F1 still struggling to gain a foothold in India

From the stands

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.

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61 comments on F1 still struggling to gain a foothold in India

  1. BasCB (@bascb) said on 7th November 2013, 15:50

    Thanks for this article about the Indian GP and why it seems to have failed. As mentioned in a comment above, it took china some 10 years to get crowds coming in. We can just hope that in the couple of years that F1 has been in India the seeds for a growing crowd were planted in people and in time we see F1 there again.

  2. F1_gp said on 7th November 2013, 15:55

    I hope BIC will not remain empty.
    May be a moto GP :)

  3. Vortex Motio (@vortexmotio) said on 7th November 2013, 16:11

    Thank you for a really good article…

    Building a motorsports culture from the top down is perhaps backwards.

    Given all the compliments for the local driver’s skills in navigating the local roadways that pop up on twitter when the F1 community visits India, it would be opportune for rental karting tracks to open up around the country. Rental kart racing is an excellent taste of motorsports for youth and the middle class around the world, as well as an excellent entry level for drivers.

  4. Ud (@udm7) said on 7th November 2013, 17:29

    Reading some of your comments, as an Indian F1 fan, I’m inclined to correct you.
    It isn’t about an indian presence on the grid being needed, we have a team, we had a driver er…Karthikeyan, yet all people were saying in India was Vettel, and they have been doing so since the year F1 came here.
    They don’t get why Force India doesn’t win races, tthey dont have a clue who Alonso Raikkonen or Button are. Worse, at this years race someone behind me asked me why RB is running 4 cars (toro rossos have logo’s of RB.)
    When Vettel won the title and was on his victory lap (I was seated at turn 11) Daniel Ricciardo went past us in his STR on th’e cool down lap (Vettel was somewhere behind ceebrating with his finger) People in the stands erupted screaming Vettel!”. When vettel came a few moments later, he was pretty much ignored.
    During the podium ceremony, i heard people asking each other who is ‘Gross-Jean’.
    Why? Because half the people who came at the race didnt follow F1 nor had they bought tickets, they were gifted. People employed by the organisers got around 10 tickets each which made the turnout more impressive.

    And it isn’t because of lack of interest, F1 is difficult to understand. It’s difficult to explain to people why Alonso had to pit, why Nico Hulkenberg is a good driver…
    The organisers have done a brlliant job of it, but instead of people starting to follow f1 and hopefully, for mallya, form a base for SFI, all that has happened is some people started getting interested, while the masses supported Vettel and went home thinking of F1 as something like a circus.

    • Akshay (@hamilfan) said on 7th November 2013, 19:19

      @udm7 I LOLed at your post, especially the gross mispronunciation ( forgive the pun ). Harsh facts though true.

      nor had they bought tickets, they were gifted.

      Aha , that is another problem altogether which also explains the marshals’ proclivity for making the media claustrophobic (they were also recommended by some bigwig instead of having genuine interest).
      Bernie needs to understand Indian market to succeed in it if he wants to . People have to create interest in junior levels .
      Does India need F1? From a fan’s perspective , it needs f1 but not this circus that happens in Noida.I dream of an India with a permanent huge motor sport following,Something like suzuka . Maybe in my lifetime someday…Even though it’s an uphill task , It’s possible.And please guys , don’t talk about poverty .Politicians gobble money up for food anyhow .It’s like the villain in the movie who shoots regardless of what you do .So I appreciate it when somebody brings f1 (such a huge sport ) to India with so much commitment and investment.

      • Ud (@udm7) said on 8th November 2013, 17:57

        They need to bring Sky F1, not star cricket. And a proper amount of media attention given to F1, even in the papers only FIA’s interview with Renault powered drivers are given with a renault advert next to it.
        Oh yeah, and some help from the generous government.

  5. zoomsthru said on 7th November 2013, 17:58

    Good article, Abhishek. I was at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011, and I must say I was quite impressed with the track and the facilities (though it still needs some improvement). There are several problems contributing to the lack of attendance to the race, but I feel all of these will help:
    1. CVC must reduce the hosting fees charged. Since ticket sales are pretty much the only way for tracks to recover the costs, it means that for an event to break even after paying the 30M euro fee, they need to charge about 300 euros for each of the 100,000 spectators. The monthly income for a recent university graduate in India is about 300 euros, so there is no way the race can be run profitably even with 100,000 people in attendance.
    2. Race organisers can make a more rounded event of the race and have concerts, parties and other activities so that fans who fly to these races won’t feel that they have paid all their money just for Formula One.
    3. To win over the F1 teams, the Indian government must not tax them. If it is serious about raising revenues from motorsport, it can encourage the activities I’ve highlighted in point #2, and tax those as entertainment instead.

