Adrian Sutil, Force India, Buddh International Circuit, 2013

F1 still struggling to gain a foothold in India

From the standsPosted on | Author Abhishek Roy

Adrian Sutil, Force India, Buddh International Circuit, 2013F1 Fanatic reader @AbhishekRoy observes how far away F1 remains from establishing itself in India after visiting this year’s grand prix.

I began watching Formula One ten years ago, and in 2011 it came to my country for the first time. But with no race in India on next year’s calendar I knew I had to take my chance to be in the grandstand for what could be its final race.

It’s difficult to believe this is the same sport which was greeted by extraordinary fanfare when it first arrived in India just two years ago. Top Bollywood stars and politicians queued up to attend but the development of the race since then has to be viewed as a disappointment.

When I had arrived at the circuit this year it wasn’t difficult to find evidence of the lengths F1 still needs to go to take root in Indian sporting culture. The level of basic motor sport knowledge among racegoers was surprisingly low.

The majority of grandstand seats appeared to be occupied by people with little knowledge of motor racing who had obtained free tickets as corporate or political gifts. Talking to those around me I quickly discovered many had never watched any form of motor sport, even on television.

One group was being educated in the mysteries of why some drivers get to start closer to the front of the grid than others. The occasional appearance of a car in the pits was greeted with curiosity if little understanding what purpose these periodic pit visits served.

This experience rammed home the point that the fan base for motor sports in India is very limited. Although it has grown in recent years, it remains very small compared to what you would find in western countries.

The gradual decline in Indian involvement in the race hasn’t helped matters. In 2011 we had Narain Karthikeyan racing and Karun Chandhok driving in practice. The following year only Karthikeyan was present, and this year he was gone too.

Karthikeyan and Chandhok were major factors in attracting fans from Southern India – in 2013, an overwhelming number of tickets were sold to people living in Delhi or near Capital Region. Their absence from the Formula One scene only made things worse for the event.

Force India has conducted several competitions and promotional events to gather crowds in the stands, but the involvement of a British-based, Indian-owned team does not seem to have the same resonance with the fans as having an Indian driver does. Those near me in the stands who had heard of Vijay Mallya wondered why he would run an F1 team which is still looking for its first win in its sixth year of competition.

The tax issues which have dogged the event were thrust into the spotlight ahead of the race when a petition was brought against it in court which, fortunately, amounted to nothing.

But perhaps more attention should be paid to the onerous costs faced by Indian fans rather than the visiting teams. The high cost of tickets is clearly a disincentive for potential spectators.

Ticket prices compare favourably with European races: entry to the main grandstand at Buddh International Circuit costs about as much as a general admission attendance at Spa-Francorchamps. But this is very steep for an average middle class Indian family.

Start, Buddh International Circuit, 2013The cheapest ticket of 2,000 Rupees (just under ??20) for the picnic area is is around four times the price of a cricket match ticket. The high cost of attendance and limit fan base inevitably makes for small crowds with many tickets being given away as freebies to boost attendance.

Those who do make it to the track are in for a treat. From my view in the centre of the main grandstand I had an excellent view of the entire starting grid, the pit stops of each and every team, and the post-race podium celebrations. These included, of course, the newly crowned world champion performing doughnuts on the pit straight!

In a further indication of the difficulty the sport has had taking root in India, the only event on the support bill was the MRF series, leaving a lot of dead track time.

The atmosphere was very energetic as most of those present at the circuit were first-timers who had never witnessed a race at a circuit. It was good to see quite a few foreigners present at the grandstand, mostly supporting drivers from their respective countries (with plenty of support for Vettel in particular).

But although the race saw the crowing of 2013 drivers’ and constructors’ champions, and the track being received positively by the F1 fraternity, it?s the fans who make a sporting event successful. The 2013 Indian Grand Prix had everything but this, and this may ultimately result in this year?s race being the final time the country heard the roar of the Formula One engines.

From the stands

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Images ?? Force India, Red Bull