original contract was signed in 2009, with a reported licensing fee of $40 million per race, the Jaypee Group—owners of the circuit—were awarded the rights to stage five Grands Prix. The way these contracts work, it would be a very unlikely (not to mention expensive) option for Formula One Management (FOM) to terminate it early. As things stand, the Indian GP—after a one-year sabbatical—will return to the grid in 2015, this time as an early season flyaway race, like most other Asian races. Both the 2015 and 2016 Indian GPs will presumably be held in March.

Still, many mind-messers remain. The official reason for scrapping the Indian GP, as expressed by both FOM and Jaypee, is the logistical hurdle of hosting two races within six months (October 2014 and March 2015). But, when the Chinese GP underwent a similar calendar shift, it hosted two races within six months. Why, then, can’t we replicate a similar feat?

According to news reports, part of the problem is the troubling financial state of the race promoters, the Jaypee Group, with Credit Suisse recently estimating their debt at over `60,000 crore. With gate receipts (dwindling gate receipts, one might add) as their only source of income, breaking even will logically be difficult for the promoters.

In fact, the Jaypee model is unique because, at present, only three of the 19 races have private backing, while the others are all government-funded. All the Asian races, for example, are backed by their respective governments. On the flip side, government backing leads to farcical “paid fans.” In China, the government actually paid fans to fill up empty seats, lest they look silly in front of a global audience.

For the Indian government to do something similar will require an extraordinary change of heart and, perhaps, mindset. At present, the government’s reported view is that Formula One is not a “sport.” It’s “entertainment.”

For a minute, let’s forget about government backing. Jaypee and the F1 teams have even been at the receiving end of the red tape that has now become an accepted norm. The tax issue is one major deterrent. Apart from the customs duties teams have to pay to get their equipment into India, the government also taxes teams on one-nineteenth of their revenue (not profit). Then, there are the unnecessary visa processing delays that again haven’t gone down well with the teams or F1 journalists.

However, the promoters haven’t given up hope (or maybe this is their last chance saloon). “If F1 has to be in India on a long-term basis, the Government of India should own the event like it is their own event, not look at it only as a Jaypee event. Yes, Jaypee has made the circuit. Yes, Jaypee has paid the licence fee, but the government can share the licence fee. There are many governments around the world that share the F1 licence fee,” Sameer Gaur, CEO and MD of Jaypee Sports International, said recently. Wishful thinking?

Maybe, but one must emphasise that the “Indian” angle to the sport is central to the issue. On the circuit, the past two years gave Indian fans a chance to witness Narain Karthikeyan in action. The Indian ace didn’t disappoint with a blistering drive in the inaugural race. He may have finished 17th in a 24-car race, but outpaced highly-touted teammate Daniel Ricciardo (the man who will join Vettel behind the wheel of the second Red Bull next season). This time around, however, with the HRT team now having folded up, the 34-year-old Karthikeyan has moved to the Auto GP World Series, where he is in the running to win the driver’s title.

The Vijay Mallya-Subrata Roy co-owned Sahara Force India may bear the tri-colour on its livery, but to call it an “Indian” team would be a stretch. The team is still based in Silverstone and almost all their engineers, mechanics and technicians are British. Then there’s Monisha Kaltenborn—the Dehradun-born, Austrian-bred, team principal of Sauber. Ever eager to play the local card, she famously had a traditional puja at the Sauber garage during the inaugural race.

But all of these will, of course, only prove incidental once you hear the screech of the cars. There are very few sounds that can bring about uninhibited aural bliss. The first time you listen to the Beatles can be one. The screech of Formula One cars at the start of a race, although not quite as melodious as the Fab Four’s harmonies, could well be another. The first time you actually hear the ear-splitting shriek of the 2.4-litre V8 engine, it will leave your eardrum reverberating... transmitting the vibrations to the cochlea from where nerve fibres pass on the signals to the brain to be processed, analysed, stored.

Listening to the howl of the 22 cars when the five red lights go off will be an experience in itself. Your mind will go back to Enzo Ferrari and a famous quote by the legendary Italian car manufacturer. “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.” Granted, the modern F1 cars (let’s not even get started on the switch to V6 engines from the 2014 season) can never recreate the angry bark of the V12 Ferraris of old, but one must admit that the din of V8s is still music to the ears.

So, when you go to the circuit and see free ear plugs being handed out, remember this: Think of the first time you heard “I am the Walrus.” Listening to the growl of 22 F1 cars for the first time hits your head as hard as the first time you hear John Lennon chanting “Coo Coo Cachoo.” Do you want to dilute that thrill? Not on your life. You can definitely pull the plug, or shall we say earplug, on that thought!

Text: Rohit Bhaskar    

Illustrations: Anwita+Arun