Reflection: Formula 1 says ‘Namaste India’

Reflection: Formula 1 says 'Namaste India'

The dust might have settled on the Buddh International Circuit but the celebrations of the inaugural Indian Grand Prix will doubtless have lasted long into the night. Before arriving in New Dehli, many in F1 had raised doubts as to whether the country and its new race track would be ready for a spectacle of this caliber.

Now, I suspect there are many who can’t wait to return. Forget about the odd dog or two, delays with visas, and commentary boxes without windows, this was a festival for the world to see, and we loved it!

In terms of racing, the GP, surprisingly, under-delivered. There were, of course, “incidents”, but there was little of the wheel to wheel action that we have seen throughout much of this year.

Watching Friday’s first Free Practice, it seemed that Hermann Tilke’s stunning design of flowing and undulating track, with wide entries and sharp kerbs would reward the brave and punish the tyres. But this was not to be. Instead, we were treated to another flawless display by Sebastian Vettel and an almost resigned acceptance by those following behind.

For once though, this grand prix was not about the racing; it was about the way in which a country, with a GDP per capita of just 10% of that here in the UK, went about welcoming Formula One and in the process, demonstrated that India is a nation that means business.

There are many who must take credit for this achievement and notably, two names that have a familiar ring to many who follow F1 must be singled-out for their efforts – Vicky Chandhok (father of Karun) and Vijay Mallya, Team Principal of Sahara Force India.

Both have worked tirelessly for years, in India, in the UK, and within F1, lobbying for support, creating and presenting a credible media case and most importantly, finding the local funding to make the whole thing happen.

And of course, there is the Jaypee Group who set about building the circuit and all of its facilities: If ever a job has been well-done, this has been it. Also working fervently in the “best supporting” role has been Karun Chandhok, a young man who exudes class and who for several years now has been travelling across continents to engage the media and sell India’s story.

Only this week, in the build-up to the Formula One circus arriving, he performed over 50 one-to-one interviews with local media, going to great lengths to extend the hand of friendship to journalists who would normally be passed-over as outsiders of the high-profile formula one circus.

It will be interesting to see if Team Lotus can retain his services after failing to deliver him a race seat this weekend; if they don’t, it will be their loss.

India: an opportunity for all

To better understand why Formula One and India are so important for each other, you only need to understand a few simple statistics.

Currently, India has a population of approximately 1.2bn of which over 50% are officially catagorised as “poor” and only 18% can be considered “middle class” or better.

By 2025, it is estimated that the population will have risen to 1.4bn but significantly, 45% will be middle class or better. In other words, there will be 600 million active consumers or roughly speaking, the same number as the whole of Europe. Business, for some, will be very good!

At the same time though, India needs to support its growing population and this means attracting trade and jobs. Already, some African countries are taking highly lucrative call-centre and data contracts, and with the emergence of the region as a whole (China and Malaysia in particular), F1 can help to bring to India global attention, credibility and ultimately those all important revenues.

So whilst some teams made serious efforts to engage new support (Sahara Force India, HRT, Red Bull and McLaren), I was surprised that for most, it seemed like “business as usual”.

The manufacturers, of course, used the event to launch new product but what I particularly noticed was the lack of local language social media interaction . . . i.e.; “where were the Tweets in Hindi?!” This is a country that reveres its stars and it is possible that opportunities have already been lost.

That’s what I’m talking about

2011 F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel

But going back to the racing, it really was all about Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Looking again at stats, Vettel is a driver who knows what he has to do. This was his 13th pole position of the season and Red Bull’s 16th (of 17). He is now equal (in terms of career total) with the great Juan Fangio on 28, and he is still only 24 years old!

He also, for statistics sake, led the entire race, won it and pumped in a fastest lap right at the end for good measure. Canada proved that he is not invincible, but his confidence in the car and himself is supreme and for the remainder of this season, I wouldn’t place my money anywhere else.

Unsurprisingly, team mate Mark Webber had another frustrating weekend. The Aussie has incredible nerve and skill, yet he has clearly also lost that element of belief that keeps Vettel in P1.

This is something that both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso appear to recognise and no matter how many times Christian Horner smiles and says he supports “Number 2”, even he must acknowledge that the team are fortunate that they have the young German to keep the silver-ware coming in.

It was an equally diametric race for both McLaren and Ferrari. Jenson Button has done an incredible job this year of using his head and getting on with it. He never really got close to Vettel during the race, but then neither did anyone else trouble him. He’s a class act and McLaren did well to extend his contract!

The winners podium - Indian GPThe winners podium at the inaugural Indian GP with Jenson Button (2nd place), Adrian Newey (Red Bull Racing’s Chief Technical Officer), Sebastian Vettel (1st place) and Fernando Alonso (in 3rd place).

The Limping Horse

Fernando Alonso in 3rd place knows that this year’s car isn’t up to the job and as ever, he drove the socks off it. I’ve not always been a fan, but I can’t help but admire his ability and determination.

