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Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 10:26 GMT
India set to feel the F1 Force
Prachi Pinglay
BBC Sport in Mumbai

Adrian Suti (L),  Giancarlo Fisichella(C) and test driver Vitantonio Liuzzi (R)
The new Force India team are ready and assembled for the new season

Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, 65m, a dedicated social networking site, go-karting initiatives.

All this and more is what Force India, the first and only Indian-owned team in Formula One, is using to force itself into the cricket-driven psyche of India.

Force India, the latest iteration of the former Jordan team, will race in this year's F1 world championship with veteran driver Giancarlo Fisichella and the up-and-coming German Adrian Sutil.

But it is what the team represents that makes this rebranding so potentially seismic.

The new owner of the team, drinks baron Vijay Mallya, is hoping to tap into the huge potential of the rapidly-expanding Indian economy - an aim shared by many of F1's power brokers.

Indian cricket fans
F1 faces a fight to win over a cricket crazy country

That may be easier said than done.

In a country where cricket is followed as a religion and no other sport comes even remotely close to that, including its national game hockey, F1 has long been considered to be out of reach for most Indians.

But with an upwardly mobile aspiring class that numbers 300 million and growing, even this elite sport could find fertile ground.

And if Force India and F1 manage to attract even a small percentage of those people, that is still millions of potential new devotees.

With India set to host its first Grand Prix in 2010, the sport's exposure is only going to grow.

At the team's official launch on Thursday, Mallya discarded the notion that the "first thing anyone says about India is poverty" and that motor racing was considered to be "out of reach for what is perceived a developing nation like India".

He was keen to stress that the power India wields in the global economy as a result of its boom was as much a reality as the traditional stereotypes.

"I feel proud that an Indian has put its flag on the F1 circuit," Mallya said, pointing to the white, saffron and green of the Indian tricolour in the team's logo.

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Unveiling the team at a glitzy venue with much fanfare, Mallya, dressed in a Force India t-shirt, was emphatic about his team's credentials and potential.

With a budget almost double that of last year, which was spent at the back of the grid, and a new dedicated wind tunnel in which to hone the car, this year promises to be better.

But Mallya implicitly acknowledged the reality that his team's budget was more than four times lower than that of world champions Ferrari.

"In having expectations, one should also have compassion," he chuckled as questions about "expected position" in the forthcoming championship were hurled at the team.

The team faces challenges at several levels - performance in the championship is only the beginning. Being accepted and sustainable in a cricket crazy country is a different ball game altogether.

I feel proud that an Indian has put its flag on the F1 circuit

Vijay Mallya

An Indian driver would clearly help. But Mallya was unapologetic about not having one. "No Indian fits the bill," he said, adding that the drivers had to be experienced enough to assist the engineers so the team could learn and grow.

This is where Shahrukh Khan and various other marketing initiatives came in.

A brand ambassador, undoubtedly India's most popular star and who recently made a film revolving around a hockey coach, called out to the young generation be the force behind the team, declaring that "India has arrived".

In an attempt to woo the 500m people in India less than 25 years of age, there will be a networking site, for blogging and initiating a fan club.

The team will also make its presence felt at go-karting events, which is hugely popular among youth, so that the non-Indian drivers are assimilated, recognised and accepted.

The venture will extend itself to training and grooming drivers picked at a young age which are identified at these events. Force India's experienced drivers will have a larger role to play when these efforts start.

Vijay Mallya
Vijay Mallya has assembled the team at a cost of 65m

However, at present, the drivers only have to shoulder the pressure of several million Indians who will watch them closely. "To have all of you pushing is just great," Fisichella said, when asked about being part Force India, turning the pressure into a positive.

Pushkar Paranjpe, an ardent F1 follower, said: "It's a great thing for India and the team though not talked about, is a good team.

"It has performed well earlier and with more efforts like a dedicated wind tunnel and other aerodynamic support, it can only do better."

However, not all are this optimistic.

Indian journalist Arun George says: "The drivers are good, no doubt, but the team has not even finished races in past. Let's not be too excited about the team. I don't see it on the podium anytime soon."

But as Bangalore architect Sujit Nair points out, the sheer size of India's population ensures that Force India - and by extension F1 - are bound to attract significant numbers of fans, no matter how elitist or exclusive it is seen.

"F1 is an elitist sport so it will have a dedicated set of followers which may outnumber Germany's population in any case," Nair says. "I think it will do well, more so in urban centres and it has a strong support body with no dearth of sponsorships."

Indian commuters
The cars of F1 are a far cry from much of the transport in India

Add with the looming Indian Grand Prix - at a track at Noida near the capital Delhi - Force India will not fade from the headlines too soon.

Instead, the pressure of living up to the hype generated by their launch becomes their primary challenge, and that can only to be achieved by performance. Ask the Indian cricket team, they know it the best.

Mentioning that side's debacle at last year's World Cup - where they were knocked out in the opening stages - Mallya insisted that the country continued to be passionate about cricket and how.

So he is sure that initial low-key performances will not affect popularity of Force India. However, whether any other sport can get even part of that adulation from the "blue billion" remains to be seen.



SEE ALSO
Fisichella wins Force India drive
10 Jan 08 |  Formula One
Formula One hits new heights
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One


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