In the end, the most enduring visual over a breathtaking Noida weekend was the sight of Rowan Atkinson (known otherwise as THE Mr. Bean) being flashed on the big screens throughout the circuit- contorting his face into Bean-esque expressions when his countryman Lewis Hamilton got into yet another tangle with Felipe Massa. The applause that followed pretty much confirmed that the World Stage- whether it be entertainment, sports or both- had truly arrived in India. The singlemost famous character in British television history had made a fleeting appearance. Even for the fans that were there simply to star-gaze, the day was made.
Sachin Tendulkar and family, Rohit Sharma, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Deepika Padukone, Siddharth Mallya, Shahrukh Khan (of course), Preity Zinta, Atkinson, Gulshan Grover (the man instrumental in bringing F1 to India- thanks to his longtime friendship with Bernie Eccelstone), Vijay Mallya and Bipasha Basu were just some of the celebrities that could be spotted with the naked eye- thanks to the strategic and well planned placement of Giant screens across the circuit. Those with binoculars (including yours truly) were blessed, indeed.
Journalists, sports bloggers and a massive international media contingent entered Delhi on Friday morning from all over, armed with cynical grins, knives and a glimmer of hope- ready to dissect India’s latest International foray into the World Sporting Elite Stage. The early signs were not good- with the Buddh International Circuit gathering more dust than grass, with the head honchos displaying their surprise at the untidiness of the track area. It needed to be spruced up, but there was no time. A dry, dusty weekend awaited the drivers.
Friday practice began, with nervous anticipation gripping most local journalists and onlookers- hoping for an above-average performance by F1’s newest track. Cynics could be forgiven, considering the recent track record of events held in the Capital. A stray dog quelled all fears, cruising onto the track in the middle of the noon practice session- and one can only imagine a European journalist or two cracking the inevitable ‘where are the cows’ joke immediately. Practice was delayed for a few minutes, and the F1 Chairman Bernie was observed with great interest over the remainder of the day. He didn’t give much away- and held his thoughts to himself.
Qualifying was much more harrowing- with me retreating to my venue for the rest of the racing weekend- the Natural Stand, South- also known as the cheapest stand of the circuit. The buses were jampacked from the station, and there was plenty of organized chaos. The circuit was crowded for the one-hour qualifying session, with most loyalists forced to miss it due to unavoidable (unplanned) traffic gridlocks leading to the track. With different routes planned extremely well for different stands (West, East, North and South), the spectators were in for a stunning surprise – the management shone through, as did the thorough security. Apart from a few unruly Delhi boys (and men), there were no apparent problems getting in- and the sight that greeted me from the South stand was quite pleasant. A picnic-style layout on the lawn slopes, with tents selling gaspingly overpriced food, the experience was solely meant for families (on their day out), couples looking for a different experience, apart from a few Loyalists armed with the knowledge of placing themselves right on a hairpin- in order to catch the most of racing action.
Massa rewarded their expectations, banging across the curbs- in ominous signs that would spell doom for his race. Vettel dominated the session, and most die-hard fans had a tough time picking out the famous Mercedes GP cars- in which drove the legend that had taught us what Formula One stood for, over the 90s. Michael Schumacher was cheered on, even when a bemused Rosberg passed by. The stage was set, and Mr. Bean was special guest in the all-British McLaren Mercedes garage.
The bus ride back to Noida station proved to be an exercise in fitness, with most of us having to stand all the way through- due to the sheer lack of buses. Still, the commuting was nothing new to us Mumbai veterans.
An orgy of a gridlock held up most nervous spectators only 2 kms away from the circuit, with the clock ticking by- and only VIPs or the media contingent having made their way into their boxes 4 hours before race-start. The number of buses, as promised by the management, increased- paving the way for more traffic jams at the Greater Noida Checkpost, creating tense moments for a couple of thousand ticket-holders desperate to reach the track a few minutes before 3 PM.
Once away from the chaos, after sprinting my way to the stand, something amazing happened: Pin-drop silence for a minute. No, this wasn’t the minute’s silence requested time and again by commentators in respect of the two Motorsport deaths that had occurred over the last 2 weeks- this was the Indian national Anthem playing. One could sense pride, relief and the sheer magnitude of the moment during this minute- with an entire nation hoping for a successful and incident-free race (atleast off the track).
With spectators clearly divided into many sections- be it the ‘complimentary’ ticket holders who were there just to say ‘I was there’, or Rich Daddy’s kids with their iPhones and Ferrari jumpsuits in the grandstands, or a few hundred freeloaders that accompanied their ‘media’ friends, or families playing cards on the hills of the picnic stand, or diehard fanatics hoping for the DRS and pitstops to make their experience interesting, or even the facebookers who were just there to click photographs with a Ferrari in the background in order to garner more than 10 ‘likes’- it was clearly a momentous occasion. Not because Sebastian Vettel was there. Not because 4 other World Champions were there. Not even because Michael Schumacher finished 5th.
Simply, because the Indian GP cruised to a victory- having lapped most of the other debut Grand Prix races over the years- without a minor disaster or major mishaps. Nothing short of a miracle, considering the minimal publicity given to the actual construction of the circuit over the last 2 years.
The popping of the bubbly, or the waving of the chequered flag by Tendulkar- it all bore the signs of an event that might never be repeated, because face it, the Indian GP will never happen for the FIRST time ever again.