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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February 2005, 16:01 GMT
India waiting for F1 lift-off
By Ayanjit Sen
BBC News in Delhi

Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar Ferrari Formula One technical director Ross Brawn
Tendulkar is an F1 fan, but the sport is not well known in India
In India, where people swear by cricket and worship leading cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar as demi-Gods, the idea of a career in motorsport is only just beginning to attract interest.

But the news that the country's top racing driver, Narain Karthikeyan, is to become the first Indian to race in Formula One is making a big splash in the country's newspapers.

Karthikeyan's talent should stand him in reasonable stead as he seeks to establish a long career in F1.

But how big an impact the 28-year-old's presence in the world's richest sport will have on India's huge population remains to be seen.

Karthikeyan's presence in the high-profile, glamorous world of F1 is sure to enthuse youngsters to take to this sport.

Live coverage of F1 Grands Prix has generated big revenues for private television channels in India, where drivers like Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya are the new youth icons.

Indian newspapers covering Narain Karthikeyan's prospective drive with Jordan
Karthikeyan's F1 opportunity has attracted media interest
And motor racing is, according to Akbar Ibrahim, a former Indian driver in the junior Formula Three category, "one of the most highly-watched sports in television after cricket in India".

But while motor racing may be nearly 50 years old on the subcontinent, it remains the bastion of the rich. The common man is largely unaware of it.

Inevitably, then, those seeking to promote the growth of motorsport in India have run into problems.

A plan to host F1 in the eastern city of Calcutta (Kolkatta) had to be shelved when the state government realised the huge amount of money required to commission the project.

And a similar plan in the business centre of Hyderabad fell foul of a change in state government last year.

The southern Indian city of Madras (Chennai) has the only international racing circuit in the country.

And after Karthikeyan the two brightest hopes for Indian motor racing are Karun Chandok and Parthiva Sureshwaran, who have yet to make a big impact on the international motorsport scene.

Indian villagers in Jammu and Kashmir state
F1 has yet to make much of an impact in India's villages
Though two tyre companies, MRF India and JK Tyres, have long been involved in sponsoring motor racing here, there is a huge effort required on the part of business and the government if the sport is to extend its reach across the country.

Experts say this may be the reason why motorsport has not yet progressed as much as it should have in India.

"Hopefully, Karthikeyan's achievements will help the government to get up from its slumber and build facilities required for hosting F1," says Ibrahim.

Motorsport in India has not come that far since it sprang up on the many airstrips left deserted in various parts of the country following independence in 1947.

Just as in the UK at Silverstone - itself a former military airfield - enthusiasts used these strips to pursue their passion for the sport.

Competitors on the Indian Desert Storm rally, posing in front of India Gate in New Dehli
Rallying is the most popular form of motorsport in India
But annual race meetings did not start in India until the 1970s, and the machines used were not of the same standard as their international counterparts either in technology and design.

In the next decade, Karivardhan became the backbone of Indian motorsport, with the modern single-seater open-wheeled racing car.

But his death from injuries sustained in an air crash left a void in Indian motorsport.

Then Karthikeyan burst on to the scene in the '90s.

He was unusual in that he chose circuit racing instead of rallying, which remains the most popular form of motorsport in India.

And it seems others are beginning to follow his lead.

"More and more youngsters are taking an interest in the sport," says Vicky Chandhoke, the president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India.

"It has really picked up in the last three years. Several go-karting tracks are being laid in different parts of the country."

Fans at the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix in 2004
Will motorsport ever attract a big following in India?
Even so, in the absence of a Grand Prix to raise the profile of motorsport in India, those wishing to take up a career in the field struggle for funding.

"Money is a big hindrance in youngsters taking up this sport as a career," says Eshwar, a motorsport journalist in India.

There is a long way to go before India can challenge the infrastructure that has produced generations of top drivers in South America and western Europe.

But the Indian motorsport fraternity see a ray of hope in car manufacturers like Ford and Hyundai, who are increasing their presence in India and exploring sponsorship opportunities.

With a population of over a billion, and a growing and aspirant middle class, motorsport has great potential in India.

But the challenge lies in making the common man part of the sport and sorting out the financial constraints, say experts.

Though optimists like Eshwar feel many Indians will go to Australia to see Karthikeyan perform, the sport still has a long way to go before it becomes truly popular in India.



SEE ALSO
Indian close to Jordan F1 drive
01 Feb 05 |  Formula One
Tendulkar on his F1 excitement
31 May 04 |  Fun and Games


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