Skipping 2014 Indian GP hurts country's image: Jackie Stewart

New Delhi, Aug 8 (IANS) Avowed Indophile and three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart feels India skipping its 2014 Grand Prix round -- ostensibly to enable the Formula One organisers to tweak the calendar, clubbing it with rest of Asia the following year -- will hurt the country's image in the motorsports world.

Stewart, whose connection with India dates back to his forays into the car market with his employers Ford Motor Company, gets emotional talking about the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) missing the date in 2014.

The 'Flying Scotsman' is closely associated with Indian motorsports, having cut the first turf of the race track in Madras over two decades ago and he should know what it means to take a race away and how difficult it is to recapture the imagination of racing fans.

"It is certainly not a good message the Indian Grand Prix is sending out to the motorsports world, and is not positive for India's image when questions are raised about it. But as I am not aware of the implications involved, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further," Stewart told IANS from his Buckinghamshire base.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and race promoters Jaypee have confirmed that the India-round will now take place in the first half of 2015, amid growing speculations that teams are not comfortable with customs and tax issues in the country.

Stewart says all issues must be sorted out to keep India on the F1 calendar.

"F1 is now one of the largest sports in the world, simply because from March until the end of November, there is a race almost every two weeks with large car makers involved and a lot of major multi-national corporations joining it. So, I think it would be good and beneficial for India to have a Grand Prix, attracting the world's attention for that weekend.

"I don't know much about the tax issues and as for the customs, F1 has been able to handle the issue in every other country we go to -- whether it's Hungary, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia or China. This is something that your government should, perhaps, study, by visiting one of the Grand Prix races in Europe, to see how their authorities go through the process," says the 74-year-old, who has been associated with the Lotus F1 team.

Among his several visits to India, the champion of 1969, 1971 and 1973 seasons fondly recalls the inaugural race at the $400 million BIC.

"The race track was unquestionably built at a very large cost and there is no doubt in my mind that F1 brought a new interest to the outside world in seeing India developing into an arena of a global sport. I was enormously impressed. It's an impressive layout and the drivers enjoy the challenge."

A few eyebrows were raised when the spectator turnout dropped from 95,000 to 60,000 last year. To add to that, Bernie said 2013 would tell a lot about the popularity of the sport.

For Stewart, it is a cultural issue and he sees the sport surviving in India.

"It will take some time before the culture of motorsport is fully understood in India. We have experienced the same issues in Bahrain, China, Korea, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and even in America, where Grand Prix race did not take place for many years.

"This year's race is crucial and if the race in 2015 gets right promotion, there's no reason why it shouldn't again attract large crowds."

(Bharat Sharma can be contacted at bharat.s@ians.in)

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