India enters the world of Formula One this weekend under a cloud of sadness with health and safety high on the agenda following the loss of two lives in the world of motorsports.
India’s first grand prix comes after this month’s tragic, mid-race deaths of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, 33, and rising MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli, 24, left fellow racers in shock.
“R.I.P Marco A special talent that will be missed… Thinking of your loved ones, and all the motogp paddock,” tweeted Red Bull’s Mark Webber.
And Sunday’s race will be closely watched in the United States, where New Jersey announced it was joining the Formula One circuit in 2013 along with Austin, Texas, which will debut next year.
Formula One’s seventh and possibly most ambitious Asian stop is in Jaypee Greens Sports City, a 2,500-acre (1,000 hectares) development which will meld housing, business and entertainment venues with stadiums and golf courses.
The undulating, 5.14 kilometre (3.19 miles) Buddh International Circuit, named after Lord Buddha, is known to most drivers only through their hi-tech simulators but it is expected to be challenging with top speeds of around 330 kilometres per hour.
India’s Narain Karthikeyan will be given a rare drive by his team, HRT, for the occasion, although Lotus pulled the plug on plans to let Karun Chandhok stand in for either Heikki Kovalainen or Jarno Trulli.
“Driving in front of the home crowd cheering on is going to be a surreal experience. A once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel extremely fortunate,” Karthikeyan said.
“There is a huge buzz around the grand prix already and I’m sure that it’ll be a resounding success that will motivate more youngsters towards the sport and give us the future F1 drivers.”
With both the drivers’ and team titles wrapped up by Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull outfit, all eyes are on India’s hosting of the event as Formula One and its sponsors seek to tap the billion-strong, rapidly growing market.
The fundamental difference with the government-run Commonwealth Games is that the grand prix is a venture of India’s bullish corporate world in the shape of infrastructure conglomerate Jaypee.
“The Commonwealth Games forced us to bow our heads in shame,” Jaypee chairman Manoj Gaur admitted last week, when the new racetrack was unveiled.
“We took the Formula One project as a challenge. We decided that we will make the track so impressive that the shame of the Commonwealth Games will be forgotten and our pride will be restored in the world.”
However, eleventh-hour preparations continue at the 400-million-dollar circuit and organisers were forced to slash ticket prices this week in a bid to fill the 120,000-capacity venue.
The grand prix also suffered a legal hitch last week when the Supreme Court froze 25 percent of ticket revenues over a tax dispute, while local farmers have protested over the deal used to secure their land for the track.
But drivers are expecting a watershed weekend as India’s fervour for sports, heightened by a media and advertising blitz, meets brash Formula One in what organisers hope will be a marriage made in heaven.
“We did a demo run in Bangalore and were expecting 5,000 people to turn up,” said McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. “On the day, there were around 40,000 fans — it was just incredible.
“You can’t believe how many people are aware of Formula One and how many are looking forward to the race.”