    In India, there has to be an investment in motorsport and any party expecting quick returns in terms of money or spectator turnout will be disappointed. However, I don’t see CVC or the Indian government playing the long-term game, so #2 is the only option which may work out though it may be too late for that now.

    • Hamish said on 7th November 2013, 22:11

      But your requests are the same as every other grand prix. Why should India get some sort of special treatment when if anything its their overall state of the country that is the main reason why teams would prefer not to have an Indian GP.

      Not being rude guys – but its still a 3rd world country. I’ve driven to the circuit on the highway, I’ve stayed at the Hilton Hotel the McLaren team made mention of being substandard – the whole experience is disgraceful.

      Some may say that its about accepting other cultures, but poverty, your horrible motorways and people deficating on the streets only for them to go and swim and drink from the same area is not culture – it is simply an underdeveloped nation.

      And thats the point, India simply has more important issues to worry about.

      • Akshay (@hamilfan) said on 8th November 2013, 3:06

        but its still a 3rd world country. I’ve driven to the circuit on the highway, I’ve stayed at the Hilton Hotel the McLaren team made mention of being substandard – the whole experience is disgraceful.

        A lot of other countries like Brazil have poverty too . I think the pivotal point here is Interest in F1 . If people get interested in f1,things will change.

        the whole experience is disgraceful.

        I don’t know about Mclaren but I didn’t see too many teams complaining about the facilities . As it is , the f1 fraternity is pretty much comfortable . It’s only the taxes they are bothered about. Yes , it’s not Monaco but I think private parties have contributed their very best for this event in terms of money.

        And thats the point, India simply has more important issues to worry about.

        This is an excuse if not any. People loot money and there is poverty irrespective of f1 . It has not got government funding at all . Why don’t you turn your heads towards other things that the government spends lavishly which are useless.

        • Hamish said on 8th November 2013, 22:27

          Focus on the question mate.

          You’re competing with Bahrain for the race that the F1 circus least likes going to.

          You’re in a batlle for last place with a nation with civil unrest and its own government shooting and killing protesters.

          Does it put into context as to how much of an issue you guys are dealing with here if your minor issues are comparable to a that of a nation that murders its own people?

          No one likes going to India for the F1. It may sound a bit harsh, but sadly that’s a reality of the situation. This is speaking from some who attended the inaugural event.

          The best way to learn from your mistakes is to not make them twice – one Indian Grand Prix is enough for me.

          • Akshay (@hamilfan) said on 9th November 2013, 3:22

            @ above . I am not saying that India is currently good at hosting a grand prix . And no matter how much you try to bring Bahrain into it , I am not going to compare it . I just took up the example of Brazil to show you what interest , support and a great driver can do to make a nation which has poverty into an f1 country . I brought up this point to stop you from making the third world country crap excuses and to see if progress can be made .Obviously , you have completely missed the point of this discussion and are the first jump and point fingers racially .

            one Indian Grand Prix is enough for me.

            There is the problem .
            It is pointless to discuss something with you who have no inclination towards hoping for a better situation because you are not even interested for it to happen again.Go and watch it monaco with a bunch of bigwigs and leave me alone.

  6. Not only the fans, the Indian media had little knowledge about F1.

    I attended the Indian Grand Prix as an accredited journalist and was accompanied by a lot of Indian journalists from newspapers and magazines. Majority of them were general sports journalist who had little knowledge about F1. They asked some of the silliest questions from drivers. One asked Jenson Button whether McLaren had started development on their 2014 car. When Jenson Button replied with a smile, ”we have started development on the 2018 car as well”, the journalist further asked ”do you think that’s the reason(starting development of next year’s car early) you are having a troubled 2013 season?”

    However, at the same time, some Indians, particularly in the official press conferences, asked really sophisticated questions from drivers and the team principals.

    As an Indian, I really want the Grand Prix to return on the calendar in 2015, but it will take time to make a mark in a country dominated by cricket. Lets see. I have my fingers crossed.

  7. Ten years ago when Schumi dominated everything the grandstands were still full At the Nurburgring, German flags waving everywhere, smoke grenades going off and there seemed to be a real passion for the sport. I know it’s a World Championship but really, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi ?

    • Akshay (@hamilfan) said on 7th November 2013, 19:22

      @dave

      Ten years ago when Schumi dominated everything the grandstands were still full At the Nurburgring, German flags waving everywhere

      I agree with the point you are making across , but hey
      MSC=German . So why should we be surprised. Wouldn’t you support your countryman who wins everything in a rocketship in the pinnacle of racing if you had the chance ?

