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India hopes to justify huge costs of F1 Grand Prix

India hopes a successful, glitzy Formula One race this weekend will prove it can host a high-profile international sporting event after all.
/ Source: The Associated Press

India hopes a successful, glitzy Formula One race this weekend will prove it can host a high-profile international sporting event after all.

Rock group Metallica and pop star Lady Gaga are among those booked to perform during the weekend as India welcomes Formula One for the first time at the $400 million Buddh International Circuit on the periphery of the Indian capital.

Organizers are hoping the event runs smoothly to justify the huge costs in a country with a gross domestic product per capita of only $1,477.

But as India looks to bury the bad memories of the organizational chaos at last year's Commonwealth Games, there have been hitches already at the Grand Prix, including frequent power failures and the suspension of Friday's first practice session because of a dog on the track.

Also, Friday night's planned Metallica concert, part of the F1 Rocks live music event, had to be postponed until Saturday because of "technical difficulties."

However, ticket sales have been encouraging despite the cost of $50, which is beyond many people's means in India.

"People here are fanatic, crazy about racing," McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton told reporters before the event. "You'd think they are more enthusiastic about cricket, but honestly I feel they are as enthusiastic about car racing."

Cricket is the most popular sport in the country and is followed by the rich and the poor. It got a big boost earlier this year when India won the World Cup in April.

Cricket has also found new audiences since the start of the Indian Premier League in 2008, adding a touch of glamor to the sport with Indian film stars like Preity Zinta and Shilpa Shetty owning stakes in franchises.

Hamilton is on his fifth visit to the country and said Formula 1 drivers are stars already.

"They wanted to see me, touch me, see my car. At one event 5,000 people were expected and 40,000 turned up. I hope we see that kind of craze here during the weekend," Hamilton said.

The Jaypee Group has spent over $200 million in building the track complex and almost as much in other expenses after being granted 10-year rights for the event, which will draw industrialists, film stars and cricket players.

Though it is a private enterprise, some feel it is a waste of money to focus so heavily on the sports of the super-rich.

"I feel very bad because it has nothing to do with 99 percent of Indians," retired Indian sprinter P.T. Usha told the Press Trust of India this week.

Double Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel feels the disparity in India puts life in perspective.

"We went to the Taj Mahal, which is a very touristy thing to do, but the drive there and back teaches you so much about the country, about what is going on and how the people live," he said.

"Compared to Europe, the living standard is quite a lot lower, but to the people it doesn't seem to make a difference. They're happy, always friendly. It definitely brings your feet back on the ground in many ways, makes you understand many things."

The venue itself has been built on land acquired from farmers, who had threatened to protest during the Grand Prix against what they felt was inadequate compensation.

But Jaypee Group Managing Director Manoj Gaur dismissed threats to the event earlier this month.

"There is no dispute on any land owned by us," he told a news conference. "And there is no threat to the event."