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GP Week : Issue 139
Formula One is a world of contradictions. Teams constantly look to the future while fighting to preserve the sport’s rich past, and the market-driven global calendar leads to megalithic new circuits being built in countries with no motorsport heritage. One of the criticisms often levelled at the world’s most expensive travelling circus is that of a lack of global sensitivity or awareness – some of the calendar’s most popular races take place against a backdrop of extreme poverty. When the Indian Grand Prix was first announced, the knee-jerk reaction from the non-sporting global media was one of criticism. F1 was at it again, they cried, racing multi-million dollar cars in a country known (in automotive terms) for inventing the world’s cheapest production car, an economic necessity in a country whose growing middle class disguises the fact that hundreds of millions of people still live on or near the poverty line. But the response to the race from within the rarefied confines of the paddock has been more positive. India is a sport-hungry nation with an existing interest in motorsport, and the decision to locate the Buddh International Circuit on the outskirts of Delhi has meant that organisers have no concerns about ticket sales. Where many races falter because teams and locals alike fail to promote the grand prix in the run-up to the event, India’s maiden race has faced no such difficulties. The Force India Formula One team has been attracting a strong Indian fanbase since the team first lined up on the grid in 2008. Now that the outfit are regular midfield contenders, part of a chasing pack that sees them challenging the likes of Renault and Mercedes for the lower end of the points, India’s home-grown fans have a team of their own to cheer with pride each weekend. What Force India lacks is an Indian driver, but thanks to HRT and Team Lotus, Indian fans are likely to be able to cheer on two of their countrymen come Sunday. HRT have already confirmed that Narain Karthikeyan will be taking over Tonio Liuzzi’s driving duties for the Indian Grand Prix weekend, while Team Lotus reserve driver Karun Chandhok is still waiting to hear whether or not he will be able to line up on Sunday’s grid. “Driving in front of the home crowd cheering on is going to be a surreal experience,” Karthikeyan said over the weekend. “A once in a lifetime experience and I feel extremely fortunate. “ There is a huge buzz around the grand prix already and I’m sure that it’ll be a resounding success that will motivate more youngsters towards the sport and give us the future F1 drivers. Making it into F1 at the time I did was a seriously uphill task and the thought of being able to compete in the inaugural Indian GP was non-existent. But it is finally here and I’ll be on the grid.” Speaking to Reuters in the run-up to the Indian Grand Prix, Karun Chandhok was positive about the race, although he accepted that no maiden race ever runs smoothly. “You are going to have to expect typical first-year problems,” the Team Lotus reserve driver said. “ There are going to be traffic problems, car park problems, cock- ups here and there. “But is there anything that will really threaten the event? I don’t think so. Is there anything that will really publicly embarrass the event? I don’t think so.” The Indian driver’s confidence could be misplaced, given the problems that have so far dogged the nascent grand prix. Since May there have been reports of local farmers doing their utmost to destabilise construction efforts at the Buddh International Circuit site, using means legal and subversive to halt work where possible. There is a sense in the local community that farmers were underpaid for their land, and resentment has been running at a steady boil. Add to that the fact that the site chosen for the racetrack has cut off local villagers from a sacred temple, and led to the relocation of a cremation site, and it is easy to understand why community tempers have been frayed. Speaking to the Hindustan Times about local opposition to the circuit, villager Sunder Singh said: “Hundreds of devotees throng the temple on Sundays. Hurting the religious sentiments can turn things ugly. It should be sorted out amicably.” There have been regular threats of demonstrations during the grand prix weekend, with villagers keen to use the glare of the global media spotlight to draw attention to their cause. But relations between the circuit and the local community have improved in recent weeks, with the villagers as keen as the race organisers to use the Indian Grand Prix to erase the negative impression of the country left in the wake of 2010’s Commonwealth Games. In any case, the problems faced by the race organisers are not limited only to those caused by the locals. The F1 travelling circus is used to a certain level of assistance from local governments when it comes to such administrative details as organising visas where necessary, easing the passage of F1