- Commenting on ... the Indian Grand Prix
Culture clashLaurence Edmondson October 29, 2013
Leaving the Buddh International Circuit on Sunday night, it was sobering to watch the monstrous concrete and steel structure slowly dissolve into the orange smog of Greater Noida's hinterland. In a country where the average weekly wage is little over $60, there's a genuine risk this $400 million superstructure might never again fulfil the purpose for which it was built.
The thought dwelled on my mind all the way along the purpose-built Yamuna Expressway (an elevated toll road serving the circuit and continuing to Agra - home of the Taj Mahal - beyond). It was only when we turned off and onto a more typical Indian highway that my thoughts were jolted back to the immediate reality. As the car in front made a sharp turn from fast lane to slow lane, a cow appeared through the haze strolling against the traffic. My smog-tired eyes were slow to react and my Western brain, unable to comprehend the situation, simply thought: "Why hasn't that cow got its lights on?" Fortunately my driver, Khushal, was more focused on the task at hand and flicked the taxi left and right around the bovine chicane.
The fact that such instances are normal in this country makes you realise how different India is to Formula One's usual destinations. But road-side obstacles aside, some of those differences are threatening to resign the Indian GP to the history books after just three races.
There will be no Indian Grand Prix in 2014, ostensibly due to the logistical and financial challenges of holding this year's race at the end of October and another the following spring. As with most things in Formula One money is key, and with dwindling attendances the organisers need to decide whether to throw good money after bad, but politics are also playing a big part. On the Friday of this year's race there was a threat the whole thing could be called off over a tax dispute relating to an ongoing argument as to whether Formula One should be classified as a sport or entertainment. In the end it was neatly side-stepped by shifting the date of the hearing to this Friday, by which time Formula One will back in full swing at the Yas Marina Circuit over a thousand miles away.
Although the tax issue turned out to be nothing but a storm in a teacup, at least for the purposes of the 2013 event, it again underlined the differences in cultures between Formula One and India. Most members of F1's travelling circus laugh at the idea of classifying F1 as entertainment rather than a sport - they have had to sit through six consecutive Sebastian Vettel wins since the show got back on the road in August - but if you look at it through Indian eyes it makes sense. Here is a global brand, rich in money and based on high-speed thrills turning up for one week a year to put on a show for those who can afford to indulge in it. Why not claim some money back in tax for the local government?
But for Formula One, with a calendar brimming at over 20 races in 2014, such obstacles are a nuisance. As are the custom and visa rigmaroles which make life that bit more difficult for a sport that, by its very nature, cannot spare a second. As a market, India has the potential to be huge for Formula One and brands make an effort each year through billboard and media advertisements across Delhi. But it cannot be denied that local interest has not met expectations, with attendances dropping year on year from 90,000 in 2011 to 65,000 in 2012 and down to 55,000 this year.
Indians working in hotels and tourist centres are aware the race is happening but few know what it's about - on Monday my taxi driver asked me which "country" had won the race. There's no doubt Formula One could appeal to more people in India, but just as the sport needs to work its hardest to capture the imagination of the locals it is leaving on a sabbatical. If it does not return in 2015 it will be a loss for F1, as the sport undoubtedly needs the country more than the country needs the sport. And as Sebastian Vettel so eloquently pointed out after his victory on Sunday, F1 can learn a lot from India too.
"The majority of people are very poor, if you compare the living standards to Europe," Vettel said. "I think it's within human nature that you always find something to complain about. Being German, maybe it's in my roots to find something to complain about but you come here, the majority of people have a very difficult life you would say, but they are very happy.
"Obviously we don't get to see much because it's an isolated world; we are here in the paddock so if you get to see a little bit of the surroundings, it's quite frightening sometimes to see the circumstances people have to live in, but the big lesson is that they are happy."
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1