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The X1 factor

  • Two Indian racing drivers, Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel, have floated an Indian motorsports league to revitalize the sport in the country
  • The league will follow a city-based franchise model and will roll out in October

(from left) A 2008 file photograph of Parthiv Sureshwaran, Narain Karthikeyan and Armaan Ebrahim, all of whom represented India in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix. Photo: AFP
(from left) A 2008 file photograph of Parthiv Sureshwaran, Narain Karthikeyan and Armaan Ebrahim, all of whom represented India in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

Motorsport, at least in India, seems to exist in a realm of its own, as well insulated from the rest of the sporting world as the fire suits its racers wear. But two Indian car racing drivers—Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel—have ditched the exclusive image and are going for mass appeal the tried and tested way.

Using the popular city-based franchise formula, Ebrahim and Patel have come up with the Xtreme1 (X1) Racing League, which will roll out in October.

“We have been racing for the last 15-odd years and gone through various levels, various categories in different parts of the world," says Ebrahim, 29, who represented India at the now defunct A1 Grand Prix. “We have also been very involved with Indian motorsport. We are looking at the gaps and what we can do to change that. What can we do differently? How can we make India self-sufficient again in motorsport, especially for our drivers, so that we don’t have to keep going abroad? It’s not very sustainable. That’s why we came up with this, to make it very accessible at a high level. Also, what works in India is sportainment. That’s how X1 was born."

Eight teams will compete in a custom-made two-seater sports car racing league, which will take place over four weekends in four cities. Each team will consist of four drivers, including one male international driver, one female international driver, one Indian international driver and one Indian domestic driver. To take the action closer to fans, the organizers are looking to have street circuits at two venues. Though the street circuit venues haven’t been finalized, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chandigarh are in the running.

This could be just what Indian motor racing, which is going through a lean period, needs. The sport has suffered since it lost the Formula One Indian Grand Prix, which took place for three years at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, near Delhi, from 2011-13.

“Motorsport has been stagnant over the last few years," says Patel, 30, who has competed in international series such as the Volkswagen Scirocco R-Cup, Polo Cup and Formula BMW Pacific. “The whole idea behind the X1 League is to revive motorsport and bring new players into the game, not just in terms of drivers but also sponsors and engineers."

Even though a lot of sports have gone the franchise league way in India, not many have actually succeeded. Leagues of popular sports, such as hockey (Hockey India League) and tennis (International Premier Tennis League, Champions Tennis League), have had their share of struggles. Even motorsport flirted with the idea in 2011 by announcing the i1 Super Series (known as the Indian Racing League), but it failed to take off.

Armaan Ebrahim (left) and Aditya Patel
Armaan Ebrahim (left) and Aditya Patel

Ebrahim and Patel hope this won’t be the case with X1. They have secured funding of 100 crore through a consortium of investors, including the Rattha Group from Chennai, Mumbai-based White Unicorn Ventures, AngelList India Llp from Delhi, Jitendra Gupta of PayU, and Kunal Shah, founder of FreeCharge . The franchise fee has been set at 5 crore while the total expenditure for a season is estimated at 6.5-7 crore.

“It is going to be a huge logistical task," adds Patel. “It’s not like playing football on a field. There are large amounts of manpower, lots of movement of equipment, lots of equipment and inventory in general. But we have put together a good team on the ground."

To set themselves apart, they have also tinkered with the usual race format. There will be two drivers assigned to a car. And though the races will not last longer than 45 minutes, the usual pit stop that involves refuelling or tyre change will be replaced by driver change. This relay-like format is more prevalent in endurance races (for instance, the 24 Hours of Le Mans).

One of the most compelling features of the league, however, might well be watching men and women compete in a level playing field. “Motorsport is unique because there are no separate categories by gender," says Ebrahim. “Once you wear a helmet, everyone is the same.

“More women are getting involved, but sometimes they don’t get the right opportunities. So here we are nullifying all that, putting them in the same vehicle, no difference in any of the cars, so on an equal platform for women and for our Indian domestic drivers."

Last month, the league announced its first international signings: Neel Jani and Rahel Frey, both from Switzerland. While Jani is a former A1 Grand Prix champion, Frey is one of the leading female racing drivers in Europe and has competed in events like the Formula Renault 2.0, the International Formula Master and the 2010 edition of 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I really like the idea of having mixed teams," says Frey, 33, on email. “It is exactly what we need, rather than having separate series for men and women. Joining a new series is always exciting as everybody and every driver starts at the same point, not really knowing the car, the team or the track."

The Indian drivers have been divided into two categories: international (drivers with five or more years of experience racing internationally) and domestic. The league is hoping to rope in two of the biggest names in Indian racing: Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok.

In 2005, Karthikeyan became the first Formula One driver from India when he bagged a seat with the Jordan team. At 42, he is still competing, currently participating in the Japanese Super Formula series. Chandhok is the only other Indian driver to have made it to F1 (he drove for HRT in 2010 and Lotus in 2011).

“Coming to the Indian domestic drivers, they will include all the current national champions," says Ebrahim. “These guys have been winning here but haven’t got the opportunity to go abroad."

Accessibility, Ebrahim and Patel stress, is the byword as they try to bring motorsport home.

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