A New Dawn - India prepares to welcome Formula One 24 Aug 2010
India loves sport and 2011 is set to be a big year for sport in the Asian country thanks to the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. Mark Hughes, vice president of JPSK Sports, the Jaypee Group subsidiary charged with constructing the all-new circuit near Delhi, is determined the race will make a major impression on the calendar. With young fans aplenty, a growing Formula One interest courtesy of Karun Chandhok and Force India, a state-of-the-art track in the making, and a passionate promoter, he shouldnt be disappointed
Q: How important is an Indian Grand Prix for the country?
Mark Hughes: People are very excited about Formula One and we are very lucky to have the Force India Formula One team, which has really boosted the sport. Before we had Narain Karthikeyan, who was very popular, and now we have Karun Chandhok as a driver. We have seen the interest in Formula One growing enormously, but as yet we did not have a world-class race in India. So we are building this wonderful circuit, with a great deal of interest not only from spectators but also from big Indian corporations who want to know how to get involved in the sport. And this is why Formula One is coming to India - as it is a huge market. We see a huge amount of interest from the young population, and you must not forget that India has the fastest growing middle class in the world. Also the average age in India is much lower than anywhere else. The technical side of India is growing very fast, and we get interest from people who want to work at the circuit because they are excited by the technology and the innovation. Even Indias largest infrastructure companies are very interested in working at the circuit.
Q: What can we expect from the circuit and what will make it stand out from all the other new tracks that have joined the calendar recently?
MH: One thing that we will see is a lot of Indian enthusiasm. If you go to any major sports event in India, like cricket or the Commonwealth Games, you see a lot of people and a lot of patriotism. Everyone is wearing Indian-branded clothing, waving Indian flags and has the Indian national colours painted on their face. Theres also the noise and the atmosphere. There are very few countries in the world that are as passionate as India when it comes to sport. So I think when Karun comes to drive in India the level of passion is going to lift him enormously - he is going to have 150,000 spectators rooting for him.
Q: Are there any tracks you will draw inspiration from?
MH: We have worked very closely with Hermann Tilke who came up with the initial design. And we have shared the design with some of the Formula One teams to put it into their simulators, and they have come back with some recommendations on how to modify it to make it a little more exciting. We have come up with a formula to build it. The track itself is not flat, even though the land is very flat. We have moved 4 million cubic tons of earth to give it a lot of undulation. Between Turn One and Turn Three the track goes up by 14 metres and it goes into a blind crest. So we looked at what makes a circuit exciting. Turn 10 is going to be very similar to Turn Eight in Turkey, a very long turn. Its not quite that long, but it is a double-apex corner, slightly banked, and it has 13,000 seats around it like in an arena. I think the drivers are going to find it a good challenge. So the track is quite unique, and hopefully the drivers and teams will not complain as they have given their own input. It was a good opportunity, as we were in the early stages of construction, so we were able to do that. Tilke has quite a good relationship with the teams, but I dont think that as a promoter and venue owner this has been done before. Sometimes the promoter is not involved until more construction has been undertaken. I have been lucky to have worked in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi before, so I have a good relationship with the teams myself. I was able to go to some of them and ask them if they are able to give their input and the feedback has been invaluable.
Q: How important is it to the race to have an Indian team and an Indian driver?
MH: I dont think it was instrumental in the Jaypee Group deciding to run a Grand Prix, but its certainly instrumental for the future plans, in terms of selling tickets, marketing the event, getting the enthusiasm of the public behind the sport. India is such an incredible country that they want to have these big international events. Also the Commonwealth Games, which will take place in October this year, is going to be a fantastic event. Formula One next year will become Indias largest sporting event.
Q: What level of interest do you anticipate? Will the first Indian Grand Prix be a sell-out?
MH: We certainly hope so. Weve already had a lot of enquiries from individuals wanting to know when they can buy tickets, and people wanting to know what the ticket prices will be like. We will be sensible about the pricing, as we do not want to make it too expensive. We have several general admission areas, so there will be an entry-level ticket which will be more affordable, going up to the main grandstand and hospitality levels. We aim to have a minimum crowd of 120,000, which will generate an incredible atmosphere.
Q: Can you say something about the tracks construction schedule? What will happen when? We hear that the tarmac will be laid in late autumn...
MH: In the beginning the construction involved a lot of earth works, as the land is very flat, so we had to move a lot of earth to build the areas. Its not just a case of moving enough earth to have a 12-metre wide track. We need to have the run-off areas, the service roads, the areas for the grandstands, which all in all has been a huge job. In July and August we have the monsoon season in India, so we finished the earth works before that and we will see what happens to this after the monsoon and schedule the asphalt after that. We have now appointed 95 percent of the contractors, including the one for the asphalt. We will probably be ready by the end of July next year for the FIA to do the homologation. The plan is to have a race at the end of next season, but we will see where it actually fits in the calendar.
Q: You were involved in both Bahrains and Abu Dhabis recent Formula One projects. What are the similarities and differences between those projects and this one?
MH: The similarity is that they are all countries who have not had Formula One before. One benefit in India is that there are two club circuits and there has been some club racing. Volkswagen has recently launched a Polo Cup there, so we do have some motorsport. In Bahrain it was the first track in the Middle East. From my point of view I am working very closely together with the (motorsport) Federation in India to help train officials and they have been very supportive. One of the big differences is the population - its such a big country. We have a lot of volunteers in the Middle East. It took time to build up the marshals and the officials. We have already got that level of interest in India, and that is a real bonus for us. As it is the first race in India we have to go through an education process for the spectators and the ticket buyers. Also we need to explain how a race weekend works. They may have seen qualifying and the race on TV, but they have not yet appreciated its a three-day live event with support races. They dont know that they can come and buy merchandise and memorabilia. Its not like going to an IPL cricket match that last for two hours - it is a three-day festival. A lot of people in India havent seen a Formula One car. We have been lucky that Renault have run a Formula One car in Delhi before. Last year Red Bull ran a car in Mumbai. Both generated a lot of interest, and obviously people follow Force India and Karun, but until you hear a Formula One car for the first time, you dont really appreciate what its like.