• The Inside Line

The Indian blame game

Kate Walker March 10, 2014
F1 does not enjoy the same following or popularity as many other countries on the F1 calendar © Sutton Images
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As was generally presumed to be the case the second the Indian Grand Prix dropped off the provisional 2014 calendar, the one-year hiatus now looks like becoming indefinite. Bernie Ecclestone said as much last week, when the F1 boss pointed to the on-going difficulties with the Indian tax authorities as a key cause of the race's disappearance.

With no alternation plans for the Greater Noida event, F1 insiders know that a rest is as good as a termination: with other countries (still!) queuing up to pay our oh-so-reasonable hosting fees there is no reason for a financially beleaguered event to return to the calendar after a break, no matter how brief.

Which is why the blame game has started. Ecclestone points to India's central government, and the bizarre decision to class Formula One as a form of entertainment, and not a sport. (Could the Indian authorities possibly have had foreknowledge of the entertainment-centric plan to introduce double points at the season finale?)

Narain Karthikeyan, the man who made history as India's first F1 driver, also blames the Indian government, although as far as the ex-HRT man is concerned, taxation was only part of the problem. Speaking to reporters at a promotional event over the weekend, Karthikeyan also blamed the local authorities for poor promotion.

"F1 is an elitist sport," he said. "But it has a huge fan following in India, especially in states like Kerala. But the fans need to be educated more about this sport so that they can enjoy it in the right spirit. But sadly I have not seen any effort from the authorities to popularize it."

With the greatest of respect, Karthikeyan is wrong. While the tax issues are certainly the responsibility of the local government, when it comes to promoting races in countries where Formula One does not have a dedicated grassroots following, it is the sport that has failed to adequately promote itself.

India is but one example - we can also add Korea, China, and Turkey to the recent list of 'could do betters'. Instead, we tend to confine promotional activity to a short period surrounding the race, while ignoring the benefits of a sustained campaign.

It is not enough to arrive with a flourish, dominate headlines for five days, and then disappear. Instead, teams should be working with local media outlets to drip feed F1 stories over a period of months, building a knowledge base while stimulating interest. Promotional events should then reach a crescendo in the lead-up to a grand prix, adding to the excitement of a race coming to town.

Red Bull do a decent job with their show car team, demonstrating the capabilities of a Formula One car in unusual environments, but it is not enough. They are but one team of a list of eleven, and the bulk of their rivals confine promotional activities to meet and greets and local landmarks in the days immediately preceding a race.

Speaking last year about the loss of the Indian Grand Prix, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn nailed it when it came to Formula One and opportunities lost.

"I think it is very difficult once when you leave a country to come back to it - especially where we have not really managed to establish the sport," she said. "We have not been able to market ourselves properly in [India]. We have not been able to convince that many Indian companies. You can count the Indian companies that are in F1 on one hand. We've somewhere collectively failed to do more."

To fail in one of the world's largest emerging markets is a particularly black spot in F1's track record of sustained promotion. We like to think that our host countries need us more than we need them. We are wrong. And until Formula One stops playing a collective game of ostrich, burying our heads in self-important sand, the mistakes made in India (in Turkey, in South Korea…) will be repeated in Sochi, Baku, and wherever else we decide to build the white elephants of the future.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.
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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.