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From Hurdles to Full Circle? Tracing India’s Stellar Rise in Motorsport

Written by Vyas Ponnuri

David Coulthard at the Red Bull Mumbai Showrun in 2023; Image Credits - Speed Street

Motorsport has always been largely anonymous in India, over the past few decades. Top tier motorsport ventured into the Indian subcontinent only a few times, across seven decades.


However, the Hyderabad E Prix was an important milestone for Indian motorsport. The past few years have seen rapid development of motorsport in India. The Hyderabad E Prix marked the return of top-tier motorsport to the subcontinent in a decade. FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem too graced the Formula E event with his presence, putting forward a strong message — the desire to strengthen relations with the subcontinent.


The FIA President spoke of the importance of tapping into a market of over one billion consumers, and quintessential to grow motorsports right from the grassroots, karting. He believed motorsport hadn’t even scratched the surface in India, speaking volumes of India’s motorsport potential.


And it is indeed fair to say motorsport activity is indeed picking up in the world’s most populated country. Formula E made its way to the subcontinent in February 2023. Only a month later, Red Bull Racing thrilled the fans in the city of dreams, Mumbai, David Coulthard piloting Sebastian Vettel’s championship-winning RB7 in an epic show run.


In addition, India has been blessed with action on two wheels as well. MotoGP action unfolded in India in September, as the famed Buddh International Circuit (BIC) played host to the top-tier motorbike racing for the first time. In addition, the emerging MotoE series is also planning to venture into the Indian subcontinent.


This influx of motorsport action signifies the growing significance of motor racing in the country. Fans are starting to take further interest in motorsport action as well, a growing trend over the past few years. However, the sport has quickly become a favourite in recent years, much after Formula One initially ventured into the subcontinent in the early 2010s. What are the key factors pushing motorsport’s case on Indian soil, then? Dive into this piece to know more.



A Brief History of Indian Motorsport

While the sport has grown only in the recent decade, motor racing in India can be traced back to as early as 1904, during the times of colonial British rule. The first road race can be traced back, not to a specific racetrack, but to an arduous 1300 km (807 mi) race between two major colonial outposts, Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai).


It was indeed a race of endurance, and keeping it clean, as the winners would be those who made the fewest stoppages en-route, and kept their cars gleaming all the way.


The race was intended to convince the commonplace public that the cars were indeed, suitable for India. The race aimed to attract owners of some exquisite automobiles, even from outside the country, and signalled to Europe, India’s readiness for the automotive world.


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The Second World War has just ended. It is the mid-1940s, and motorsport has taken a backseat, the focus turning towards preparing artillery for the World War. Not too long after, India gains independence from the British, too.

Scenes from the famous Sholavaram Airstrip; Image Credits - Vicky Chandhok

The post-Independence era of motorsport in India can be divided into three parts: The Sholavaram airstrip, birth of the FMSCI, and the rise of Sundaram Karivardhan.


Disused airstrips soon became the centre of motorsport action, and once again opened up the outlook towards motorsport. The most prominent of these airstrips was down south, in the quaint town of Sholavaram, about 25 km off the big city of Madras. This town would quickly become synonymous, etching its space in the history of Indian motorsport, hosting the first-ever organised motorsport race in 1953.


The layout at the Sholavaram airstrip proved to be rather simple. Go down the finish line, along the kilometre-long straight, brake hard, execute a U-turn, head back up the road to a left-right chicane, into a sweeping left to take the racers to the other end of the T-shaped track. It would be a burst of speed until another quick U turn at the end of the T. A left U-Turn led onto the main straight, and drive for the line.


The drag strip was frequented by strong crowds in the first two weeks of February, who thronged the town to get their yearly taste of motorsport experience, before televisions and broadcasting came into the picture. And the cars on display were no regular ones either: The rarity of an imported Formula One Ensign car piloted by one Vijay Mallya, or Chandhok’s Formula 2 Chevron, and the erstwhile Maharaja (king) of the Gondal province tearing up the drag strip in a Formula 5000 car was one not to miss.


The sights, the sound of roaring engines, the smell of burning tyres certainly made for a worthy trip to the track for many.


