The Business of Motorsports in India

When you think Indian motorsports, you usually think of Narain Karthikeyan. The country’s first Formula One driver. You think of the country’s participation in the short-lived A1 GP. You possibly think of Karun Chandok, who made his F1 debut in 2010. The image of the grandiose Buddh International Circuit pops into your mind.

The view from the arena seems great. The sport has potential. Television viewership has shown that India has always had a soft corner for F1. The future is blooming.

Until you realize that Karthikeyan’s success is fifteen years old already, and despite Chandok’s best efforts, there hasn’t been a consistent Indian presence in the top tier of Grand Prix racing for a good while now. Meanwhile, closer to home, the closure of the Buddh International Circuit is another black mark for the sport. Before that, the UP government’s attempt to generate revenue by levying increased taxes on the F1 body by classifying it as entertainment instead of the sport spelt the end of the Indian Grand Prix.

It’s been a bumpy ride for motorsports in the country.

Announced in 2018, X1 Racing was supposed to be the jolt of adrenaline that would propel Indian motorsports into the future. Conceived as a franchise format street-track racing event which would be held across 4 venues and include 8 teams, X1 turned out to be a classic case of promising the moon. With problems ranging from franchise owners pulling out, to a lack of race-ready street venues, the event was in disarray right from the start. And it continued right to the day of the inauguration, when it was suddenly announced that races would only happen over a duration of two weeks instead of the promised four. Fans could still forgive that error, after all, every new venture has its hiccups, and X1 was trying to do something different. But the cars were the final nail in the coffin. Cost-cutting meant that plans to use cars such as JA Motorsports’ Inde 2.0 fell through, and the organizers had to compromise by going for a decade-old Formula BMWs. Spectators could possibly have compromised on everything else, but watching age-old cars race across tracks in a single-make championship wasn’t something they were willing to settle on. Whether it was penny-pinching or lack of investment, or whether the actual cost of such vehicles only hit home at the end, it was an unsalvageable blow for the organizers. One which could not be explained away. The cars had spent more times in containers and storage than on actual circuits, and their age showed when most of them couldn’t even complete the race – Pippa Mann’s engine blowout was the cherry on top of a very sour cake.

Far from being the injection of energy that the sport needed after the Buddh controversies, X1 Racing almost ended up ringing its death knell. Sure, you could be generous and say that they at least pulled off an actual even, unlike the promises of E1 racing which only remained a thought in the heads of SRK and SRT, but the execution left much to be desired. If the event is to make a comeback in the future, then there’s a lot of work to be done, but one thing that the organizers need to have noted is that an adhoc, haphazard event with rustic cars is definitely not the way forward. Hopefully, the pandemic will have given them breathing space to do their research and get everyone on the same page, because the initial concept did have potential. If the final offering can replicate some of its early promises, then we could finally see Indian racing zoom forth and conquer.

In the meanwhile, hope for generating national interest in the sport is kindled with 21-year-old Jehan Daruvala’s recruitment by Red Bull Racing for their prestigious Junior Driver Programme, the same developmental track whose ranks once consisted of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. At the same time, 13-year-old Mumbaikar Aashi Hanspal has made it to the FIA’s ambitious Girls on Track – Rising Stars Project, which hopes to develop Team Ferrari’s first-ever female driver.

Despite the numerous roadblocks and breakdowns, if organizers and investors come together with a common goal in mind, then this could be the right moment to learn from past failures and build a strong foundation and structure for the sport in India, so that the country is in pole position by the time young racers come into their own.

There’s no reason not to do it, and 3.3 billion reasons for doing so – all of them in the form of green, plastic bills.

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