Vicky Chandhok, the president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, is perhaps currently better known as the father of Karun Chandhok, the racing sensation from Chennai. Not so long ago, he was a famous rally driver in his own right and one of the few instrumental in popularising motor racing in India.
As president of the FMSCI, he has taken it as his mission to bring Formula One to India, for which he has the backing of liquor baron Vijay Mallya and Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. If everything goes according to plan, if there are no bureaucratic hurdles, Chandhok says, Indians can see Formula One cars racing in India by 2007-08.
In an exclusive interview with Shobha Warrier, the FMSCI president reveals his plans to stage a race in India.
Were you with Karun when he met Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One boss, last week?
Of course, I was there. I went to London only for that purpose. For a change, I was in London when Karun was not racing. I was there on Bernie's invitation. Bernie was very keen to meet Karun as well.
Sometime back, Ecclestone, in an interview to an Indian magazine, remarked about the possibility of Formula One coming to India. Did you have any discussion with him when you met him in London?
In fact, it was I who set up that interview for the magazine. Bernie has made a few statements in that interview which are correct. But what has happened is that there has been a lot of talk going on in the last week that a deal is signed with Hyderabad; Chandrababu Naidu is setting up the track there, etc, etc. It is not true.
Mr. Ecclestone was very, very clear when he sent Michael Taub as an intermediary... that it is not just a racing track that we are going to have but also various industries, industrial parks, etc to make it commercially viable. The economics of having just a race track will not work. Today, India is looked at as a high-tech country. Several IT industries and vehicle manufacturers have come in here. And Formula One is the only sport that is technology driven. So it makes logical sense to have Formula One racing also in India, the high-tech country.
You need an investment of Rs 350-500 crores to set up all the facilities. But once it is set up, India will suddenly be on the huge tourism map. India will be one of the 16 countries that have the privilege to have Formula One. Formula One has a viewership that exceeds most other sports in the world, next only to Football World Cup and the Olympics. The World Cup and the Olympics happen only once in four years, but this is on an annual basis.
When Formula One was telecast live on Doordarshan, we had a viewership of 60-70 million. For the live interview I did with Mr. Ecclestone, from the race track at Silverstone on a Sunday at 8 pm, the viewership was 91.3 million! The numbers in India are huge.
When did this idea to bring Formula One to India germinate?
Frankly, Karun has been a large motivating factor for me. I took over the presidentship of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India in April. I felt I must try and make a difference when I am the president. What best could I do than try and get Formula One to India. So, I spoke to Bernie.
Did you know him earlier itself?
I was introduced to Bernie by our chairman, Dr. Vijay Mallya, at an informal dinner about two years ago, in Bombay. At the time, he was here on a personal visit. I got a call from Mr. Mallya one afternoon and he said, 'Mr. Ecclestone is having dinner with me tonight. Why don't you fly to Bombay?'. I flew to Bombay and we spent 3-4 hours together.
At the time did you talk to him about your desire to have Formula One in India?
No. At that stage it was not in my mind. Later, when Karun decided to take up racing, we used to exchange letters and notes quite regularly. Six months ago, out of the blue, he suggested, 'Vicky, why don't you put Formula One on India's terrestrial channel? What is your viewership?'. I said, 1.2 billion! I came back to India but it took me four months to get the national television channel to telecast Formula One! I could not believe the bureaucracy I had to go through. There were stumbling blocks every two days! At times, I made three trips a week to Delhi to overcome those hurdles.
What was the reason for Ecclestone's sudden interest in India? The huge audience?
Yes, the huge audience. Ours is the fastest growing economy. When our viewership of Formula One, on Sunday on Doordarshan, had gone up to 63 million, I asked Bernie how about F1 in India?
Yes, 6-7 years back there had been some talk about Formula One coming to Calcutta but for some reason or the other, it fell through. Now, Chandrababu Naidu has agreed to allocate 1500 acres of land as an extension of the new international airport. He has also agreed to build hotels and the required infrastructure. The team of intermediaries also have gone to Karnataka to look at two sites in Bangalore, of about 600-and-odd acres each.
What about Chennai? Is it not in the reckoning? You already have some races taking place at Irinagattukottai.
Yes, why not Chennai? We will be happy to do it anywhere. The thing is, who can put up this kind of money except the government?
You mean, the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have shown interest but not that of Tamil Nadu?
The governments of both AP and Karnataka have shown tremendous interest. Of course, Andhra is really pushing it like no other state! It is great to see a chief minister pushing so hard. Karnataka is a great location mainly because of the Bangalore weather.
Haryana also is a possible venue. Delhi, too, perhaps. Delhi being the capital has the infrastructure, like the hotels, conference halls, etc. Mr. Ecclestone prefers Delhi.
See, once you have the track, the vehicle manufacturers will come and test it when it is winter in Europe. Look at the names involved from the vehicle manufacturers: Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Ford, Jaguar..
Formula One is not just 20 cars. These cars arrive in seven jumbo jets carrying all the equipment. The production company comes in three large aircraft with a staff of about 300 - 400 people. The security staff is the same world over. They fly from one venue to the other.
After landing, the seven aircraft have to clear through the customs within an hour. Two hours after the race, all the equipment and cars are packed into the aircraft and they leave. In a country like India, this is not going to be easy. Look at what all we need. We need support from the immigration, from customs...
Are you pessimistic?
I am aware of the problems.
Is Mr Ecclestone also aware of these problems?
I don't think he is aware of these Indian problems in the form of delays. He cannot afford the delays. But before he says yes, he will actually fly an aircraft with all the equipment and do a mock run. He did that in China. That is why he is so keen on a place near the airport runway. Both in Hyderabad and Bangalore, they have offered land close to the airports. I must tell you the Formula One management has so far not made any official visit to India.
When do you expect the Formula One team to come to India to have a look at the places?
We want the team to come here and have a look at all the options and not just one place. They cannot come here and meet only the AP chief minister and go back. So, it will take at least six months to set up all the meetings. If the states show interest tomorrow, it will happen tomorrow also, but the governments must be willing to put money upfront.
Now, four states are in the map. We hope that Chennai will show some interest. Chennai always had racing. Logically, it has to be in Madras. People all over the world know about the Madras Grand Prix. But we are very sure that we are going to have an Indian Grand Prix rather than a state-pulled Grand Prix. Like the British Grand Prix, this will be an Indian Grand Prix!
Has Karthikeyan and Karun's excelling in motor racing been a reason for Ecclestone's interest in India? Do you feel their presence will make Indians more interested in the race?
These two boys have done India proud! Narain is the only Indian to have test driven a Formula One car. Yes, they perhaps are also key factors in Mr. Ecclestone looking at India.
Mr. Ecclestone was in Spain when Fernando Alonso, the new kid on the block, finished second, behind Michael Schumacher, and he saw the whole country going crazy! There is no replacement for patriotism. So it is very important for us not only to have Formula One in India but also an Indian there in the race. Only that way can we generate interest. I feel even if we have a stadium of a lakh-and-a-half, it will be packed! Cricket matches happen everyday but this happens only once a year.
If there are no bureaucratic hassles and everything falls into place, how long will it take for Formula One cars to race in India?
When Karun met Ecclestone last week, what was his advice to the lad?
He said, 'Karun, keep driving in the lower formulas till I feel or you feel you are ready. There is no point in coming to Formula One and disappear after a while'.
Ecclestone made a public statement that Karun is India's rising star and he was happy with Karun's progress in the British Formula 3 championships. He has shown more than simple interest in Karun. Bernie may be 74 and Karun 19, but they both get along well!
- Photograph of Vicky Chandhok by Sreeram Selvaraj