India’s inaugural Formula One (F1) race – the Airtel Indian Grand Prix – is finally over. And by all yardsticks, it is a significant success. There was a substantial crowd presence on race day (close to 80,000 would be a reasonable estimate), pan-Indian enthusiasm, sponsor and corporate interest and a huge global television audience. Add to that adequate infrastructure which, most importantly, was developed on time. Last but not least, a sizeable section of the population embraced the spectacle in a manner never associated with Delhi’s last mega-event, Commonwealth Games 2010. This overwhelming response, even if restricted to a small section of Indian society, puts the question of sustainability to rest. F1 in India is here to stay. The success of the first season is testimony.
A debate has been raging in the international media over the last few days about the sustainability of F1 in India. The usual arguments about India’s poverty, its sizeable underprivileged sections and the cost-intensive nature of the race were used to suggest that the long-term viability of the event is questionable. This debate completely misses the point: there is a subtle but very important distinction between sustainability and relevance, between viability and significance. There is little doubt that F1 in India is sustainable, for the upwardly mobile Indian middle class is its single biggest consumer.
This middle class, which may be a minority in India, is twice the size of the population of many developed countries. Its members are major consumers of global sports events and constitute the base on which the success of the Indian Premier League has been built. These same people, who frequent IPL games paying a few thousand rupees for each match, will make it to the F1 race every year, which will soon become part of their annual social calendar. If the English Premier League can have a sizeable viewership in India and the football World Cup and European Cup can capture national imagination for a month every second year, there’s little doubt that F1, which has a strong Indian presence in Sahara Force India, will garner a significant fan following in the country.
Importantly for F1, it has come to India at a time when interest in Indian cricket has reached saturation point. Excessive cricket has resulted in fan alienation and F1 is the perfect substitute. Coverage of the recently concluded India-England series is a case in point. Every television channel and newspaper spent more newsprint and airtime covering the race than they have on reporting India’s victory in the so-called ‘revenge’ series. With cricket being played round the year, it was bound to lose its fan base sooner rather than later with crowd fatigue setting in. While fans will surely watch a marquee series like India versus Australia, an inconsequential one-day series at the back of a high-profile English summer was always a losing proposition. Sponsors will be quick to spot this trend.
While it is known that the investors will not recover the close to $400 million spent on building infrastructure in the next few years, there is little doubt that the hard legacy of the event, unlike that of Commonwealth Games 2010, will be positive. And the only reason is that F1 is a product of private enterprise in India unlike the Games, which was managed from start to finish by the Indian Olympic Association.
A legacy plan for the Buddh International Circuit is already in place. In stark contrast, the billion-dollar Delhi Commonwealth Games never had a legacy vision. While a continued loss will pinch F1 investors, the deeply politicised Indian Olympic Association was never made accountable for its actions during the Commonwealth Games. Accordingly, an Indian Olympic bid may be a firm ‘no’ because it will have to be spearheaded by the Indian Olympic Association; F1, a product of private enterprise, will do its best to enhance its brand value and fan base in the days to come.
While it is surely sustainable, whether or not it is relevant is the subject of a fundamentally different debate. There is merit in the argument that F1 is an elite sport. Never will it become a mass sport in India. Nor is it expected to be. But that shouldn’t impact it in the coming years. If the multiplex culture can thrive, if niche interests like EPL can have a substantial fan following, if Bollywood films can gross hundreds of crores in no time thanks to spectacular marketing, there’s no reason why F1 should be criticised. By the same token Ra.One too is irrelevant. Each has its own constituency, and an event catering to India’s middle and upper classes does have a place in our society especially with these classes being relatively recession-proof.
In many ways, it was inevitable. It was only a matter of time before the world’s largest democracy with an ever-growing middle class was brought into the ambit of F1 and, if the early signs are anything to go by, India is expected to become one of F1’s signature destinations in the coming years. It is not only Sebastian Vettel, winner in Sunday’s race, who is celebrating.