The IPL of motorsport — that, in a nutshell, is what the X1 Racing League is all about, running a city-based franchise model where a mix of international, Indian and lady drivers will be auctioned to teams who will run two cars in a short T20-style, 45-minute race, featuring a driver change for added drama, on a mix of street and race circuits that will culminate in parties, rock shows and what not. Sounds too good to be true? In a country where race promoters struggle to fill up grids, where is the money for a big-bang series with all the affiliated razzmatazz?
It’s easy to be skeptical but Aditya Patel and Armaan Ebrahim are out to prove the naysayers wrong. Having struggled their whole lives to raise money to further their racing careers (and, to be fair, having not been very successful at that) the two young racers have shifted track to become race promoters, and for the first time ever in Indian motorsport they’ve got venture funding. At the Speed Summit at the BIC, X1’s first on-ground event that proves the League is no pie in the sky, a roll-call of big name investors were read out — Kunal Shah of FreeCharge, Jitendra Gupta of PayU and CitrusPay, Raghunandan G of Taxi4Sure, the Rattha Group, White Unicorn Ventures, AngelList and Lets Venture. Jay Pawar of Maharashtra’s politically powerful Pawar family is a co-founder and Ravi Krishnan who was part of the Rajasthan Royals in the Shilpa Shetty - Raj Kundra days, is co-chairman. And some crazy figures are being bandied about. Half a million US dollars in prize money. The league’s top drivers getting to race in Le Mans, WEC and even F1 (no really, I am not making that up). And all preceded by a nation-wide e-racing series with a 100,000 US dollars as prize money and a virtual-to-real race program. Wow! These boys have been busy!
I caught up with the two racers at the Speed Summit at the BIC and I start by asking what’s more difficult, racing or raising money? “Racing,” they both holler back, in unison.
So here’s how the series will run. Four teams have been signed on, eight are the target, each at `5 crore for a year. They sign on for seven years with a lock in for three years. The `5 crore covers the cost of competing, including the cars, logistics, drivers, marketing, everything. The series will run the single-make cars which haven’t yet been decided upon, the JA Motorsport 2-seater prototype is a front-runner but there’s an even more affordable car being evaluated.
The first line of drivers will be international drivers with F1 or near-F1 experience. The second line will be Indian international, “Guys like Narain, Karun or Arjun, basically guys who have competed abroad,” says Aditya while also hinting both Armaan and he could be part of the draft 2-3 years down the line. The third line are women, all international right now because nobody in India meets the mark. Armaan clarifies, “We know that there’s female talent in the country, but unfortunately the problem is that they get kind of shooed away by men. We want to change that. We want them to feel safe in the racing environment and come race. It’s not true that men will see women and take them out of the race. When we put the helmets on, everyone is the same. We’ve raced against so many women ourselves and it felt all the same. Women can actually beat men in something we call a man’s sport. The masses will then see that, and in a country like India, it sends a message that everybody can take part here. At the moment, we need to nurture them [Indian women racers]. We have talent but we need more time, but also when we get the first batch of women that we’ve trained out in the public eye, it’ll be like fire. It’ll get more people to believe. Each one has to prove themselves.”
And finally the fourth driver in the team, all of whom will get a chance to race because each team will run two cars with a driver change, will be Indian racers. “We’ll have a draft system, and the first eight selections will be based on preference, first come first serve, which team has signed on first,” clarifies Armaan. “It’ll go 1 to 8 for international drivers and then 8 to 1 for domestic drivers. The team who gets picked last on the first round gets to pick first on the second round. Same process for the drivers, the engineers, the car.”
To clarify, the drivers will not be auctioned, the idea is to keep the costs on par for all the teams. The draft for engineers is also interesting which kind of evens out the field. Aditya says, “We’ve already collaborated with one college, Hindustan Institute of Technology in Chennai. They have a motorsport engineering course. The idea is to go around colleges and then get the best of talent to come and be a part of the team as an intern engineer. Eventually, we’ll have a full Indian team.”
For 2019, the League will have four weekends of racing in the cooler months of November and December with 8 race days. The BIC and MMRT are confirmed as the two race venues and there will be a street race too, at an as yet undisclosed venue, though with Jay Pawar being in the picture, it will in all likelihood be in the Pune region.
Before the actual races, from August to October, the X1 e-sports League will go to “Top colleges in eight different cities each week, followed by malls on the weekend,” says Aditya. “That’ll get the students and the right age group involved. The format will be that people will come and set lap times and then on Sunday, the top 50 will shoot out against each other, and then the winners of that city will get selected. This will happen in every city and the final will be at BIC. We’re reaching that crowd that don’t usually take time off to go to a track on a weekend. Speaking from a driver’s perspective, it’s difficult. Not many can compete with the best on the same platform. But here when you get the best to come here, on an equal platform, we can really see how good we are, that includes the women too.”
While there is no affiliation with the world e-sport championship, that hasn’t been ruled out either. And the e-sport winner will get a chance to actually don a helmet and go racing. “We’ll slowly take him through a training program starting from next year. We have been coaching quite a few kids for various championships starting from karting and then cars.”
It all sounds very, very ambitious! Armaan clarifies, “We spent so much time on the product and building this system around us, so that’s one thing we were super confident about. We were focussed on getting the core product right, and we knew once the foundation was laid, it would definitely run.” Aditya chips in, “As you can see, we’ve already got sponsors interested in this even though we’ve never had an event such as this before.”
Finally what does this to do their racing careers? “Slows it down a little bit, but I’m still with Audi racing,” says Aditya. “And I’m still with Lamborghini,” says Armaan.
“We’re doing this only six weekends a year,” says Aditya. “So tomorrow OD Racing can call me and say, ‘Car’s waiting, we need you for the race’. Overall, we have a good team of guys with us.”
And they’re conscious of what works and what doesn’t. They insist the race has to be a networking event for the teams and sponsors. They want to make it a carnival with food and concerts. Much like the IPL, they realise entertainment is the core proposition for the wider masses. And, says Aditya, “The X1 Racing League is not a tyre or a car manufacturer, so that will surely give it a different perspective.