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Speeding to a new identity


India's October date with Formula One may help soothe the sour after taste of the Commonwealth Games. Instead of corruption scandals and lingering notions of ineptitude, the Indian Grand Prix may help showcase a changing nation's more professional face. . .

Over the past few days, Karun Chandhok has heard a lot of complaints in the paddock about the painful procedure of getting an Indian visa. Hopefully, for those unfamiliar with these shores, that will be the only gripe once they land for the biggest sporting spectacle here after the Commonwealth Games.

There is a point of view that though any Formula One event gives the tourism industry a huge fillip, it's no big deal for a country that sees over 17. 9 million foreigners flying in every year. The Formula 1 Airtel Indian Grand Prix in October, though, is an excellent chance for India to make amends for certain unsavoury aspects of the Commonwealth Games. If India and the Jaypee Group - constructors of the track - can play their cards right, the bad press generated during the Commonwealth Games might be reduced to just a bad memory. Instead of huge corruption scandals, stinking toilets, shabby construction and endless delays, the event can serve as a positive showcase of a professional India's economic and technological prowess.

The fact that 500 million viewers around the world will tune in to watch is the icing on the cake, and will add to the pressures of seamlessly conducting the event.

"Formula 1 is the most technologically advanced sport in the world. There is no better way to show how adept and advanced we are, " feels Vicky Chandhok, the president of the Federation of Motorsports Council of India and one of the people instrumental in luring F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone's attention to India.

Karun Chandhok, the reserve driver for Team Lotus and the second-ever Indian to drive in Formula One, believes the event can change the world's perception of modern India. "Some of the foreign journalists are already coming in with the negative images left behind from the Commonwealth Games. A fantastic show in October will help put all that behind us, " he said. "The world needs to see me and Narain (Karthikeyan) race in front of home crowds and Jaypee Sports International Limited (JPSI) needs to put up a good show as well, " added the Chennai driver, who shares a close equation with the group's owners and has been a regular visitor to the track.

JPSI, entrusted with the responsibility of building India's first-ever F1 track, has pumped in nearly Rs 1, 800 crore to develop a facility that will be state of the art. Done right, it could be the crucial, final push that motorsports in India has been waiting for.
JPSI managing director Sameer Gaur is a proud man today. The Buddh International Circuit (BIC) has been constructed from the ground up in just over two years. Amid accusations of land being unfairly acquired, the Jaypee conglomerate - which has its fingers in construction, electricity, engineering, real estate and hospitality - has gone about its work quietly. On Thursday, they won the approval of the FIA inspector and Formula One race director Charlie Whiting, who "expressed satisfaction" with the 5. 14 km long track.

"We started construction of the track in 2009 after the monsoons and it is nearly complete, with only a little work going on over the seating in the grand stands. There has been no dispute over the land acquired for the track as well, " a reserved but confident Gaur said.

Unconcerned by stories of financial woes faced by other promoters - like the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne - Gaur added, "It's an investment of over Rs 1, 500 crore, out of which 30 per cent is equity and 70 per cent debt. But I am confident we can break even in the next three years. "

It will also be a key moment in the career of one of India's most well-known race car drivers. When he made his debut in 2005, Narain Karthikeyan never imagined he would ever race in a F1 car in India. Six years later, that dream is less than two months away. "In 2003, when Hyderabad was being touted as a possible venue, I was a part of that delegation and when that fell through I thought to myself, 'I won't get this chance again in my lifetime', " NK, as he's popularly known, recalls.

A surety for the October 30 race with Team HRT, Karthikeyan feels F1 in India is a reality today because mindsets have changed, both in India and abroad. "Jaypee has taken the huge step of investing and bringing F1 to India. A few years ago we didn't have anybody to do that. "

The fact that private enterprise has led the way is also laudable. Countries like Malaysia, Bahrain and even Monaco have the support and wherewithal of their respective governments whereas in India, it's the private sector that has stepped in. The Indian government has time and again refused to accept F1 as a sport but come October, will the country's political might be on display too?

In fact, many believe the government's lack of interest in F1 could prove to be a boon. "It is a deal between two private bodies. Official bodies like the Indian Olympic Association and the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs in India were involved in getting necessary sanctions from the government. At the end of the day, it is only a deal between then world body FIA and JPSI for a period of five years, " JPSI senior vicepresident Askari H. Zaidi said.

"That doesn't mean that the government isn't playing their part. We have to get a lot of customs clearances to get the equipment into the country and the government will help out in this regard. They will also help in easing the immigration process for the huge number of people coming in who are associated with the race, " he added.

While the inspection as part of the homologation process is over, with the Grade-1 circuit documentation to be received one week prior to the race, there are a million other things keeping JPSI and FMSCI busy.

Over the past year and a half, FMSCI has been training Indian volunteers to be track marshals and perform duties like sweeping the track and pushing an F1 car. Hotels have come up at rapid speed to accommodate the mad rush that a racing weekend brings to a city.

There are still concerns over the roads in and around the circuit, and some of the buildings on the track. JPSI, though, is confident that all of it will be taken care of well ahead of time.

"There are still some temporary stands that need to be completed and trucks full of equipment are coming in every day. Once that work is completed the tarmac on the road connecting the expressway to the circuit will be done well in time, " Zaidi said.

There are a few fears that having an F1 track might do little to promote a sport restricted to just Chennai and Coimbatore, but Karthikeyan disagrees. "The motorsports culture in India is much stronger. There is tremendous interest and excitement about the sport at a local level and I don't think we should really worry. I think finding another F1 driver from India, though, is still quite a few years away, " he said.

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