This past Sunday, 20 November, marked the retirement of Sebastian Vettel as a Formula 1 driver. The four-time world champion signed off in style, steering his not very competitive Aston Martin into a points position at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi.
His enduring popularity with both other drivers and the Formula 1 media meant that several tributes were made to him on social media and elsewhere. And many of them had Vettel spinning his car around in a tyre burnout after winning his fourth Drivers’ World Championship on the start-finish line of a circuit.
That circuit was the Buddh International Circuit at Greater Noida where Vettel won all three of the races ever held. The tyre burnout occurred in 2013 – the last time a competitive international race was held at this Rs 1200-crore circuit, which was meant to be the centerpiece of Jaypee Sports City on the Yamuna Expressway.
Weirdly enough, earlier that Sunday well before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, I was driving an Audi RS5, whose twin-turbocharged V6 engine produces nearly as much as, makes no difference, almost 450 horsepower. The engine’s high-pitched whine reflecting off the roof of the circuit’s grandstand as the numbers on my digital display were positively obscene.
The state of inactiveness
But then again, the racetrack is a safe place to push such performance cars. A stray dog had made its way onto the track on the very first day Formula 1 cars raced on this circuit in 2011. I was there that day.
However, as the Audi RS5 I was driving made its way around the circuit, it was bizarre to see that place empty. Of course, no one expects fans to come in to watch a gaggle of automotive journalists drive around fast German cars. But the seats across the circuit looked bleached since they haven’t been in use for years. While the overall state of the circuit, particularly its road surface and safety, is undeniably good, many of the other facilities have fallen into a state of disrepair. The team buildings, which were put together in a hurry before the first race and where the likes of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, and Sebastian Vettel once roamed, now barely function.
While the likes of Audi and other carmakers rent out the circuit often as do some enthusiasts and automotive media, the masterplan of the circuit serving as the centerpiece of a massive ‘sports city’ remains unfulfilled.
It is only recently that some construction work has restarted. However, with the main developer of the Yamuna Expressway area, where the Buddh International Circuit was meant to be a showpiece – Jaypee Infratech – undergoing insolvency proceedings, the future looks bleak, even though the circuit itself is uneffected.
Or does it? In 2023, plans have emerged for the top motorcycle racing series MotoGP, to come to India and race. At the same time, with the upcoming Jewar Airport not so far from the racetrack, Greater Noida has seen a surge in construction activity. Although apartment blocks that once boasted a view of the racetrack are not sold like that anymore. After all, selling apartments to watch guys like me try to wrestle cars around the circuit may not make sense.
Can Formula 1 make a comeback?
Since October 2013, when the last race was held at the Buddh circuit, many things have changed. India’s political landscape, for one, has led to more support for motorsport. M.S. Gill, the sports minister at the time of the first Grand Prix, had stated that motorsports wasn’t ‘sports’. Although, as someone who has driven around the circuit hundreds of times, I can confidently state that he could not be more wrong, as the sheer physical effort that it takes to drive around the track is immense.
More importantly, the incoming central and state governments have been more supportive of motorsports, with the Uttar Pradesh government promising support for the MotoGP race. That said, the Formula 1 calendar is full, with the 2023 season scheduled for 24 races, although it is not certain if the Chinese Grand Prix will be held.
Many countries like Saudi Arabia see Formula 1 as a sport to showcase their nations. Indeed, Saudi Aramco is one of the top sponsors in F1, and a new F1 race takes place in Jeddah every year with that nation trying to herald a new era of ‘openness’. With the Formula 1 rights holders, Liberty Media, making large sums of money from these new races, any promoter in India will have to pay top dollar. It was believed that Jaypee Associates paid $200 million in license fees over the three years of the Indian Grand Prix. And with license holders only making money from ticket and merchandise sales, the Indian Grand Prix lost money.
Will the MotoGP races make money? That remains to be seen as well. One major reason these races might not make money is because there is no culture of racing in India. While the Netflix docuseries Drive To Survive has driven new fans into watching the sport, there are only two other certified racetracks in India, the Kari Motor Speedway in Coimbatore and Madras Motor Race Track in Sriperumbudur.
With Hyderabad talking of a street circuit soon that could likely host a Formula E (electric car) race as well as new circuits being planned near Pune and in Bengaluru, maybe this time round a grassroots movement for motorsports can be built up.
Motorsports is still an expensive passion, particularly in India, where there are no places to really learn the nuances. Even young racers like Formula 2 ace Jehan Daruvala are forced to go to Europe at a young age for exposure as did the Maini brothers Arjun and Kush, the latter just making his break in Formula 2. So, the BIC remains a white elephant, at a similar scale to the empty Ciudad Real International Airport in Spain that only opens for the occasions when automotive journalists like me roll up to drive some cars very fast.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)