GREATER NOIDA, India: India hosts its maiden MotoGP on Sunday as the premier motorcycling championship looks to tap a potentially lucrative new fan base and succeed on a track where Formula One stalled.
Two-wheelers are India’s most popular means of petrol-powered transport with more than half of all households owning at least one motorbike or scooter, compared to just eight percent with cars.
Sales figures show an increasing appetite for high-end, high-octane motorbikes, and organizers are banking on the trend to fuel interest in the sport in the world’s most populous country.
“We have more than a million bikes in the 250cc-plus category selling every year in India, which means more than a million people are buying bikes for more than just transportation,” Vaibhav Sinha, chief executive of Indian MotoGP promoters Fairstreet Sports, told AFP.
“They are using it for thrills, adventure, sports and leisure riding,” he added.
“We intend to tap this potential to make biking a very big sport in our country.”
But the lead-up to the race has seen concerns raised about the safety of the Buddh International Circuit, with particular fears about walls that are too close to the asphalt.
“In India all the riders together are going to walk the track before we get on the bike to understand the situation,” Spanish rider Aleix Espargaro was reported as saying.
Some MotoGP personnel and riders also had problems getting visas for India, but organizers on Tuesday blamed a technical glitch and said it was on the way to being resolved.
Fairstreet Sports signed a seven-year deal with MotoGP’s commercial rights holder Dorna Sports to hold a race in India, which has the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
India is a critical market for the growth of MotoGP, Dorna’s chief sporting officer Carlos Ezpeleta said.
“For us breaking into India, which is a whole continent in itself, is very important,” he told Sportstar magazine.
“It’s the biggest two-wheeler market in the world and very important for us, our stakeholders and the manufacturers.”
The Buddh circuit on the outskirts of New Delhi was previously home to the Indian leg of Formula One.
India hosted F1 for three years in 2011-2013 but lost the rights with two years still left on the contract over financial and bureaucratic setbacks.
Back then the government refused to recognize Formula One as a sport, meaning the organizers needed to pay tax and duties on everything connected with the race.
Declining attendances also hurt the event.
MotoGP’s local backers are hopeful that they will be able to steer clear of the pitfalls that doomed India’s last international motorsport fixture.
“F1 was a great learning experience for us as well,” said Sinha.
“We spent a couple of years doing compliance studies and ensuring we don’t run into similar problems because to uphold the law of the land is of utmost importance.”
Organizers expect tens of thousands of people to flock to the circuit for the sound of roaring engines and burning rubber.
The action starts on Friday with practice, followed by practice, qualifying and a sprint race on Saturday, with the race on Sunday.
India is the 13th stop of 20 on this year’s MotoGP calendar.
In the previous race, in San Marino, Spaniard Jorge Martin cruised to victory for Ducati satellite team Pramac to close the gap on reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia of Italy.
Bagnaia, on a factory Ducati, leads the championship from Martin by 36 points. There are 25 points for a victory.