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F1 to MotoGP, the Buddh ends decade-long drought

As the sun set over the Buddh International Circuit (BIC), the shadow of the majestic grandstand stretched over the paddock. In the twilight glow, the refurbished pit buildings and the newly laid tarmac gleamed as a whiff of fresh anti-skid paint blew past in the evening breeze. The 5km track in Greater Noida — once a Formula 1 venue — is ready to host its maiden MotoGP race.

Ducati Lenovo Team Italian rider Francesco Bagnaia (1), Repsol Honda Team Spanish rider Marc Marquez (93), Repsol Honda Team Spanish rider Joan Mir (36), Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP Team French rider Fabio Quartararo (20) during the sprint race at the Grand Prix of India(PTI)

There is an unusual amount of activity, something the circuit hasn’t seen in a decade. Small trucks are unloading containers with motorcycles and other equipment which are then being pushed into the garages. Team personnel are identifying and domesticating their team buildings in the paddock. Officials with A4 sized paper in their hands are rushing from one building to another.

This buzz hasn’t been witnessed ever since the unceremonious exit for Formula 1 from Indian shores in 2013. The pinnacle of four-wheeled motorsport arrived here in 2011 with a lot of pomp and show. Sebastian Vettel, in his rampaging Red Bull, won the inaugural Indian Grand Prix as 95,000 fans witnessed the historic race.

Attendance dwindled to 65,000 in the 2012 race and around 60,000 in 2013. The novelty had vanished. “People can say it was less than before but you only get the real fans from the second and third year. 65,000 was still comparable to most cricket matches you get in India,” former F1 driver Karun Chandhok had told this daily in an earlier interview.

But then the problems were twofold. While Jaypee Group — the promoters of F1 Indian GP and owners of BIC — got mired in financial and legal trouble, F1 too pulled out due to bureaucratic and tax hurdles, leading to only three races being held — all won by Vettel — despite a five-year contract.

Once a land of promise, the majestic circuit faded into oblivion. One would only remember it while heading to Agra from the national capital on the Yamuna Expressway, the iconic grandstand visible from a distance despite the haze.

A few events — both domestic and international — were held at the 5km circuit in the meantime. Domestic championships like JK Racing Asia Series, MRF Championship and X1 Racing League were held on the circuit from time to time in front of largely empty stands. Unusual concepts such as T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship by Tata Motors were also held while the Asia Road Racing Championship (motorcycle) also held a round in 2016. It even hosted the Asian Cycling Championships.

“The circuit has also hosted car and bike launches, multiple shoots, corporate launches and held car and bike academies and shows. Some exclusive customers who have sports cars have come here to drive their fast vehicles,” says Rajiv Murishwar, business head of BIC.

“But yes, this is the first time since Formula 1 that an international motorsport event of this magnitude is coming to the track. It is good to have that buzz back.”

After 10 years of anonymity, the Buddh is finally coming back to life. Fairstreet Sports, the organisers and promoters of the ‘new’ Indian Grand Prix, also being called MotoGP Bharat, have had to undertake a monumental journey of first bringing MotoGP to India and then getting all the necessary approvals to host the race.

Once they got the green light from the authorities, the next stage involved renovating the circuit and making the necessary changes to make the once F1 circuit suitable for motorcycle racing. While F1 needs more run-off areas, motorbike racing requires more gravel which deters the speed of both the bike and the rider in case of crashes. Grass on the fringes of the track, normal in F1, has been replaced with anti-skid paint. While asphalt on most of the track was fine, a couple of sections that had bumps have been resurfaced.

“The track changes are for the safety of the riders. We have introduced the changes as per the guidelines of FIM (international motorcycling federation) and FIA (international automobile federation). If anyone crashes, they will first head to the gravel trap, ensuring their safety. The anti-skid paint is in case a rider goes off track, he does not spin and can rejoin the track,” added Murishwar.

Familiar names such as Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg that graced garages until recently have been replaced with Francesco Bagnaia, Marc Marquez and Brad Binder. Team pit buildings that displayed stickers of Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have given way to Honda, Ducati and KTM.

A 10-year drought will finally come to an end on Sunday afternoon when 22 riders, standing on the grid in the shade of that iconic grandstand, dart off on their 1,000cc bikes.

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