London: India`s first Grand Prix this weekend could be the breakthrough that changes the way the country`s businesses look at Formula One, according to Sauber chief executive Monisha Kaltenborn.
Her Swiss-based team are sponsored by dairy company Amul for Sunday`s Delhi race and she suggested other firms might also now see the sport as part of a bigger picture rather than just focusing on one or two local drivers at the slow end of the grid.
"In India, all these years, it`s been so difficult to get a sponsor from the country," the Indian-born Kaltenborn told Reuters in an interview.
"India has got such big brands and the market is huge and still people have been very cautious to get into Formula One.
"It wasn`t that easy (for a team) to get a brand from India without having any link to a (local) driver. So I think it`s all the more remarkable a brand (like Amul) has done this and I hope a lot more will follow now," added Kaltenborn.
Narain Karthikeyan is the only Indian to have scored points in Formula One, with the now-defunct Jordan team in 2005, and he will be back on the starting grid with struggling HRT for Sunday`s race at the Buddh International circuit.
While he has healthy support from industrial giants Tata and Hero Motors, Karthikeyan will still be languishing among the tailenders.
Spanish-owned HRT have yet to score a point since their debut in 2010 and Karthikeyan`s is likely to be a one-off home appearance after he was dropped to make way for Australian rookie Daniel Ricciardo.
Karun Chandhok, India`s other F1 driver, is now only a reserve at Team Lotus -- also yet to score a point.
Sauber have Mexican Sergio Perez and Japan`s Kamui Kobayashi as their drivers and are battling against Force India for sixth place in the constructor championship.
Force India, owned by liquor and aviation tycoon Vijay Mallya along with Indian business conglomerate Sahara Group, do not have Indian drivers either.
"Maybe more (Indian companies) will follow that don`t necessarily just look for the link with the driver," continued Kaltenborn, an Austrian citizen who is married to a German and lives in Switzerland.
"Here it`s the team, the people, the drivers, the key personnel. I think if one brand is prepared to associate themselves with the team, and a team name, I hope it gives others the kick as well to do that."
Kaltenborn said the arrival of India on what is now a 19-race global calendar provided a direct link with the public for local companies to build on.
"Since cricket is so big (in India) it takes a lot now for a company to say `No, we choose the platform of Formula One`," she said.
"Until there was a race there was not really a link to the sport. Now with the first race being staged there they have a direct link, they can use it in their prime market.
"It could be the start of something to attract more Indian partners into the sport."
Many of those companies may not have products to sell outside India but the likes of Sauber are hoping they will wake up to what the sport can provide in increasing brand visibility to a growing domestic audience who watch the races on television.
Telecom giant Bharti Airtel has already signed up for the race title sponsorship.
Kaltenborn, who was born in Dehradun and whose parents emigrated to Austria in 1979 when she was eight, looked forward to going to a race in a country where she had a personal as well as professional connection.
"I think it`s going to be really great," she said.
"Suddenly the media attention and also from the people has just ramped up whereas half a year ago it was not that much. It has just suddenly come. I think that tells you what dimension this event is going to have."
First Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011, 09:06