The next major milestone in Indian motorsport would come only in 1971, when the motorsports clubs of Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and Coimbatore came together, along with the Indian Automobile Race Club, to form the Federation of Motorsport Club of India (FMSCI), the apex body for motorsport and rally racing in the Indian subcontinent. Affiliated with the FIA in 1979, and the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) in 1986, it would later be recognised as the sole body to conduct and control motorsport in India.

'Kari' with his famous work, the Formula Maruti car; Image Credit - Overdrive India

The Indian motorsport story can never be complete without a mention of Sundaram Karivardhan. “Kari” as he was famously called, owned a textile mill in the town of Coimbatore, dubbed as the Manchester of India, due to the vast number of textile mills in the city. Amid the hubbub of textile mills, the city would come to be known as the Motorsport Capital of India. Kari, a man with an entrepreneurial mindset, was at the forefront of this feat, pioneering the Formula Maruti open-wheeled vehicle.


Carrying an 800 cc, 3-cylinder engine sourced from the ubiquitous Maruti 800, produced in 1984 by the company, this was an affordable means for karters to step up to single seaters, paving the way for future Formula One racers Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, among other names.


Kari tragically passed away in 1995, and his efforts would be recognised, the racetrack in Coimbatore named the Kari Motor Speedway (KMS) in his honour, in 2003.

Force India back in the day; Image Credit - F1 Fanatic

The Emergence of Force India as a force in Formula One’s crowded ‘midfield’

You might have noticed my mention of Vijay Mallya earlier, and his taste for motorsport, when he brought an imported Formula One car to the buzzing Sholavaram airstrip. It was clear he had a strong taste for motor racing, right from his early days.


And the Indian mogul would realise his dream, entering into a consortium with Dutch businessman Michiel Mol, purchasing the backmarker Spyker F1 team for €88 million. And, in a synonymous move, Mallya would christen the name “Force India”, bringing to life the first-ever Indian team on the grid.


The team would go on to grab surprise podium appearances during the turbo hybrid era, courtesy of Sergio Perez proving his mettle as a dependable racer, being in position to benefit from circumstances and grabbing podiums.


The Indian team would also be an example of succeeding on an economical budget, outperforming the likes of established competitors such as McLaren and Williams. A famous dialogue from the web series Drive to Survive goes as follows, “Force India cannot afford to sign a Sebastian Vettel or a Fernando Alonso”, highlighting the nature of their budget, and their dependence on the incumbent Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon to deliver results on the day.

Vettel's iconic donuts on the Buddh International Circuit in 2013; Image Credits - Formula One

The Curious Case of the Indian Grand Prix

You would be surprised to hear this — Plans were on to host an Indian Grand Prix even before the turn of the millennium. The initial plans were to host a race in the Eastern city of Kolkata.


However, after the changing of the millennium, the axis would shift down south, to the cities of Hyderabad and Chennai. The latter already had two racetracks in place, while a racetrack was set to come up on a plot spanning around 1500 acres (610 acres) close to the former. Mumbai, another big city, and rapidly emerging as the country’s financial capital, was also in the fray to host a race.


Although, none of these plans came to fruition, and a project to host Formula One on the peripheries of the capital city New Delhi emerged as a viable alternative. The site would be the upcoming Buddh International Circuit. The 5.1 km (3.1 mi) track would possess the hallmarks of any great Formula One track: Elevation changes, a long straight, sweeping corners, and a challenging track layout.


Construction was completed in late 2010, with the race set to take place in October 2011. Right from the off, it was a hit, drivers remarking in awe of the circuit’s traits — the great Sebastian Vettel even comparing it to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit, a lofty comparison indeed.


Vettel would go on to win each of the three Indian Grand Prix events, from 2011 to 2013, and the sight of the newly-crowned four-time champion laying down rubber on the main straight, before bowing down to the very machine that took him to victory — is certainly one to cherish for the local fans. His subcontinental record, and the iconic 2013 race, mean he is still loved by large sections of subcontinental fans, even after calling it a day from the sport.


Vettel’s heroics from 2013 remain the last time Formula One touched down on Indian soil, having withdrawn from the initial five-year contract set in 2010. Despite supremo Bernie Ecclestone stating the event would return in 2015 or 2016, the event hasn’t returned since.


