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The IPL of motorsport kicked off with the JK Tyre Festival of Speed and here’s the good, bad and ugly from the weekend
Billed as the IPL of Indian motorsport, the franchise-format X1 Racing League kicked at the Buddh International Circuit last weekend. Held alongside JK Tyre’s marquee Festival of Speed event, the weekend saw 35,000 spectators fill up the main grandstand to dance to a Daler Mehndi rock show, cheer Hari Singh and his gang putting on stunt shows that included tractors doing wheelies, saw supercars doing parade laps and superbikes doing burnouts, and witnessed a clutch of international drivers partner some of the best Indian drivers for the inaugural X1 Racing League races.
Credit where credit’s due, Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel pulled it off! Naysayers, and there were plenty, didn’t give the X1 Racing League a hope in hell. Even I gave it a mere 50 percent chance of taking off. After all, nothing of this sort had ever happened out here and Indian motorsport is notorious for being wholly incapable of roping in any major sponsors, apart from the big two tyre companies. But after saying they’d want fresh new sponsors, even roping in Pirelli at the series launch three months ago, the X1 finally ended up being ‘powered by’ JK Tyre so maybe there is merit in the difficulty everybody ascribes to finding sponsors.
X1 Racing League’s teams
The X1 Racing League is modelled on the lines of the IPL with a city-based franchise model. Six teams signed up for the first season:
1. AD Racing Delhi
2. Bangalore Racing Stars
3. DG Racing Ahmedabad
4. Hyderabad Black Birds
5. Mumbai Falcons
6. SuperSpeed Chennai NK Racing
Each team has five drivers including an international driver and the mandatory lady driver (who, in the absence of the required talent in India, are also all international drivers).
X1 Racing League’s drivers teams
The promise was that big name international drivers will come down to India to race in the X1 and some big names did turn up. Narain Karthikeyan is not only the boss of the Chennai team but also was going to be their lead driver, fresh from his victory at the Super GT x DTM race in Japan. Notable other signings ex-F1 drivers were the Malaysian Alex Yoong and the Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi. The Indian drivers were split into Indian internationals like Karthikeyan, the two Maini brothers Arjun and Kush, Akhil Rabindra, Krishnraaj Mahadik and Indian rally star Gaurav Gill. And on the Indian, err, Indian side were recent national champions like Anindith Reddy, Vishnu Prasad and Karthik Tharani among others; touring car champions Arjun Naredran and Arjun Balu; young drivers like Sohil Shah and Yash Aradhya; and even some drivers returning to racing after ages like Parthiv Sureshwaran and Ameya Walavalkar. Notable names missing in this lineup were India’s strongest F1 hopeful Jehan Daruvala and the only other ex-F1 Indian driver Karun Chandhok.
The surprise package though were the ladies who actually fared far better than was expected with Chennai’s Alice Powell setting times that were faster than her teammates. The other ladies were the Danes Christina Nielsen and Michelle Gatting, Brit Pippa Mann and Swiss Rahel Frey.
If you’re counting you’ll have noticed five ladies and six teams. Bearing the brunt of driver angst was the Delhi team whose two international drivers, Mathias Lauda and Christina Neilsen, took the flight back home on Sunday morning after a leak soaked their overalls in fuel during qualifying (Mira Erda taking Christina’s place). And that brings us to the one area that all the teams had huge problems with the cars.
No Radicals, no two-seaters, only the old Formula BMWs
The series promised so much in terms of the cars. At the launch Jayem’s two-seater prototype was demo’d and before reaching India the drivers, at least the internationals, were under the impression they’d be driving the Radicals. Only to find the old Formula BMWs parked in the pits; the same cars that were used for a couple of seasons in the JK Tyre National Championship as the Euro-JK cars.
Now these cars are old, the last Formula BMW chassis was made in 2009. And they’ve seen hard racing. The end result was teams across the pitlane had teething issues with the cars, the engines were giving trouble, and the performance differential between cars was massive.
It’s only natural that big-name drivers wouldn’t want to drive these cars, which is why Narain Karthikeyan opted to sit out and Lauda took the flight back home.
