India, the great land of contradictions, presents no greater contrast than this: the second most populous country in the world after China, with more than 1.2 billion people, is keen on sport but remains one of the most wretchedly under-performing sporting nations on earth. In the corridors of world power, India is bracketed with China, its growing economic might talked of with reverence and some fear. In the sporting world, the country barely registers.
Apart from cricket – and even here India abjectly surrendered its number one position in Test cricket to England this summer. Most Indians were not born when, back in the first half of the 20th century, India reigned supreme in world hockey. It was not until 2008 that India won its first-ever individual Olympic gold medal – and that was in shooting. It has never won any track and field or swimming Olympic medals.
It is against this background that Formula One makes its debut in India. On the face of it, this is another illustration of Bernie Ecclestone, the rights holder, taking the sport to virgin fields to exploit its political and economic appeal.
Despite there having been a Force India F1 team since 2007, when a consortium led by two Indian businessmen bought the British-based Spyker team, the sport has little meaning for the great majority of Indians, who can barely scratch a living. India also lags behind in developing karting, the nursery of the sport. But Formula One does have a following among the increasingly well-off Indian middle classes, estimated at some 400 million.
What’s more, India’s greatest sporting hero cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, is a petrolhead.
One of the generation of Indians who came to maturity after multichannel TV arrived in the 1980s, Tendulkar was taken by the sport and became a great fan of Michael Schumacher. Tendulkar, who in the eyes of millions of Indians can do no wrong, was even willing to risk his image as a price for enjoying his sport.
In August 2003, when the Ferrari 360 Modena that Schumacher had presented to him arrived in India, Tendulkar persuaded the government to waive the 120 per cent tax usually levied on imported cars. It led to the great man being publicly criticised for the first time in his career. However, the state of Indian roads and traffic have meant he can only drive his Ferrari in the small hours of the morning.
For those who have done well out of modern India like Tendulkar, the highest-paid cricketer in the world, the arrival of Formula One combines glamour, money and power. In that sense it has some similarities with the Indian Premier League, the 20 overs competition that has married money to Bollywood and proved that a domestic cricket tournament can be both attractive and successful.
But the IPL’s success has come on the back of India’s long-established dominance of world cricket. India are the moneybags of the game, providing 80 per cent of world cricket’s income. They are the current holders of the 50 overs World Cup and still a major power in Test cricket. The game reaches out to people in small towns and villages across the land.
Formula One may appeal to prosperous Indians, but has nothing to match, let alone threaten, cricket. And it will be many a year before we have an Indian Formula One champion who can be bracketed with Tendulkar.