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In India, Formula One the Odds-On Favorite

  • Anjana Pasricha

Promotions for the first ever Indian Formula One race are taking place across the country. A model stands next to a Formula One replica at a mall in Ahmedabad, Oct. 17, 2011.

Promotions for the first ever Indian Formula One race are taking place across the country. A model stands next to a Formula One replica at a mall in Ahmedabad, Oct. 17, 2011.

As India prepares to host its first Formula One Grand Prix on Oct. 30, among the most prestigious auto-racing events in the world, enthusiasts and investors are pinning their hopes on the possibility that motor sports will become mainstream in a country where incomes are rising with the economic tide.

For India, a country known for its single-minded obsession with cricket, Tuesday's unveiling of the 5.14-kilometer Buddh International Circuit racetrack was a benchmark of sorts.

Located in Greater Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi, the $400 million course, designed by renowned German architect Hermann Tilke, boasts the fastest straight-line speed of any F1 track on the 2011 calendar.

"There are a lot of overtaking opportunities," says Indian Formula One driver Narain Karthikeyan, who will be racing as a member of the Spanish Formula One team Hispania. "You are going to see Formula One cars travel at 320 plus kilometers an hour on the long straight they have."

Formula One had few followers in India until 2005, when Karthikeyan became the first Indian to participate in the race. In recent years, television viewership of the Grand Prix has been steadily growing, especially among younger people. But the sport remains tiny compared to India’s most popular past time, cricket.

The country's sole Formula One team, Force India, which made its debut in 2008, will be among the 12 teams taking part in the race. Besides Karthikeyan, India has only one other Formula One driver.

But Vicky Chandhok, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs in India, says the sport will enhance the country's image despite its relative novelty to most Indians.

"It is going to work for [India]," says Chandhok, adding that the track is part of an ambitious sports complex that will include a motor driving academy and a 60-acre golf resort and spa.

"We keep saying we are technologically advanced, and we have now become a developed nation," he says. "Today we are playing host to Formula One which is technologically the most advanced sport in the world and we can use this platform, certainly."

Officials from the privately-held Jaypee group, promoters of the Grand Prix, have expressed hope the event will help erase memories of last year’s Commonwealth Games, a high-profile enterprise marred by unfinished venues, poor management and allegations of corruption at a time when India was attempting to project its image as a rising and resurgent nation.

Race-day events will include performances by American heavy-metal band Metallica and pop singer Lady Gaga, neither of which have ever performed in India. Organizers say tickets for the race have been nearly sold out, though the New York Times reports that only 60 percent of available tickets have been purchased.

Local groups of farmers who have yet to receive payment for land acquired to build the track are threatening to protest during the race if their compensation demands are not met.

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