Also single-seaters aren’t suitable for the X1 format of driver changes. For the driver change the cars have to be in the pits for a minimum of 90 seconds but many teams, with tall drivers, were taking much more time than that for the driver change. Endurance cars have adjustable seat belts, removable seat cushions all of which are suitable for driver changes but single seaters have fixed belts and that takes forever to do up (if done properly).
And some of the drivers, especially those currently racing touring car, struggled massively with the cramped cockpit. In fact, as an example of how things have moved on, these single-seaters are now slower than the cars that run in the Indian Touring Car series.
That the cars were giving trouble was one thing. The other was Antonio Ferrari (no relation to the Ferrari) owner of Euro International who own the Formula BMWs was horrible to deal with, turning a deaf ear looking after the cars seemed to be horrible to deal with team problems, sending out drivers with fuel on their seats and refusing to change engines despite drivers insisting they were running on three cylinders. On the warm-up lap of the last race the front left wheel nut on Anindith Reddy’s Hyderabad car flew off on the back straight and luckily he managed to limp to the start line where another nut was wrenched on.
Was good, as you can expect from drivers who are closely matched and (mostly) at the top of their game. Bangalore and Mumbai seemed to have the best drivers and the best draw of luck on car performance and it reflected in the standing at the end of the weekend.
X1’s organisers did try to experiment with the race format. Each team had two cars, shared between two drivers each. Qualifying times for the 12-car grid were on aggregate of both the drivers with a mandatory driver change after around 20 minutes. Sounds simple enough but in reality the pitstops were quite chaotic. An error in reading the pinboard saw both the Hyderabad cars come into the pits at the same time creating a traffic jam. The Chennai car had a lick of flame due to the heat from the exhaust or brakes (which was put out quickly). The Italian mechanics tending to the car, running around the pitstops and screaming, only added to the chaos. Some teams complained about the pitlane marshals holding back their cars even after 90 seconds were over. And then there was the last race which was a relay format.
Here six cars started in a rolling start and all five drivers had to put in a stint in the 40 minute race. So the cars would come into the pits, pull up behind the stationary car that would then light up its tyres and fire away. The driver change would then happen, leisurely this time, and they’d wait for the other car to do the 2-3 laps and come into the pits to pass on the baton. Again sounds simple enough but it proved to be a challenge to the time keepers and the results were only declared an hour or so after the race was over.
Was not just in the pits but, good lord, the 35,000 spectators in the grand stands had a rollicking time thanks to the entertainment put together by JK Tyre. The Festival of Speed has been happening at the BIC for a couple of years now and the crowds have only been getting bigger and bigger — there was a traffic jam getting into the circuit! — and all without any advertising. There were stunt shows by Hari Singh and his crew. Gaurav Gill in Gautam Singhania’s drift-spec M3 shredded rubber. Tractor drivers did wheelies down the main straight. Bike stunters did their thing. And then Daler Mehndi came on and drove the crowd mad, while at the same time supercar and superbikes did exhibition laps. Superbikes revving out their head gaskets and doing burnouts on one side, Daler Mehndi yelling tunak tunak tun at the other — it was a wall of noise and you could see the spectators go wild.
And then the grandstands emptied out so that by the time of the last X1 race the stands were practically empty.
Is the X1 Racing League a success?
Considering the simple fact that Armaan and Aditya managed to get it off the ground, my answer would have to be — yes! They have got six teams to sign up. They have got some international drivers and most of the big name Indian drivers. They aired it live on TV. It has the potential to become something big, and I personally wish that they do succeed and tell the naysayers to suck it.
That said, a lot of what they promised hasn’t really materialised. The main thing — the cars — are the old F-BMWs which neither interest nor excites anyone. You can do whatever you want with re-jigging the format and having driver changes and all that but it’s the cars that excite everybody and these cars have zero novelty value anymore. Things didn’t run smoothly or to clockwork, though that is to be expected for a new series. Six race weekends have been curtailed to two (the second is next weekend at the MMRT in Chennai). The street races aren’t happening. No gentleman drivers are being put in the cars. And all that was said about making racing more than just racing — the entertainment, the networking opportunities, making it like what the IPL is — I didn’t see any of it. I barely saw any new faces. In fact the weekend was like an old boys reunion, and that also includes your correspondent who has been to a race after ages and spent most of his time chatting up with old buddies than watching the actual racing. Come to think of it, as a motorsport networking event the X1 Racing League actually has done its job.