F1 Is Not Butter Chicken

Clueless correspondents, rechristened pit girls, cuisine preferences. The F1 –viewed through cricket-tinted glasses.

F1 Is Not Butter Chicken
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More than 50 per cent of tickets unsold, prices slashed by 40 per cent and sliding, and few takers for the Paddock Clubs. What is happening to the Indian Grand Prix?

Last year it was all-new and there was an Indian angle to everything.  Everybody who was somebody wanted to be there.  We thought it was a party with Lady Gaga, fashion models and famous people who ate and drank like there was no tomorrow.  Reporters ran berserk attending events and finding out who was in and who was out (of a party) and waited with bated breath to catch celebrities with questions about what they were wearing. The pilots were asked how it felt to be in India. The other critical question was whether Sachin Tendulkar would flag in the winner, a story that broke throughout the weekend.

A befuddled Mark Weber (Redbull) was asked if he liked Indian food especially butter chicken, was he looking forward to the master-blaster’s hundredth-hundred and did he have any message for Sachin.  We were all on first name terms with total strangers expecting the same from them.  It was cute.

From the media we learnt that the UK-bred Lewis Hamilton who leaves Mclaren for Mercedes in 2013 loves curry, chutney, Indian noise and colour.   The pit-babes (the horrific term for women carrying placards) were re-christened grid girls keeping in mind Indian culture.  They wore short skirts and large shoes, our way of telling the world if we can perform Odissi during a cricket match, the rest was only a question of some adjustment.

As the race comes to India this weekend (October 26-28), butter chicken and cricket are back. Any F1 fan would have noticed that barring a few exceptions, most of the correspondents have not done their homework about a sport that requires man and machine to be so synchronised that they appear one at 350kms per hour. Nor have we seen much of the joys and tears of chasing that one hundredth of a second that separates winners from losers.  India’s Narain Karthikeyan who is a star in the country but not in the world of F1 is trying to drum up support for fans and the Force India – despite doing well – is probably driving people away from the race venue.“The fact that there’s no Indian in that team makes it boring for us as we see everything with cricketing eyes”, said a sport management executive. This time around, we have roped in Gautam Gambhir to play cricket with some pilots and some sections of the media are reporting that F1 is an elitist sport, hence finds few takers.

F1 is not cricket. Neither is it a party. Sports hospitality is not glorified catering and when you buy one ticket for the Paddock Club it does not mean three adults and two juniors must be adjusted in. Our favourite line – do you know who I am – does not work in the world of F1 because nobody cares.  Most F1 pilots are discreet and are not amused by our cricketification of the sport and fawning reporters asking silly questions about how it feels to be in India – again.

The world of F1 is about rigour, discipline, sacrifice, talent and fierce competition where only the best survive. If it all looks effortless, it’s because the pilots have been training for years to be one with their car and finally dominate it.  No two races are similar and tension peaks at 2pm on Sunday as the grid – and millions of viewers around the world – watch lights turn green.  Race principals’ worst fear is that their car doesn’t start or some pilot starts too soon and destroys other cars as happened in Belgium this year. Formula 1 has the largest viewership after football’s FIFA world cup.

The car is one of the world’s fastest computers which runs circles around physics, engineering and state of the art technology where it takes a few seconds to go from full throttle to full stop.  Heading the marketing and communications work for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – the first Indian company to enter the world of F1 at the very top – till recently, I had the privilege of working with what was called the dream team in Maranello, Ferrari’s hometown in northern Italy.  It was not uncommon to see Jean Todt (currently head of the Fédération internationale de l’automobile FIA), Michael Schumacher and pit-stop strategist super-star Ross Brawn working well past midnight to understand that ultimate obstacle, that turn or chicane where their machine burped.  Such is the genius of Schumacher that he just has to listen to the sound of the engine to say something is wrong or right.  A Ferrari executive once described this synchronisation to me as a cross between Beethoven, Vivaldi and Keith Jarrett.

Contrary to popular belief, F1 cars have become increasingly safe over time and as laboratories they generate new knowledge every time rubber hits the road. In fact, technologies that are used in normal cars have often been tested on these machines.  In addition, boardrooms have tried to understand the precision and discipline of the pit-stop where some 15-odd people do seemingly unconnected jobs in less than 7 seconds to see if there are lessons for teamwork.  An Italian hospital experimented with this model and found that infections in their emergency wards fell by almost 30 per cent.

Maranello is so small, you’ll miss it if you blink, but you can hear the roar of the engines as cars test on the Fiorano track attached to the factory. It is an agricultural region and historically developed farm equipment. It is from here that Enzo Ferrari created magic and dreams out of iron, steel and rubber, a global brand as powerful as Coca Cola, without any advertising.  “The best Ferrari is the next one”, he is famously quoted as having said.  Without Ferrari, there is no F1, a fact that all racing teams hate to remember.  Even when the car is losing they remain in sharp camera-focus. Check it out this weekend.

While owning an F1 team is an expensive proposition, it is viewed as elitist only because it concerns a car and not a football. Pilots come from all backgrounds including very modest ones and their first track is to go-karting in their pre-teens. They make their way up only if they are good, by which time sponsors have signed them on typically when they are 18.  A lot of money rides on the brands and the pilots so the space for politics and nepotism is small if non-existent.

The F1 is also a job creator. Building tracks, hotels and related facilities spurns other opportunities for business and technology transfer and the development of ancillary industries. The Indian track is an excellent one and has been compared to the one in Belgium.  Like Monza in Italy, it also has one of the longest flat-outs where cars can be pushed to the hilt.

If we stopped turning everything into cricket other sports would flourish.  If we stopped our sports stars from walking the ramp and allied activity, we might do even better. The failure of our Formula One community to start building a support base in India – like Manchester United is doing, for example – is probably one reason for silent cash registers.  FIA rules are strict, not stifling. Other than Airtel which has done a splendid job of using the F1 marketing platform, Indian companies appear stuck in the cricket-mode and it may take time to understand the F1 as an engineering marketing machine for anything from industrial glue to paint.

Last heard the canteen in Maranello was serving Indian food. Not sure about butter chicken, though.

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