Indian charm masks venue's shortcomings

Bar the odd rat, this has been a good week down at the Buddh International Circuit in Noida. The arrival of Diwali has ensured a national mood of celebration as Formula One takes the first step in attempting to challenge cricket as India's most popular sport. That, of course, is rather more than an uphill battle, but the signs look good nonetheless for a successful weekend.

There have been teething problems. The rat that appeared in Lotus's garage caused an upset, as did the team's decision not to give third driver Karun Chandhok a race ride and instead limit him to just an hour and a half's running this morning. A lack of clear signage outside the circuit, meanwhile, caused some confusion while media centre staff battled an immediate power cut.

But elsewhere visitors have been charmed by the venue, which boasts buildings that look like remnants from the Sixties despite being brand spanking new. You might not want to look too closely at certain aspects of the architectural finish, but there is excitement everywhere as the local staff and hoteliers do their best to be welcoming.

The drivers have been caught up in the optimistic atmosphere. "It reminds me very much of my country 20 or 30 years ago," Ferrari's Felipe Massa suggested. "Brazil has grown a lot since then, and so now, I believe, with events such as this, will India."

There has also been general approval for the track. "The track is an eye-opener," said Narain Karthikeyan, the other Indian hero who will be racing as Tonio Liuzzi's temporary replacement in the back-of-the-grid Spanish HRT team. "It's an interesting place and 90 per cent of the people in the paddock seem to love it. They've taken a lot of the best corners from many tracks. There are a lot of medium-speed corners, and a long straight. It's come out really well."

Fernando Alonso agrees. "It's challenging, and I really like the elevation changes and the wide entries to the corners and the chance they present for passing," he said.

Red Bull racers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, have all expressed similar sentiments after trying the track in their factory-based simulators. But the final proof will come when they start here for real today.

There is, however, an underlying tension within a paddock torn apart by the recent deaths, on successive weekends, of Briton Dan Wheldon in IndyCar and Italian Marco Simoncelli in MotoGP. Their sports might be disparate, but there is an international brotherhood of speed and both were much loved and respected by the Formula One fraternity.

The tragedies have focused attention once again on safety aspects (even though both accidents were not the sort that can be legislated for), and there is talk of a minute's silence on the grid before Sunday's race in their honour. That is testament to the depth of emotion in the paddock as Formula One seeks to conquer another new continent.

"The accidents were a reminder that motor racing is a dangerous sport and Formula One is the fastest form of it," said the seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher. "Safety has hugely improved since I started in 1991, and both of these accidents are something I would call fate, and fate is something we are all faced with. I am touched by what happened to both drivers, but unfortunately we have to say that is life."

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