Ferrari have, of course, understood that Alonso’s results have somewhat flattered them and have been keen to continue the development of the 150 Italia, whilst also looking ahead to next year’s car.

This resulted in more on-track tests for the new Red Bull-esque front wing but throughout Free Practice and then mid race, Massa’s would flex violently, seeing both end plates alternatively hitting the ground, creating a shower of sparks.

Ferrari very wisely called Massa in to change it for an older design. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see Maranello take a less conservative approach and I suspect that by the time we get to Albert Park next March, red might just be the colour to look out for.

Gloves off…again!

Then we had MAS vs HAM (Round 6?).

Both are supremely talented, yet both have succumbed to making fundamental, often inexcusable errors on far too many occasions this season. I love Lewis’s passion and I still like to think of him as being the most gifted driver out there, but he’s too tense and is allowing his frustrations to colour his judgment.

At the end of the day, if you go side by side into a corner, you have to understand that there is a strong chance of contact.

As it was, the stewards made a strong call and penalised Massa for turning-in, and of course, just a few laps later, the hapless Brazilian once again took too much orange kerb and broke his front left suspension. It’s perhaps that latter action that worries me the most.

Having already made the same mistake in FP2, Massa really ought to have learned a lesson and if anything casts yet more doubt on his credentials for the 2012 drive, it’s failing to finish races through avoidable damage.

As for Lewis, as I’ve said before, McLaren, his family and his friends need to be there for him. He may be in a dark place but his pole in South Korea showed that he’s lost none of his ability.

Schumi comes on form, leading Mercedes towards 4th in the championship

Elsewhere, we almost saw a race between the two Mercedes but for once, it was Michael Schumacher’s pace that saw-off his young rival, Nico Rosberg.

Michael Schumacher before the race

More interesting though was Schumacher’s body language both before and after the race; here is a man who has absolutely no intention of quitting but instead is reveling in his new found form and clearly looking forward to a more competitive car next year.

In the midfield, there’s tremendous competition from all four teams to secure both bragging rights and prize money. Although seemingly secure in 5th, Lotus Renault have been struggling with form lately.

Ironically, Toro Rosso, currently in 8th, have made such rapid progress that they are fast becoming the team to beat. Getting both cars into the top 10 for the first time in qualifying was a statement of intent from the Italian squad and despite losing Sébastien Buemi to a Ferrari engine failure, Jaime Alguersuari was on top of his game to finish in P8, ahead of highly credible performances from Adrian Sutil and Sergio Perez.

Sutil knows that he’s fighting for his F1 life at the moment and post race interviews with Nico Hulkenberg suggest that he has every right to be concerned. Meanwhile, Perez continues to impress, bringing his Sauber through the pack and keeping another under-threat driver, Vitaly Petrov, at bay to score the final point.

Lotus Renault are another team with a surplus of talent fighting for just two seats in 2012. Petrov and (Nick Heidfeld’s replacement) Bruno Senna, have both delivered inconsistent results and whilst they both bring strong commercial backing, reserve driver Romain Grosjean, fresh from his GP2 Championship victory, has already been confirmed for more FP1 tests in the year’s two remaining races.

Then, of course, there is Robert Kubica, still side-lined after those appalling injuries to his hand following his rally crash, but still, doubtless, one of the finest F1 drivers of our time (and seemingly recovering well).

Bringing up the rear

It’s sad that I have to describe Williams as “tail-enders”, but on recent form, this is exactly where they’ve been heading.

Of the remaining teams, Team Lotus will have been pleased with Heikki Kovalainen’s 14th place finish, despite the fact that they are still well off one-lap pace in qualifying.

Marussia Virgin endured another difficult weekend, and perhaps the biggest smiles of the weekend could be found at the bottom of the pit lane with Narain Karthikeyan bringing his battered HRT home ahead of his much fancied team mate, Daniel Ricciardo.

HRT’s decision to put their faith in Karthikeyan will hopefully bring rewards and give the affable Indian a chance to secure a decent seat for next year.

As for Williams, I suspect that they need more than talk of former champion, Kimi Raikkonen, returning to the F1 grid to race with them next year. “Yes”, they’ll have Renault power, “yes”, they’ll have KERS but unfortunately, they’ll also have a team who just can’t get their car to work well and who have clearly already made significant sacrifices to bring it in within budget.

It’s now a good few hours after the race as I write this and the formula one circus has long ago left town. All that will remain are scattered posters on the busy streets and the noise of 24 highly-strung V8 engines still ringing in their ears.

But one thing is for certain, the circus will return and next time, it will be even bigger and better. Motorsport in New Dehli might never be as big as cricket, but a statement was made this weekend; from the marshals, the press, the fans and the tuk-tuk drivers, India can love Formula One, and Formula One clearly loves India.

Images: Mercedes GP Petronas, Red Bull Racing, Getty Images