Page last updated at 17:29 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

India races towards Formula 1 future

By Shilpa Kannan
Business reporter, BBC News, Tamil Nadu, India

Pit action at Kari Motor Speedway
Racing events bring together a diverse crowd of motoring enthusiasts

On a bright sunny day in Coimbatore in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu, hundreds of motor sport enthusiasts have gathered for what they call a festival of speed.

One of the few racing events around the country, this event has brought together bikers, saloon car drivers and karting fans.

As families open packets of crisps and cold drinks, racers in the Kari Motor Speedway get into the pit lane with their teams to discuss strategies.

Putting on a bright yellow suit, strapping on his helmet and getting into a kart - Armaan Ebrahim gets ready to burn some rubber.

Amid roaring engines and the smell of burning tyres the race begins.

'Positive pressure'

While this competition is limited to go karts, Ebrahim is dreaming of something much bigger - to be part of the top form of motorsport, the Formula 1 (F1) championship.

Born in a family of motorsport enthusiasts he has been racing since he was 13 years old. His father is a former F3 champion and his mentor and coach.

Ebrahim is currently in the international F2 circuit - which is billed as the feeder series to Formula 1.

Armaan Ebrahim and mechanic discuss his kart
Armaan Ebrahim (l) comes from a motor racing family

But he faces intense pressure as thousands of fans are pinning their hopes on him becoming the next Indian F1 driver.

But the 21-year-old says it doesn't bother him and he is in the business of motorsport to make it to F1.

"It's good to know people think I have the potential," he says.

"I take it as positive pressure. It's good that people have interest in Indian drivers and want to bring the sport into the Indian market.

"This will hopefully work in our favour. I just have to make sure that I participate in the right championships at the right time and hopefully things will click."

Potential

While racing is well-established in Europe or America, in India it is still a new sport.

But it is fast gaining popularity especially among young people in urban India.

A young Indian kart driver has his helmet adjusted
Racing is growing in popularity among young people

With half of the population under the age of 25 - the potential for growth is huge.

The country's rapid economic growth and the growing affluence of millions of middle class families means that India also promises a strong financial future for the sport.

That's why companies like Renault use their racing cars to attract people.

Other multinational companies that sponsor teams in F1, like Bridgestone and Vodafone, have brought the Ferrari and the McLaren cars to the country as part of their activities to promote their brands.

'Huge tool'

Worldwide, F1 is a massive television event and has an estimated 600 million people watching every season.

India is largely an untapped market. Already one of the largest pay-TV markets, the country has over 100 million television-owning homes and the audiences are constantly growing.

"The F1 is huge tool for us - not only as a sport which we will encash on, but as a brand," says Ashish Sinha Roy, vice president of Renault India.

"We are not only looking at F1 but motorsports as a whole."

He adds that the company wants to bring in other promotions to India, including programmes for driver development and finding ways to utilise local talent.

Local demands

But leading the motorsport brigade is the flamboyant Indian business tycoon Vijay Mallya.

After buying out the Spyker team in 2007 he created the Force India F1 team.

From being a relatively unknown team with a small budget, they have now zipped into the spotlight by finishing ninth in the championship last season.

Based in Silverstone in Northamptonshire, England, the team has set its sights on getting to the podium this season.

With a driver line up of Adrian Sutil, Vitantonio Luizzi, newly-signed test driver, Paul di Resta and a new car - the VJM03 which uses Indian technical support, the team is confident of a good season ahead.

But the country's racing fans have been demanding a local driver in the team.

'Popular'

So from the tracks in Silverstone in the UK, the search for a driver has moved to go karting tracks in Delhi.

So could there be an Indian driver on the podium soon?

"Why not?" says the chief operating officer of Force India, Otmar Szafnauer.

Car taking part in Indian saloon racing
More people are taking up various forms of motor sports racing

"I think with a population of over a billion people there's got to be Formula 1 racers out there.

"As the sport gets popular and more young people within India take up go karting and racing, I don't think it's be long before we see an Indian driver in Formula 1."

As the team goes to different go karting tracks to promote the sport and find talent, fans throng these venues.

The main attraction in these events is the team's number one driver, Adrian Sutil.

One of the local newspapers described him as "an Austrian prince with his aquiline nose and mop of carefully gelled hair".

'Great job'

As Sutil gets into a kart to race with the chosen drivers, fans cheer loudly to support him. He is confident of a good season ahead.

"I think we are doing a great job right now," he says.

Adrian Sutil
Adrian Sutil is hoping for a strong F1 season for Force India

"We finished 2009 well, that's why it's important to keep getting points and racing well. It would be nice to start to start the season within the top ten."

Construction has started to build the first race track outside Delhi.

India hopes to have the Hermann Tilke-designed 5.5km (3.4 miles) track ready for the first ever Indian Grand Prix in 2011.

As the world's most expensive sport, the economic potential will be significant.

If the plan in getting a driver, track and Indian Grand Prix succeeds - it will potentially bring in new backers and millions of new fans to the sport.



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