The whole country was excited when India hosted its first Formula One race in 2011. The country was talked-about in positive light in international motorsport circles because the first race went off very well and the so did the second in October last year.
Hosting a Formula One race is something very few countries can do. The investment needed to acquire land and build the track and other facilities is gargantuan. And the actual process of building the track is tedious. The folks at Jaypee Sports International have done both rather well and helped put India in an elite club. This is despite the fact that it takes a long time to reap profits.
Formula One is more than a sport. It is a highly successful business model. A team, for instance, can make a lot of money if it invests in the right people and equipment. The sport has its own mechanism for making and sharing profits, and possibly no other form of motorsport can even come close to matching it. Hosting a race can increase a country’s image but how the national sporting association uses it to generate interest in other forms of motorsport domestically is crucial.
India has hosted two races at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC), which will also host a round of the World Superbike Championship this year. It may not be too long before the BIC hosts a round of MotoGP.
Formula One is like a circus, and it is even called so. The whole lot arrives, puts up a show and leaves for the next venue. But what has India got out of it? Will corporates, who want to rush in to invest in F1, want to do the same in other forms of motorsport in India? What is the level of machinery we have at domestic events? Are these enough to at least give our aspiring riders a good start?
Eight domestic championships were conducted by the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), which governs the sport in India, in 2012. While some were pretty successful and saw a fair level of competition, some events, most notably the four-wheeler Indian National Rally Championship, was a complete disaster.
It does not need a genius to figure out that unless the domestic circuit is strong, we will never get the quality and quantity to supply racers to Formula One, World Rally Championship, MotoGP or any other championship.
“Until now, I wouldn’t say there’s been a huge rub-off apart from perhaps the JKRAS and the F-2000 being created,” said Karun Chandhok, who drove for the Hispania Racing Team and Lotus in F1.
“We have a reasonably good number of classes of racing in cars and bikes, but people outside of Chennai, Bangalore and a couple of other cities don’t seem to know about it. We need to find a way to publicise our domestic motorsport on a more national level rather than just in pockets,” he added.
A driver needs to pass through several stages before making it big. First, he will have to start with karting. Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen and others were all world champion karters. Then perhaps, a racer will have to graduate to some kind of entry level single-seater one-make racing series or F4 (or its equivalents) and then F3, F2 or even GP2. Even if you have been a GP2 champion, there is no guarantee that an F1 seat is waiting. This is where money comes into the picture, unless one is exceptionally talented and gets picked up by a big team without having to raise sponsorship. Quite often, budding karting talent does not get the financial backing to move to the next level. This is where Indians struggle as well.
Some of the best-run championships were the four-wheeler JK Tyre National Racing Championship. The Formula 4 car was introduced in 2012 but after some initial hiccups. With new bids called for, how it turns out to be this year is to be seen. It is important that this series is run properly because it is one of the premier series in the domestic calendar.
It was a giant leap for the Volkswagen Polo Cup, thanks to the introduction of the TSI petrol engines to replace the diesel ones of earlier seasons. The petrol engines are more powerful and will help local drivers gear up better if they desire to get into sportscar series like Touring Cars or even the newly-introduced World Endurance Championship (Karun Chandhok is racing in it).
The Sidvin National Motorcycle Racing Championship has Yamaha, TVS and Honda one-make classes apart from the Superbikes and the 130 and 160cc classes. While it is good that bike manufacturers have entered the championship, what we need to see is manufacturers competing against each other and not just one-make championships.
“There appears to be a lot of interest from manufacturers who are willing to compete against one another, unlike in the cars where the manufacturers are mainly looking at the single-make formats,” said Chandhok.
The obvious disappointment was that of the four-wheeler INRC. What was once a roaring championship was reduced to a four-round sideshow in 2012. Out of that, only two rounds were eventually run. Does not bode well for the sport. The top N+ class was removed and that took a lot of sheen out of the championship. FMSCI president Vicky Chandhok told this paper recently that this was being done to put the championship on the lines of how it is being done internationally. What gives us hope is that the Maruti Suzuki SX4 and Volkswagen Polo are likely to be seen in action in 2013. Other manufacturers are also said to be showing interest. If that happens, it will be a boon indeed. If more factory teams come in, more money will be put in because the reputation of a car and company is at stake.
“On the four-wheeler front, it’s great to see development in terms of more manufacturer involvement. This is what I have been talking about for years when people asked me how the sport can grow and it’s nice to see that,” said Chandhok.
Last year, the Indian Rally Championship (IRC) saw just one four wheel-driven car compete. The FMSCI is hoping that drivers source used cars, which are available pretty easily in countries like Malaysia, and race them in India. This, fortunately, is not a very expensive proposition but how to go about doing it is a question, considering that the championship is full of privateers.
Ask someone like Gaurav Gill or VR Naren Kumar, the only two Indians to have competed in the Production class of the World Rally Championship for Team Sidvin India. They know how tough it is, be it getting funding or competing against drivers who have had better resources. A solid system has to be in place and put into practice. Aggressive marketing is also the call of the hour.
Apart from the championships mentioned above, there has been the two-wheeler INRC, National Supercross Championship, National Rotax Max Karting Championship, National Dirt Track Championship, Indian National TSD Rally Championship and Indian National Autocross Championship. A fair amount of participation is seen in such events.
It is no secret that motorsport runs on money, and a lot of it is needed. Being talented is just one small part. Chennai-based motorcycle rider Sarath Kumar is a good example of a fine talent. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the sponsors. He has now signed up with Mahindra Racing and is competing in the Italian Championship. Sarath was fortunate but a budding career reaching an abrupt end could happen to anyone unable to get funding. Again, aggressive marketing of domestic championships is the need of the hour.