The Force India F1 VJM02 is part owned by entrepreneur Vijay Mallya.
The Force India F1 VJM02 is part owned by entrepreneur Vijay Mallya.

Billionaire help for Indian F1

NOW that the dust has settled on India's much-criticised Commonwealth Games, eyes have turned to India's next major international event - the staging of their first formula one race on October 30 next year.

Any doubts about whether the Indian organisers could overcome the dramas surrounding the Games facilities and produce a world-class grand prix circuit were answered this week by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

The 80-year-old F1 chief executive made a flash visit to the construction site about 40 kilometres from New Delhi on his way to last weekend's Korean Grand Prix.

"It's going to be much better than many tracks - I have no fears about the circuit," he says. "After the Commonwealth Games silly people said 'be careful' but I'm so happy about the progress of work. These people are quite capable and I don't see any problem."

When completed, the 5.14-kilometre track with 16 corners and a variety of elevations up to 14 metres will be one of the fastest circuits on the F1 calendar.

After the diabolic lead-up to the Commonwealth Games, Ecclestone is no doubt buoyed by the involvement of Vijay Mallya in the project. The flamboyant billionaire is part-owner of the Force India Formula One team, which he formed in 2007 after buying the defunct Spyker F1 team for over $AU122 million and now represents India on the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

Although yet to taste victory in F1, Mallya has been around grand prix racing for quite some time, joining the sport in the 1990s as a sponsor of the Benetton team.

The flashy, silver-maned 54-year-old Indian entrepreneur has been likened to Sir Richard Branson and has often raised the eyebrows of India's strait-laced business community.

Mallya was only 28 when his father died in 1983, leaving him control of India's largest brewery group with an annual turnover of $100 million. However, Mallya is one of India's more respected business leaders and, with an estimated net personal worth of $1.5 billion, has spread his interests across many fields.

He has a fascination with classic collector cars with more than 250 in three locations including a museum in Sausalito, near San Francisco, not far from his American home. A regular participant in historic racing, Mallya has old grand prix cars as well as the coveted 1925 4-litre V12 supercharged Sunbeam Tiger Land Speed Record car.

He is also a regular attendee during Pebble Beach Concours Week, competing this year with his rare 1944 Alfa Romeo Bucci special. His collection includes a 1913 Rolls-Royce London-to-Edinburgh Silver Ghost with an Australian connection, having been consecutively owned by three doctors from NSW.

Purchased derelict on a property at Scone in 1988, it was restored by Mallya to participate in the 1991 Great American Race from New York to Los Angeles. In a field of 150 pre-1960 cars, Mallya came an impressive 39th after a somewhat arduous 6400-kilometre drive over 14 days that saw the need to replace pistons in the scorching Colorado Desert.

No stranger to Australia in recent years with regular attendance at the Australian Grand Prix, Mallya used his super yacht to entertain the Indian cricket team on Sydney Harbour.

Today, he owns the Bangalore Royal Challengers in the Indian Premier Cricket League for which he paid $111 million and, along with Ecclestone, also has a share in the Queens Park Rangers football team in Britain.

In a rapidly emerging India, Mallya came to corporate prominence following the launch of Kingfisher Airlines in 2005.

With India's annual air passenger traffic doubling in the past five years to 60 million, Kingfisher has rapidly grown to become India's largest domestic airline. Despite his rapid global business expansion, Mallya remains fiercely interested in Indian affairs.

His love of artifacts that are of great cultural value to India saw him pay $AU281,000 at auction in 2003 for the historic sword of Tipu Sultan and return it to India after more than 200 years of British ownership.

And in a somewhat controversial move, last year Mallya purchased for $1.8 million the belongings of the Indian peace activist and political leader Mahatma Gandhi at a New York auction, including his trademark round spectacles, his sandals and pocket watch.

Above all else, Mallya likes a challenge, whether it be in business or sport.

And at India's new grand prix circuit next October he is more than hopeful that one of his Force India team drivers will take their first chequered flag in front of a patriotic home crowd.

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