Ever witnessed an Indian wedding? Preparation moves at snail's pace until the ceremony is round the corner. Pre-functions don't attract a lot of attention, unless you are an immediate family member. Then, on D-day, the whole world descends to make it a memorable, grand affair.
An immediate parallel can almost be drawn to the Indian Grand Prix or what has become a ritual for the last three years at the Buddh International Circuit, on the outskirts of New Delhi. On Thursday and Friday of this race weekend, only organisers and media make up the numbers. Maybe a hundred fans will be present too. On Saturday, qualifying attracts a couple thousand, motorsport aficionados who understand its importance. This particular Sunday saw 60,000 people swarm to the circuit and watch history being made.
Sebastian Vettel drove like the Champion he is, and then celebrated like the 26-year-old he is. In front of a packed grand-stand, he let loose his emotions, something F1 is bereft of nowadays. "There is always a routine to follow as soon as the race finishes and I was given the same instructions. But, no, not today," he said, afterwards. "Today I felt like celebrating, doing something different. It seemed the obvious thing to do in front of a great crowd."
For the record, boos weren't emanating from the 21,000-strong present in the grand-stand who joined in his effusive celebrations. There were chants of 'Vettel, Vettel' instead. And for good reason, because they will not be returning next year - neither the Champion nor the fans. Whether they meet again in 2015, well, that's a different topic altogether.
In these three seasons, the Indian GP has had its share of troubles. The government here - central or state - doesn't recognize this sport. F1 is considered to be an entertaining spectacle, nothing more. It was for this reason that earlier attempts to bring the race to India (on the outskirts of Hyderabad, then Bangalore, and later Mumbai was considered a possible venue as well) were foiled. If at all the government was to support it, a street-circuit made more sense, because India without a motorsport heritage would ultimately struggle to justify its huge costs.
In that light, the efforts of Jaypee Sports International (JPSI) need to be highlighted. Forty million dollars to host an annual race is not a small amount, even for a privately-funded organisation with varied interests. Not to mention, the gate-collections despite good attendance do not reduce the burden, for tickets on offer are the cheapest on calendar. But they took advantage of the new model that F1 works on now, and got things done.
They have overcome many obstacles. Getting the land was a problem, and the deals were messed up from the beginning, with the state government mishandling villagers who felt cheated out. The delay in getting the infrastructure done was followed by a hashed-up job in the first year. Even so, lessons were learnt. Organising the race got more efficient going forward from the second season and the BIC is a world-class facility doing the Indian 'sporting' fraternity proud. There's no doubt about it.
There are very few circuits on the F1 calendar that can boast of a 95,000-attendance in their inaugural race. True, it came down to 65,000 in 2012 and then a little dip again this season, still that is a good number to achieve third-year-running. With a 100,000-capacity, it will seem half-empty or half-full, depends how you look at it. But to add some perspective, there aren't many cricket stadiums in this country that can seat 60,000 fans and better still, attendances these days aren't as high either, irrespective of the format. This, when cricket is almost a religion in India!
The issue, however, is not how many tickets have been sold or went unsold. It isn't really a wonder filling-up seats in a country of a billion people. Taxation and political red-tape isn't a problem either, as team principals of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull confirmed in the Friday press conference. The real question is whether in three years, Formula One has penetrated the social mind-set enough.
The real surprise is, there was no Indian driver to cheer on the grid for the last two years, and the only 'Indian' team out there has only battled hard for scoring points, three years running. Yet, as a spectacle, it has drawn enough interest for a weekend. Hence, not returning in 2014 isn't a problem. If F1 does return to India in 2015, the crowds will come again. But it has to be more than just a visit for five fleeting days.
To the common man who doesn't adhere to the entertainment point-of-view, this is a sport alright, but one that is elitist. What F1 needs to do is get close to the people of India and they can do start by losing that status, if only for one weekend out of twenty.
One of the ways to get into the local psyche is through the Indian corporate sector and their vast resources. Surely cricket tried this approach and it worked wonders. F1 cannot wait for the local business conglomerates to come to them, as it works in other parts of the world. Here invites need to be sent out. For example, the price tags to advertise on cars need to come down. Associations need to be forged, not for a single weekend but for the entire season, and then shouted about from rooftops. It is a billion-dollar market and it needs to be told, 'Hey, we are Formula One, and we want to tap into your mind.'
The signs are good. Flying rumours around the Indian paddock have indicated that Bernie Ecclestone might give some leeway in terms of hosting fee, which comes wholesomely out of the promoter's pockets. Any revenue share lost can always be accounted for in terms of branding dished out, which is indeed the business model that F1 needs to be successful in this country. Maybe, just maybe, that will open up space on what is likely to be a busy 2015 calendar.
And if it doesn't, sadly enough, the lasting memories of the Indian Grand Prix will be of Sebastian Vettel genuflecting before his car. Not too bad, that!