  8. there are many reasons for this but main 2reasons are
    1.ticket prices are very high, let me tell u that lowest ticket price which is rs 2000 itself is pretty costly for an Indian middle class family, we can only dream about grand stand tickets
    2.It is stupidly placed in north India, South India would have been a far better location, even Mumbai would have been better location cos its at about equal distance from south and north Indian cities. Even if I somehow arrange for ticket money,it is 30 hours one way journey from my city(via train) and I don’t even live in South India. It’s too much travelling.

  9. mantresx (@mantresx) said on 8th November 2013, 6:59

    It’s very simple why the race hasn’t succeeded in India, there’s no Indian driver!
    In mature markets outside Europe (Canada, Australia, Japan, Brasil, Mexico) there doesn’t need to be an F1 driver to have a full house, but in India and in other Asian countries they tried to grow interest by having a race first, which only happens once a year, while a driver will make people follow all 20 races of the season.

  10. SeaHorse (@seahorse) said on 8th November 2013, 8:40

    The problems with the poor attendance at the Indian Grand Prix are manifold and not just one. First of all, it is not that India is alien to motorsports; it is that South India was & is the hub of motorsports in India. Racing and motorsports in India date back to 1960’s when there used to be races conducted on an erstwhile WW-II air strip at Sholavaram near Chennai (earlier known as Madras) until the Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC) purpose built a race track at Irungattukottai again near Chennai. And there is another permanent race track in Coimbatore by name Kari Motor Speedway. It’s a shame that these circuits could not be upgraded to Formula 1 level or a new F1 level track built somewhere near these locations including Bangalore which is not far from either of the locations.

    Formula One or for that matter any motorsports does not command a huge amount of audience in this cricket crazy nation which does not pay adequate attention to its national game viz. Hockey. But, India is not a cricket fortress as such to be not able to be penetrated by any other sport. The problem is with the awareness and marketing. Bernie, FOM and the event organizers as well as the 20th Century Fox owned Star Sports group should have ensured decent effort to capture the attention and viewership of the Indian public not just for the Indian GP but for the Formula One itself. Creating a large audience base is the key to establishing F1 in India. It wouldn’t have hurt to find much advertisement for F1 on the official broadcaster’s channels (20th Century Fox owned STAR group) in India.

    The price for the F1 tickets may be quite high compared to that of Cricket matches; but that is not the sole reason for mediocre response from the public. There are millions of people in India who could & would spend that much money on a single weekend. But, their attention has not been properly captured towards motorsports and F1. This is a collective failure of the motorsports associations, the Buddh International Circuit and Telecasting rights holder STAR group.

    And then there is the lack of support races for the F1 weekend in India. Even currently most of the motorsports events in India happen either at Irungattukottai Race Track or at Kari Motor Speedway only. F1 could fare much better with an Asian version of GP2, GP3 etc. as support races.

    But, overall though the Indian audience are crazy audience(you could understand what I mean if you have watched a cricket match played in India featuring India and a team like Australia, England, Pakistan or New Zealand), you must credit them for being sensible than most of the much hyped European audience. I mean did you hear a ‘boo’ for any driver at the Indian GP let alone Vettel? Proper advertising and campaigning could do a lot wonders to capture the crazy Indian audience towards F1; but are the stakeholders (including Bernie, FOM, FIA, BIC etc.) willing to do that?

    • Anirudh s said on 8th November 2013, 11:20

      Precisely. imagine a street circuit in Chennai. along the Marina Beach. it wold have been spectacular.

    • Akshay (@hamilfan) said on 8th November 2013, 12:36

      @seahorse +1 .Great points and comments . Covered everything there comprehensively.
      Even as Ted Kravitz dished out a veiled compliment in sky saying India is a country of colours and passion and does not fit into the precision world of f1 , I was seething with rage . It is not that Indians don’t understand f1 , It’s that Indian’s are not familiar enough with f1 and don’t have people to cheer for.

  11. Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 8th November 2013, 9:00

    Once again, a race is thrown into jeopardy by mismanagement by the organisers. Governments support races for the prestige associated with them, but that’s as far as the support goes. Promoters, however, don’t seem to be able to grasp the idea that they need to educate and inform people about Formula 1. They seem to have taken the old adage of “if you build it, they will come” a little too literally.

  12. praveen said on 12th November 2013, 16:20

    the very basic thing is that INDIANS get behind the sport or an individual if they are winning on a consistent basis…..cricket is so rich and popular because we win consistently and are currently no. 1 in the rankings.

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