Given the circumstances in which you took over the reins of the FMSCI, what was your first order of business?
R Bharath Raj passed away mid-August, following which, we had a limbo period where we had no president. Only a week before my appointment did the discussion start, and my name was proposed. My first aim was to try and get the whole council working together, working towards the sport. Not in a divided manner, which was evident. And I’m happy to say that in three and a half months now, I have succeeded a fair bit. There is a congenial atmosphere now, both at the council meeting as well as the AGM and it’s been quite good working with the whole council.
It has been almost two years since the FMSCI commission underwent a dramatic and radical overhaul. What sort of progress do you think has been made since then?
Let’s place it on record that while it’s easy to say that Vicky was forced out, as people have talks like that – he chose to step down for reasons best known to him. One side could argue that he knew he’d lose, but he did step down – he never stood for election. I think it has come a long way from there. Maybe there was a lot of bad blood for whatever reasons, unknown to me. I was a councillor when Vicky was president, but not when Prithviraj took over, as our club (WISA) had chosen not to stand.
The Indian Rally Championship has been continuously devoid of title or individual sponsors for the last few years. Why do you think rallying has failed to attract the crowds or the marketing budgets from corporates?
I really wish I had the answer to this, as rallying is my passion. I learnt everything in rallying and it is something very close to my heart. Anyway, if we go a bit back in time when Bharath Raj’s IMG Sport tied up with Annabelle Manwaring’s PSP (Pro Sports Promotion) and they took the title sponsorship for three years, they took it for some phenomenal prices for that time. They were bidding a crore a year just for title rights! We hadn’t heard of that kind of money in the sport.
This money was used to support the clubs for events, to the tune of Rs 15-20 lakh per event.
This took rallying to new heights, entries were up, quality of events improved and so on. But the downside, and I can say this in hindsight, was that it killed the appetite of organisers finding their own sponsors. So most clubs got spoilt and when that contract ended, they never came back to bid again as Speed (Bharat Petroleum) decided to withdraw from sponsorship. The clubs felt lost and were unable to raise the money themselves. Then as this huge chunk of money was sitting with FMSCI, they started funding clubs – Rs 5-10 lakh a club or so. Once again, clubs got used to this so the money ran out very fast. Last year (2015) was the first year that the clubs ran without any support from the FMSCI as it couldn’t afford to support them anymore! But we still managed to run a fantastic Nashik Rally and the season finale at Chikmagalur (Asia Cup Round) was one of the best events India has seen and unsurprisingly, it has been granted the status of a full APRC event for 2016.
For 2016, we are hoping to put together a strong calendar of 5-6 events, including the Asia Pacific round at Chikmagalur. We have a new rally Commission Chairman, Ashwin Pandit, and we are hopeful of getting some sort of title sponsorship for the 2016 season. It may not be huge, but every bit helps and lack of money in the event is very evident in rallying. So overall, I am quite optimistic that the season will turn out to be good. We are considering, for example, shorter events – like one or two days. The budget for events won’t be halved but it will still translate in a significant savings of maybe Rs 4-5 lakh an event. Rallying definitely has great potential, with cars that people can identify with.
Motorsport is finding it difficult to find new followers and fans worldwide, given the breadth of options available to people nowadays to spend their spare time/weekends. Similar challenges exist in India as well. What do you think is the way forward to attract more fans, young and old, and increase the footprint of the sport in India even at grassroot level?
I think we need to change the way the sport is promoted – I think JK is a story where social media has been very successful in drawing a new fan base to the sport. Packaging motorsport as entertainment – because if you can convert even a small percentage of the crowd into a fan of the sport – it makes the difference. Tata Truck Racing is another example – it is entertainment personified!
For racing, we have found a very good structure with karting and racing tying in very nicely and lots of options being available to young drivers to progress in the sport. This year we have seven national championships in racing. However, in rallying, there’s no structure, apart from drivers feeding in from autocross, particularly in places like Bengaluru. So we need to do more, run rally sprints and rallycrosses. They’ll act as a feeder for the rallying system while being more spectator-friendly at the same time.
Talking about national championships, in the recently announced results of the bidding process, it’s surprising that multiple championships of the same discipline, like MRF F1600 and JK FB02 that are very close in terms of performance and laptimes, have been given the National Championship status.
MMSC had the rights for the national championships and nobody else could run one. They chose which category they wanted to run as a championship. In 2014, JK came forward and said, “Look, we have these two classes we want to run in the national championship and why can’t we do that, as it has nothing to do with you!”
JK did not want MMSC to organise their event; they wanted to organise it themselves or with the support of other clubs. So this became the point for a big dispute, and it was solved by a way which didn’t exactly work the way it was supposed to. It was called ‘JK Tyre Next-Gen championship’. Now nobody knows that this existed, and the objection was that MMSC said, “We bid for three years, you can’t come in now and start another national championship”. But when I took over, these bids were supposed to come up in 2-3 months. And I said that there was no question of a club winning a national championship and then deciding the categories of the national championship. All categories will go up for bidding individually, and it so happened that MMSC won most of them and JK won two. You can say that MRF F1600 and JK FB02 are very similar categories, but apart from once in the last six years, when have these two tyre companies raced at a common event? They will not. And why should I tell half the tyre companies, “Sorry, you cannot run because they [other tyre company] have won it?”. They have invested in the sport and I want them to reap the benefits of that investment. That’s the only way forward.
An evolved thought that each of the tyre companies and single-make championships are equal and race against each other – is our dream and it should remain our aim. I hope that when we go again for bidding at the end of 2018, maybe someone will be able to say – we’ll have the Etios, the Vento and all similar category cars competing against each other. This is beginning to happen now in motorcycles. There are five manufacturers, each running their own one-make championships and competing against each other. It is something that would directly benefit the riders as the best riders will be wanted and paid. It will take a while — I understand what you are saying [reference to JK and MRF], but this was, according to me, the best way forward.
What is your plan of action or roadmap for 2016?
The year couldn’t have started better, to be honest. Every championship has gone for a bid except the Indian Rally Championship, which is my passion. Every championship is backed majorly by a corporate – some named, others not named, but seemingly obvious and I’m very happy at this stage. Which means everything would run and should run to a level where it is needed to run.
Now, as far as I am concerned, I’d like to work very hard to get the manufacturers more interested by directly participating in the sport, as well as promoting it to get publicity. I would also like to work towards getting some international events to India.
As far as personal ambitions go, I have none. My term, or rather what started as Bharath’s term, will end in September this year. Let’s see how it goes. I am very confident. Motorsport today is looking quite comfortable but we shouldn’t relax. We are fortunate that things are decided for three years and everything’s covered. I have a prospective bidder who’d like to start the rallycross championship I mentioned earlier. That really excites me – we need a feeder for rallying for sure.