A few years ago, I used to complain that our media did not give enough importance to Formula One. Whenever I missed a much-awaited Grand Prix because of an erratic cable operator, I tried to catch some of the action on the sports bulletins of the news channels. Except Headlines Today, nobody really seemed to care; footage would arrive late, and when it did, nothing of consequence would be shown. The statistics would be read out by somebody horrifyingly ignorant of F1. Things are changing now. But not necessarily for the better.
When Narain Karthikeyan earned himself a drive in 2005 with the now-defunct Jordan team (which, incidentally, has evolved over the years to Force India), the Indian media suddenly woke up to the existence of F1. And, as usual, went over the top with expectations and predictions. The United States Grand Prix, one of the most farcical races in the history of the sport, gave Karthikeyan his first points and became a cause for mild celebration; apart from that, Karthikeyan had a pretty ordinary debut season, 'chose' not to keep his seat (for which his sponsors had paid an astronomical sum), and moved to Williams as a test driver in 2006. Not the most exciting career, perhaps, but in a country starved for motorsport heroes, he was, and continues to be, a role model. That doesn't really mean that he has to be interviewed 'exclusively' by each of the numerous news channels after every single race involving an Indian entity. These interviews normally involve no real information; they are just a bunch of random predictions, with no history or analysis.
Now that we have an 'Indian' team (with cars not very tastefully named VJM-01) on the grid, there will probably be a number of F1 pundits on TV. They don't have to know much about the sport. Just a smattering of drivers' names, perhaps; a little bit about the past careers of Giancarlo Fisichella, Adrian Sutil, and Vitantonio Liuzzi will do. Painted women in bright studios will mispronounce mostly European names with more gusto than ever. Impatient that we are, instant results will be expected from a team that is realistically competing with Honda and Super Aguri to avoid being at the bottom of the table.
Vijay Mallya is an ambitious man, but doesn't have any experience in F1. He likes flamboyance, but clever businessman that he is, he will hopefully not let it substitute substance. What he does have is a lot of money, an enormously important ingredient for success in the sport. I don't think he quite deserves the criticism he has been subjected to for not having selected an Indian driver for Force India this season. He has done right by opting for drivers who are in the thick of things. Fisichella's experience and Sutil's vigour should help consolidate the team's position. At a later stage, Sutil might be able to compete with drivers like Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica. Karthikeyan has been shuttling between A1 GP and F1 testing, and is neither as young nor as experienced as the drivers Mallya has chosen. Having a debutant like Karun Chandhok might have been a courageous move, but not very sensible, for a still struggling team. Chandhok, by his own admission, needs another season in GP2 before he is fully ready for F1.
The new F1 season will start in about a month, and promises to be exciting with new circuits and night races in the offing. And yes, of course, the Indian team. As long as we don't suddenly produce a number of glamorously dressed clones of Tamara Ecclestone, I'll be happy to watch the sport gain popularity in India. With even the most obscure testing results in the papers, I'm not complaining any longer.