Satrajit Sen

F1 hits a speed breaker

The Formula 1 championship, that is going to be held for the third time in India in October, has been losing its popularity in terms of tickets sold and online buzz. afaqs! finds out why.

It is not a story where the subject comes, sees and conquers. It came for sure, it was seen too, but could not conquer the nation. We are speaking about the Formula 1 championship that is going to be held for the third time in India.

F1 hits a speed breaker
F1 hits a speed breaker
F1 hits a speed breaker
Formula One, also known as Formula 1 or F1 and referred to officially as the FIA Formula One World Championship, is the highest class of single-seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.

In India, the competition is known as Indian Grand Prix or Airtel Indian Grand Prix. The Formula 1 race is currently being held at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida near New Delhi.

The first event took place on 30 October 2011, as the 17th race of the 2011 Formula One season. The inaugural race was won by Germany's Sebastian Vettel, who thus far is the only driver ever to win the Indian Grand Prix, having won it in 2012 as well.

Jaypee Sports International Limited is the organiser of Formula 1 race in India and has signed a five-year contract with Formula One Management (FOM) to host the championship in India.

The upcoming edition is scheduled to take place on October 27. In August 2013, FIA announced that the Indian Grand Prix will be discontinued in 2014 before returning to an early season slot in 2015.

Tracking it

It has not been a smooth ride for the competition so far in India. Ticket sales in the inaugural Indian Grand Prix saw exceptional sales numbers of 97,000 until the run-up to the race weekend. However, last year, with novelty having died down, sales dropped to only 65,000.

This year, as per an interview with IBNLive, race organisers Jaypee Group have admitted of selling only 20,000 tickets till the beginning of the current week. Various other news reports claim that with just days left for the Indian Grand Prix, officials have so far recorded around 40,000 tickets sold.

In 2011, the tickets were priced between Rs 2,500 to Rs 35,000. However, this year, the prices have been slashed to Rs 1,500 to Rs 21,000. The seats closer to start-finish line come at Rs 21,000.

The Buddh International Circuit was officially inaugurated in October 2011 and comes with a seating capacity of 100,000. The Jaypee Group had reportedly spent around Rs 18,500 crore ($4 billion) to build the facility.

Experts believe that there has been a dip in the interest level of the format among Indians, especially in the third season. According to a senior sports journalist who has covered both the F1 seasons in India, there are a lot of reasons behind this.

"The major reason for the lower excitement for this year's race is the absence of an Indian driver. In 2011, Narain Karthikeyan was a major influence in bringing in the crowd. This year there is none. Besides, due to the current economic environment, a lot of corporates have cut their ad spends and that has led to less promotions of the event by the promoters as well as the sponsors. Earlier, lead sponsor Airtel used to have full page newspaper ads, TV spots as well as specific products to promote the event, but this year, surprisingly there has been none," states the journalist who didn't want to be named.

Many of the promotional events associated with the race have been scrapped. There's been a sharp drop in the number of TV commercials, advertisements and hoardings as well. Besides, the social media chatter about the race is also subdued.

To add to that, the track is located 40 kilometres away from Delhi and it is not a smooth ride to reach there. Although 95,000 people attended the event in 2011, when the excitement dies, the distance also becomes a major reason for low attendance.

However, many believe that the popularity of the race, at least as indicated in TV viewership of F1 per se, is increasing amongst the urban class. This explains why companies are more interested in sponsoring the live telecast of the event. In India as well, ESPN has signed on several on-air sponsors for the entire season; Petronas and Rolex are presenting sponsors for the live telecast, while Samsung, Micromax, Pernod Ricard and Vodafone are associate sponsors.

Web of woes

To be optimistic, F1 aficionados could snap up the remaining seats in the next few days, especially for race day which is a Sunday. But optimism knows no bounds and this looks highly impossible as the interest amongst fans, especially the youth, is also witnessed to be diminishing.

Going by Google Trends, which displays search interest online for various terms (or people or places), the maximum interest in 'F1 India' was in October 2011. While Google does not reveal the exact numbers, it does provide a relative score. According to it, if the peak of interest stood at 100 in the first year, by 2012, it had dropped to merely 18. In 2013, the figure is heading lower still.

Similar trends can be noticed for related search keywords like 'f1 in india', 'f1 race', 'india f1 race', f1 force india', 'force india' f1 tickets' and 'india f1 tickets'.

Google Trends is a public web facility of Google that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages.

Even while writing this article, the top 30 searches on Google Trends didn't show up any of the search keywords listed above. That's partly because everybody knows who's going to win - Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, barring a mishap. He's the championship leader, having won nine of the 15 Grand Prix so far this year, the last five on the trot.

Pradhan Muthanna, product head, F1, Pitch Invasion New Media, the company which has recently launched a portal on F1 information (
), thinks that it is like the Michael Schumacher era.

"When Schumi started winning consecutive titles, there was a dip in interest level among the viewers as they already kind of anticipated who would be winning the title. The same is happening now as Vettel is already the assumed title winner. Hence there is less competition this time and therefore there is less news about other participants and less stuff to search and share on the internet," reasons Muthanna.

Moreover, there is not much being written on the media about this year's players and thus the engagement on internet is quite low. Even the players' auction and changing teams didn't attract much attention as everyone was bothered about Vettel and Red Bull.

Besides, controversies such as the Uttar Pradesh government seeking Supreme Court's permission to withdraw its 2011 decision to grant entertainment tax exemption to Indian Grand Prix organiser Jaypee Sports International and the uncertainty regarding the 2014 season are also reasons that have contributed to the dip in interest.

Bernie Ecclestone, president and CEO of Formula One Management has confirmed the Indian Grand Prix will be dropped from the 2014 calendar. Ecclestone wants to move it to the first half of the year and the prospect of running one in October 2014 and another in early 2015 would have stretched the circuit's resources too far.

Muthanna is however confident that with the engines and rules changing for next year in F1 and also new driver line-ups will bring interest back as people might see a change in the pecking order and will bring more interest from the F1 enthusiasts. "I am sure if we see a new Champion next year and the India race is back in 2015, there will be more interest shown from the fans," he states.

That might also renew the interest in the game and if there is no event in 2014, there is a fair chance that the marketing moneys from the corporates will be pumped in to media like TV and internet, which have the potential to telecast and stream the event live.