What went wrong for the Indian Grand Prix (and motorsport) in India?

A thorough case study of the event reveals several flaws and shortcomings. For starters, the most prominent of them was the red-tapism, caused by entertainment tax levied on Formula One, by the reigning state government of Uttar Pradesh, in which the track was situated.


The government did not acknowledge the nature of Formula One to be a sport, rather categorising it as entertainment, which would lead to a certain ‘Entertainment tax’ being levied on Formula One. This certainly didn’t please the top brass, and the tax debacle took centrestage in the mid-2010s, when Formula One withdrew the event from the calendar.


The contract signed between the race promoters Jaypee Sports, and Formula One World Championship (FOWC) would go on to be another major talking point. While the two entities first signed a contract worth $40 Million to host the race, they signed another $1 Million contract, allowing Jaypee to make use of registered Formula One trademarks and symbols, including the Formula One logo.


However, after a lengthy process, and a debacle relating to the presence of Formula One’s permanent establishment within the subcontinent, Formula One was forced to shell out upto 40% of their income from the events as tax, plus interest. The promoters also had to incur a hefty customs duty, due to the government’s inability to recognise Formula One as a sport. This whole incident left a sour taste in Formula One’s mouths, as well as that of the fans.


The local government didn’t provide any financial aid to the race promoters either, forcing Jaypee Sports to fund the event from their own pocket. And the promoter’s funds ran dry after only a few seasons, unable to pay the required fee to host the event.


Aid from the government is an important cog to keep the event running smoothly, as it is a steep task to fund track maintenance, repairs, and upgradation from one’s own pocket. In addition, the hosting fees were no less. A government’s positive intervention is witnessable in the Belgian and Australian Grand Prix events, where local governments have stepped in to prevent the promoters from going bankrupt, ensuring stability and continuity of the event.


The circuit quickly became a white elephant, as racing events were held few and far around the legendary track, and was even converted into a centre to house patients during the COVID-19 pandemic — A mighty fall from grace, indeed.

The Indian GP was dogged by persistent tax scandals, and dropped off the calendar; Image Credits - Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The Subcontinental Audience - A Transformation

Another reason for the Indian Grand Prix’s inability to succeed was its failure to resonate with the audience. Despite local drivers and a home team on the grid, and tickets selling out for the inaugural race in three hours, sustaining the audience proved difficult.


India is a largely price-sensitive nation, and the masses evaluate the potential benefits arising from an event, and whether the cost incurred is justified. A quick look at tickets for other sporting events reveals an important finding: Tickets for cricket games start as low as Rs 750 (approximately £7.5) while Indian Premier League (IPL) tickets start from around Rs 2000 (£20).


Meanwhile, the tickets for the inaugural Formula One race in the subcontinent ranged between Rs 1500 (£15) to as high as Rs 21,000 (£210). This is a much lower rate compared to the British Grand Prix, one of the most expensive events on the calendar, where the starting price was Rs 14,500 (£145).


Moreover, the audience would have thought twice to justify spending on an ‘unknown’ sport back then, the difficulty to resonate with the sport adding on to their decision. Spending similarly for a cricket game would have sounded more justifiable then, as fans were still in the hangover of the team’s Cricket World Cup victory, and could easily resonate with the sport. An audience had to be built up from the ground up.


And the audience figures would dip as the events went on, declining from a stellar 95,000 in the inaugural event in 2011, to as low as 65,000. This led to the downward spiral of organisers slashing ticket prices, and struggling to rack in revenues due to the lack of marketing and buzz around the event. This was also back at a time when the Indian economy was still growing, far from the country’s economic position today.


However, the downfall of the Indian Grand Prix was the nadir for motorsport in India.

Yogi Adithyanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, awards the winner's trophy to VR46 rider Marco Bezzecchi; Image Credit - Times of India

A change of government brought about a much-awaited development for motorsport, with the incumbent government considering it a sport, allowing motorsport to be treated like other sports in India. This has opened up plenty of avenues within the subcontinent. Governmental support can play a huge role in promoting motorsport in a country, as evidenced by the MotoGP race in India this year.


