By Chetan Narula
Far away from the crash of Kingfisher Airlines and the mess of unpaid salaries, Vijay Mallya is haunted by another question. It is to do with his favourite pet, Sahara Force India. Why, despite being an obviously Indian team, doesn’t he put an Indian driver on the Formula One grid?
The answer to this question isn’t really an easy one. There are two ways to look at it. One, Force India can employ an Indian driver or maybe two, with Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok driving for them. It then becomes a huge Indian party that moves from country to country along with the F1 circus. The end result though would be a massive disappointment wherein both these drivers fail to collect points and Force India miss out on a whole lot of cash which then short-changes their development cycle.
The other way is of course the way they are doing it now. Build a Formula One team that can compete consistently for the points, climb a few rungs up the ladder every season and get a sure footing on the F1 pedestal. It has worked for them. From no points in their first season (2008) to 13 in 2009, when they also won a first podium with Giancarlo Fisichella finishing second at Spa-Francorchamps (the Belgian GP). A year later, they finished with 68 points, five times better. In 2011, they achieved some consistency with 69 points and finishing sixth overall, while in 2012, they have 89 points with four races to go. Their drivers Nico Hulkenberg (German) and Paul di Resta (Scottish) have given them good momentum coming into the second Indian Grand Prix.
"See, both Narain and Karun are good drivers in their own right, and are extremely talented. But can they beat the drivers Force India have employed over the years, from Giancarlo Fisichella to Adrian Sutil to Nico and Paul? Can they get more points for the team than these drivers have done over each season gone by?" asked Robert Fernley, deputy team principal, Sahara Force India.
The answer to that question is no. As an extension, without those points coming in, there would be no money for Mallya to invest right back into his F1 team. And that money has paid dividends, if you look at their consistent points’ progression in these last five seasons. From back of the grid they are now fighting with the likes of Sauber and Williams every race, something unimaginable when this team was formerly known as Spyker or Midland.
"I think Vijay should get a lot of credit for what he has done for F1 in India", added Fernley. "Yes, we understand that the situation with his businesses is bad, but please also consider that he is the face of them all. There are many other investors also involved in those businesses who are perhaps also to blame for poor decisions. However, Force India has been a completely separate entity from the very beginning and has built a standing of its own, and in a way you wish that he should get a little more credit than he does."
In all honesty, this isn’t a defence for Vijay Mallya. But this is about his vision with respect to a sport that he has loved for a very long time. It is about indulging in personal hobbies and then deducing nationalism out of it. Last season, Force India launched the One-From-A-Billion contest to spot raw talent from among the many motorsport-enthusiastic kids across the country. Arjun Maini (14), Tarun Reddy (14) and Jehan Daruvala (13) were the three winners of the program and this year, have been busy participating in various junior karting competitions in Europe, a first step to proper racing.
"The idea is to provide a different environment to the young talent in this country, and trust me, there is ample talent here", continued Fernley, one of the mentors involved with the kids. "It is essential that they compete in Europe, real racing exists there as compared to what it is in Asia and this will help build their confidence and attitude towards racing. Of course, it is a patient but continuous process and will take a long time before any of these kids can become Formula One drivers. But we have started now and we will see this through till we have an Indian driver on the F1 grid."
The progress of Daruvala from that perspective has been quite steep. He clean swept the 7th round of British Super One Karting KF3 championship held at the Shennington Karting Circuit in September. Prior to the Indian GP weekend, at Macau, he won five karting races, beating the best of Australian and Asian young drivers. And this is only the beginning, for the winter sees him testing more in inclement weather and getting a feel for racing in the wet. After that a full season of karting next year and he should be good to progress to higher formulae.
"All this is dependent on him doing well and ticking all the boxes we have set out for him", said Fernley. "And if he falls short, we will have more youngsters coming in and climbing up the ladder. We want to build a complete academy of young Indian drivers aspiring to be in Formula One and perhaps one of them will someday become champion."
It should be noted that while the other F1 teams support different young drivers from across the world, this is a unique initiative of Sahara Force India from among all of them, one with nationalistic fervour. That should be a gleeful enough last word, one full of hope.
(Chetan Narula is the author of India’s first book on Formula One, titled History of Formula One: The Circus comes to India.)