Oct 29, 2011

For those whining about the F1 Indian GP

It seems to be the season of idiotic statements. There's been a steady stream from the likes of Digvijay Singh and Kiran Bedi, but as someone who only writes occasionally, I can't even try to keep up with them. I did offer my two bits about NRN's statements about IIT-ians, and am now writing again about something that I care a lot about, and which hopefully will NOT become an endless debate.

PT Usha made some stupid statements about F1 which received a lot of attention from the media, probably because they were consistent with the sentiment or ignorant perception held by a lot of people. In a poll run by Times of India yesterday, 61% idiotic/ignorant/communist people 'agreed with PT Usha that hosting F1 in India is a waste of money'.

The first counter-point I'd like to make is that no tax-payers' money is being spent here. In fact, the govt is earning a lot as they've not recognized this as a sporting event and offered no tax relief whatsoever. People have a right to approve/disapprove, and judge whether money is wisely spent or wasted, when tax-payers' money is involved as it was with the CWG, but F1 is private enterprise (and generally profitable). Why should private investors be denied a business opportunity if they consider it worthwhile? I haven't heard anyone complain about SRK spending Rs 175 Cr making Ra.One. So why the double standards?

The next argument is that we're an under-developed country and we don't need high-profile/hi-tech events like this. This reflects sheer ignorance of economics and the capitalist system. High-profile events like this generally involve construction of infrastructure, investment of capital, creation of jobs, a significant boost to tourism, and generally enhance the 'image' of the hosts if executed well. That is why other developing countries like China and South Africa want to host events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. And in this case, the ordinary citizen is getting the benefits - whatever little they may be - at zero cost!

Another argument being offered is that F1 lacks mass appeal. So? Do people watch every game of hockey played by our national team? PT Usha says 99% Indians don't care about F1. I am sure there are more F1 fans in India than there are fans of athletics or archery or pretty much any sport other than cricket, tennis or football. Does that mean we should shut down all the other sports federations and cancel all other events?

The point is - any sporting event, or movie or TV channel or author or any product for that matter - does not need to be relevant or interesting for everyone. It just has to have enough 'consumers' to justify its existence and hopefully turn in a profit, without breaking any laws. F1 does that, and does it better than most other sports.

Another version of this argument is that F1 is an 'elitist' sport or a rich people's sport. Closer to the truth is that it is an intelligent, educated & patient people's sport. To really appreciate it, you need to understand the nuances and complexities of things such as pit-stop strategy, tire performance and 'balance' optimization for 1-flying-lap versus race-pace, and you need a lot of patience. If you 'get' it, it's very rewarding. It is not for everyone, but then you don't shut down your IITs or IIMs because 99% people can't get into them.

As for the 'rich people's sport' argument - yes, that's true if you want to own a team and host parties on your own yachts like Vijay Mallya. Otherwise, you just need to be able to afford a subscription to the 'Star Sports' TV channel. FYI - Vijay Mallya spent as much or more money buying RCB than he did on buying Force India. Also, monthly subscriptions to most cricket channels cost more than Star Sports. Yet I don't hear anyone calling cricket a rich man's sport.

PT Usha also cribbed about how corporates don't spend much on other sports. Why would they, unless there was something in it for them? Corporates don't spend on sports out of the goodness of their hearts - nor should they or will they. They do it because they expect returns on their investments (ROI). They can actually expect a positive ROI on their spends in F1 - in terms of brand image and prestige, if not actual profits. In most other sports in India, the money would sink without a trace. In fact, much of it would probably end up in the pockets of some corrupt officials.

Some people - including PT Usha - don't consider F1 a sport at all. They obviously don't understand either what sport is, or what F1 is, or both. You can look at any definition of sport - the common elements in narrow definitions are physical activity, fitness, competition and entertainment - and F1 meets all of these criteria. (In wider definitions, some aspects such as physical activity can be left out to include things such as board games, but you don't even need that for motorsport)

I think such statements typically come from people who think F1 is just like driving your car and not a physical activity requiring fitness. In actual fact, F1 - any motorsport for that matter- requires the drivers to be extremely fit, have great stamina, really quick reflexes and a great degree of skill & concentration. Physically & mentally, an F1 race is more demanding than almost any other form of sportRead this for details.

Finally, it is all about entertainment. If someone can run a hundred meters or a mile faster than anyone else - it has no practical value to anyone. Professional sports exist because of the patrons - the ordinary people who enjoy watching sportsmen achieve records and win contests - are willing to pay for the experience. F1 delivers that. People like Usha should sportingly acknowledge that and try to improve their offerings rather than whining about corporate funds going to T20 and F1. And if they don't get it at all, they should just shut up, or be ignored if they don't.