Today, the country boasts of a massive fanbase, and according to a valuation in 2020, India was among the top five markets for Formula One, boasting an audience of 31 Million. And this figure will definitely be much higher today. Plenty of factors have contributed to this figure.


While the impact of Netflix’s famous Formula One: Drive to Survive on the American market has been evident, the subcontinent's demand for the series has witnessed a 99.8% spike, compared to other web series. With plenty of youngsters consuming content produced on Netflix, they have found a way to discover this new sport, and have been curiously watching the series to learn about the sport.


The captivating 2021 Formula One season was another major draw for the Indian audience, as the championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton raked up the views, with races even being screened at local bars and restaurants in cities. The season finale at Abu Dhabi too attracted plenty of viewership, India being one of the contributories to the staggering audience.


As mentioned earlier, Sebastian Vettel’s achievements in India and the sport have profoundly impacted subcontinental fans of the sport, who found themselves attracted to, and continue to follow the sport thanks to the four-time champion, even after his retirement.


Finally, another important factor in the rising motorsport audience in India is the emergence of a plethora of content creators, aiming to wield the power of social media’s algorithm to expand the sport’s reach. They attempt to leverage the fans’ curiosity, curating eye-catching content to keep their followers captivated.


Content creators are also shifting focus to the grassroots in Indian motorsport, instilling a sense of pride and happiness to witness India’s talent given a platform to shine.

Formula E signalled the return of top-tier motorsport in India; Image Credits - Formula E

The Roadmap Ahead for Motorsport in India

India has proven to be a happy hunting ground for motorsport in 2023, with both Formula E and MotoGP making their respective subcontinental debuts this year, and thriving to strong audience figures, highlighting the country’s growing interest in motorsport.


In addition, David Coulthard’s show run in Mumbai this March was received strongly by the audience, who flocked to the mega city to get the nostalgia of a V10 Formula One car.


The country hosted the inaugural edition of the Indian Racing League (IRL) in late 2022, and is gearing up to host the much-awaited Formula 4 Indian Championship (F4IC), an important move to further the country’s motorsport future.


The success of India’s maiden MotoGP event is a major milestone in India’s quest to host international motorsport events, and the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEIDA) have revealed talks to bring Formula One back to the country as early as 2025.


While this sounds a tad optimistic, it highlights the meteoric rise of motorsport in India, and its importance in a country where cricket still reigns supreme. However, key issues must be ironed out before the country hosts the pinnacle of motorsport once again.


While riders expressed their love for the Buddh International Circuit, and the MotoGP event a grand success, some pressing matters behind-the-scenes need to be sorted. Processing the visas of riders and important personnel proved to be a hassle, with some even having their visas processed mere days before the event. This is one area where streamlining will be required in the future, to facilitate a smooth process of entry into the country.

F1 TV is the main broadcaster for Formula One and its Feeder Series in India in 2023; Image Credit - Formula One

India doesn’t have an official television broadcaster for Formula One and its feeder series either. Coverage until 2022 was handled by Star Sports, the official broadcaster for the sport on Indian soil, but this coverage was merely restricted to the racing on track, and not the pre-race or post-race shows.


In addition, the rising television costs of the sport, coupled with lower television viewing figures (India wasn’t in the top 20 television viewers of the sport, as of 2021) caused Star Sports to pull the plug on hosting Formula One before the 2023 season, paving the way for Formula One’s official streaming platform, F1 TV, to make their way onto Indian shores. However, the coverage locked behind a paywall has deterred some fans from being able to watch their favourite sport live, and enjoy the thrill of motor racing.


Thus, fans are looking forward to an official telecaster for the sport in the country, heading into the future. The emergence of live telecast for MotoGP in the country provides a ray of hope for Formula One and its feeder series in the future too, and fans would hope the same broadcasters create a hub for motorsport on the local Sports 18 television channel.


To sum it up, the growth of motorsport in the subcontinent has been nothing short of sensational, and a pleasant surprise in a cricket-crazy country. And this is a positive sign for the country, with sights set on becoming a motorsport hub in the future. To quote FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem from earlier: “We haven't scratched the surface in India”.


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