India faces race into the unknown

F1 lands in the world's biggest democracy this weekend but the venture's success is far from certain
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The Independent Online

Formula One and India seem such a natural pairing that it's strange that we've waited this long for the first Indian Grand Prix. Formula One has all the glitz, glamour and heart-stopping action you could ask for, while India is addicted to Bollywood cinema and international sport. It should be a recipe for success – but, having faced a variety of problems thus far, organisers will be taking nothing for granted this weekend.

The venue – the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, 36 miles from the Indian capital of New Delhi – appears ready, at least. It could, indeed, prove the most significant of Formula One's most recent expansionist moves, even with more tracks planned, including a return to North America in 2012 and a race in New Jersey, announced on Tuesday, to debut a year later.

And while in one sense India is a strange venue for a Formula One race – around 30 per cent of the Indian population live on less than £1 a day – that would ignore a booming economy. In June this year a report by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management indicated India is home to the 12th highest number of millionaires: investment in collectables such as luxury cars and boats is on the increase. Last month Lewis Hamilton paraded his 2008 title-winning McLaren through the streets of Bengaluru in order to raise anticipation ahead of the race. An astonishing crowd of 40,000 turned out to see him in action, giving a clear indication support for Formula One is rife in the whole of India.

One cause for concern comes in the form of a group of farmers. Disputes over compensation for the land the circuit is built on emerged in August, with locals declaring themselves unhappy with the project, citing a lack of employment opportunities. Threats to dismantle the track, "with force if necessary", were made by members of the farmers' group, unless adequate compensation is given to more than 300 locals. In addition, confusion over tax rates and issues over visas have clouded preparation for this weekend's event – the Times of India reported in September that a number of drivers and officials had yet to receive their Indian visas. These issues were resolved earlier this month, allowing all team personnel to travel to Delhi.

Regarding fears over threats ranging from farmers to terrorists, the Formula One Group chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, told the Deccan Herald: "As far as security goes, I don't think we can see anywhere in the world where there isn't a bit of uncertainty these days. I don't think there is the slightest bit of concern, though."

The race organisers Jaypee Sports have also moved to quell any fears regarding security, saying: "We have spent $400m [£251m] and we will spend a few million more if needed. We will do whatever it takes to have a wonderful event."

The grand prix, which is not government-backed, is a chance for India to restore honour after the less than impressive hosting of the Commonwealth Games last year. "We will make up for the shameful memories of the Commonwealth Games,'' said Jaiprakash Gaur, founding chairman of the Jaypee Group. "The world's perception of India is going to change after the grand prix,'' he told The Economic Times.

The Buddh International Circuit will need to avoid problems that have faced new tracks in the past. South Korea barely had tarmac laid for its debut in 2010 while Turkey has been controversially left off the 2012 calendar because of a lack of public support. South Korea, in addition, is already attempting to renegotiate its contract after overshooting budget.

The track is designed to be exciting. In reality, all new tracks built by Hermann Tilke, the man Ecclestone favours when it comes to track architecture, are like that but some flatter to deceive. Valencia for example, which debuted in 2008, has been criticised for its processional races.

Around two-thirds of tickets for the event have been sold. Prices range from £35 for general admission to £500 for a seat on the start-finish straight. Fans will also be able to see Lady Gaga performing after the race on Sunday.

The lone Indian driver on the grid this weekend, HRT's Narain Karthikeyan, believes the race will be huge. "This will be my greatest day, to hold a race in India is something special for everyone," said Karthikeyan. "India is a growing economic power in the world and many companies want to be in this global market. Formula One could be a good platform for them."

Time will tell if India can create international appeal and a setting of great, passionate motor racing. Perhaps this weekend can be the beginning of a wonderful love affair in motor sport but, certainly financially, Ecclestone will be rubbing his hands at the enthusiasm being shown by a nation enthralled by the glitz and glamour of his racing series.

Racing ahead: How F1 colonised the world

1950: the founding races The inaugural Formula One World Championship in 1950 consisted of the British, Monaco, Swiss, Belgian, French and Italian Grands Prix.

The Fifties: expansion in Europe – and beyond The German and Spanish races began in 1951 while a host of GPs that no longer exist – including Argentina and Morocco – were held.

The Sixties and Seventies: F1 spreads across the world Austria (1964) and Canada (1967) were next to be included while the Brazilian and Japanese Grands Prix were incorporated in 1973 and 1976 respectively.

The Eighties: heartland expansion The 1980s saw the introduction of San Marino in 1981, Australia in 1985 and Hungary in 1986.

The 21st century: F1 goes east Following Malaysia's lead in 1999, since the turn of the century new races have been introduced in Bahrain, China, Turkey, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Korea and now India.