Indian Grand Prix: What Has Gone Wrong?

As mentioned in the earlier preview, the 2013 Indian Grand Prix may well be the last. Due to political reasons, Formula One will not be returning to this part of the world in 2014, and depending on who you talk to, might not be returning for the foreseeable future.

The question many within the sport are asking is whether the Indian Grand Prix is a lost cause, or is Formula One to blame for failing to make the most of an emerging market?

Back in 2011, the sport arrived at the Buddh International Circuit for the first time full of hope. Much was made of F1’s potential to capture the imagination of a country that has a population of over one billion people. Drivers praised Hermann Tilke’s undulating circuit, which included some of the best features from his previous tracks.

The location of the track was praised for being so close to Delhi, too. Unlike the Korean Grand Prix, which is really in the middle of nowhere, the track was in the perfect location to capitalise on India’s largest city. Teams and the media alike were wowed by the unique atmosphere the country has.

But since then, things haven’t been so positive. Despite the efforts of Sahara Force India, Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan, the event has hardly been a rip-roaring success. Many of the biggest Indian celebrities, including cricket players and Bollywood stars, turned up for the very first race, but even they couldn’t help generate a sizeable crowd.

In 2011, 95,000 spectators (figures taken from attended the race. The following year, it went down to 65,000. This year, only 50,000 fans are expected through the gates on Sunday. Despite the prospect of seeing Sebastian Vettel create yet another bit of history, the sport will be greeted by the sight of empty grand stands once more. So what has gone wrong?

The general consensus within the paddock seems to be that the sport really hasn’t done enough to market the race. This is a problem that isn’t exactly uncommon for Formula One, unfortunately. For years, the Chinese Grand Prix failed to draw a sizeable crowd, and it was widely put down to the fact that on the whole, locals didn’t know about it even taking place. Only in recent years has that changed, with more and more people attending the race.

It seems then as if Formula One simply assumes that locals will know when it arrives in the country, but does that really explain the full reason behind the drop off in spectator numbers since 2011? You could argue that the ticket prices are too high, a common complaint of most F1 races, yet numbers show that ticket prices for the Indian Grand Prix are some of the cheapest of the entire year.

Of course, Ferrari’s political statement by painting the flag of the Italian navy on their car last year didn’t help either. That was an embarrassing and unnecessary blunder, and one that no doubt will have caused the organisers headaches, and soured relations with the fans.

But despite this, the real reason for the falling numbers of fans could be found elsewhere.

Not for the first time in recent years, the Buddh International Circuit was built with a “no expense spared” attitude. It was the same for the Istanbul circuit in Turkey which infamously failed to draw big crowds before it dropped off the calendar. The same connection can be made with the Yeongam circuit in Korea as well, or any other of the modern circuits Formula One visits in these emerging markets.

Despite the great expense though, these circuits are often left just to gather dust throughout the year. Just like Yeongam, other than one weekend a year when F1 arrives, the Buddh International Circuit simply doesn’t host any racing.  It seems ludicrous and an incredible waste of money that these modern facilities don’t get used more, and perhaps that is why the sport finds itself in the situation it is in now.

It is fair to say that India does not have the greatest motorsport heritage in the world. Compared to places like Britain, Italy, Australia, or any of the other traditional venues F1 goes to; motorsport is still a relatively new thing to many Indians. As such, it does not have the same following that cricket enjoys.

It is a cliché, but you can’t build a house without having sturdy foundations in place first. Perhaps then, the lack of a general motorsport following in the country is what is doing Formula One the most harm.

The sport needs to learn from this, and fast, if it is to avoid many more examples like Turkey and India coming up in the future. What F1 and the teams have a duty to do is really help develop that motorsport following in the country at the lowest, grassroots, level. They need to take a long hard look at if they’ve really done enough to help the event become a success.

Other than Force India’s search to find a young Indian driver, what has the sport really done over the last couple of years? They should be going out and actively trying to get people interested in motorsport, educating them about it, trying to convince them to become involved in it rather than just arriving at the circuit every year and presuming people will turn up.

If the teams show how enthusiastic they are about the sport, and search to engage the fans, then, and only then, will they see the effect it has in terms of the number of people turning up to spectate.

Formula One is known to have a bad record when it comes to fan friendliness. But it is definitely something people within the sport should consider when going to these new, emerging markets. Sure, it is great to turn up to an expensive, impressive, ultra-modern race track, but if the country they are in doesn’t know or understand about motorsport, then what really is the point in it? It doesn’t do anybody any good to be racing in front of empty stands.

Upon leaving India for potentially the last time, the sport should take a few moments to reflect on what it has, or rather hasn’t, done to avoid making the same mistakes in another country in the future.