F1 debut fuels India's sporting ambitions

Published: 25 October, 2011 13:00 IST | AFP |

If India can pull off a successful Grand Prix on Sunday, the winning driver will not be the only person celebrating a major victory.

If India can pull off a successful Grand Prix on Sunday, the winning driver will not be the only person celebrating a major victory.

The country's inaugural Formula One race, being held at a new track outside the capital New Delhi, is seen as a key test of India's ability to organise and deliver international sporting events.

After last year's chaotic Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Formula One bosses are hoping the hosts will live up to their pledge to hold a smoothly-run weekend for the world's top drivers and up to 100,000 spectators.

Confidence is high despite the daunting logistical challenges and fears of massive congestion as fans battle to get into the $400-million Buddh International Circuit track near the New Delhi satellite town of Noida.

Organisers say the race surface and crowd facilities have all been finished in the nick of time, and that Formula One's global experience, financial muscle and professional approach are paying dividends.

If such claims are proven on the day, it would be a long way from the bureaucratic apathy that beset the Commonwealth Games, remembered today for their shabby venues and corruption allegations rather than the sporting action.

The Jaypee group, which has built the new track, is bullish about putting on a show to make fast-developing India proud.

"We wanted to do something which nobody could point a finger at," the group's 81-year-old founder Jaiprakash Gaur told reporters on a site visit.

"With this event, we hope to repair the damage India's reputation suffered during the (Commonwealth) Games."

Jaypee, whose motto is "No Dream Too Big", is a huge infrastructure conglomerate with businesses in real estate, engineering and road construction.

For many observers, the contrast between the privately-run Formula One race and the Commonwealth Games -- which were overseen by the government -- is an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of India's economy.

Veteran columnist Ayaz Memon, who has followed India's ambitions over three decades, said a well-received Grand Prix would send a message about the nation's future as the sporting hub of south Asia.

"The perception that the private sector does a better job is not misplaced," Memon told AFP. "The government messed up the Commonwealth Games. That won't be the case with Formula One.

"People are more accountable in the private sector. And unlike the Games, the GP is not a one-off event. Organisers will learn from any mistakes that happen in the first year.

"It can only get better in future."

The publicity machine has been in overdrive ahead of the race, with television channels and newspapers hailing the arrival of Formula One as a sign of the nation's emerging role on the world stage.

Cricket dominates the sports scene in India, but there is also a passionate following for F1 and a near-universal love of cars and fast driving.

At least 80,000 tickets have already been sold, and many international sports bodies and potential foreign business investors will be watching as closely as the fans.

The 5.14-kilometre track, designed by German architect Hermann Tilke, has been widely welcomed by competing teams, and the setting is ready to enhance India's sporting image -- if the bureaucratic machinery will play along.

Veteran Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello, who races for Williams, told the Hindustan Times recently that it took him three months to secure a visa for the Grand Prix.

And last week the Supreme Court ordered organisers to freeze 25 percent of revenues from ticket sales until a tax dispute is resolved.

Officialdom and heavy-handed security can also often cause problems at Indian sports events -- endless checkpoints and a fierce military presence crushed much of the spirit out of the Commonwealth Games.

Cricket fans are regularly expected to survive six or eight hours without food and water as supplies cannot be brought into grounds and service stalls are often inadequate.

But the potential is clear as the Indian economy booms -- attracting not just Formula One but also increasing interest from foreign football clubs keen to tap into a market of 1.2 billion people.

The lucrative IPL cricket tournament, with its mix of international players and showbusiness glamour, has shown that there are big rewards for putting on world-class sport in the country.

But with frenzied preparations still underway at the track, the jury is still out on whether India can look forward to a glitch-free weekend of noisy Formula One drama.

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