Mallya's good times continue in England despite India's extradition efforts

It doesn’t get much faster than this on earth. Speeds in excess of 300 km an hour. He may not quite be behind the wheel, but as the orchestrator he imbibes every moment of it. In this case on a vantage track side seat with cans to protect the ear drums from the piercing sound of four-wheelers zooming past and a private multimedia screen to soak in the race as if on a simulator. 

Hands on at Sahara Force India since he left India 16 months ago to take advantage of his right of “indefinite stay” in Britain, Mallya is approaching success in a business that employs nearly 400 people. It may not have posted operating profits yet, but Martin Brundle, Sky Sports’ Formula 1 pundit, thinks, “For pounds spent in F1, Force India are world champions.” 

The reason for that compliment is that while Force India is reputed to have an outlay of around $100 million per annum, Mercedes and Ferrari are said to spend three times or more. Ultimately, the game is about resources for continuous research. A half a second advantage per lap can mean a 25 second lead at the end of a race. That in motor racing parlance is a massive margin.   

His foray into civil aviation may have failed — and his woes emanate from the debt ratcheted up by his Kingfisher Airlines — but he remains in control of Force India, currently 4th out of 10 teams in the multi-billion-dollar Formula 1 World Championship. 

Mallya has embraced the high life from boyhood. In love with fast or fabulous cars. He could afford to be, for his father built a successful beer business, thereby bequeathing trappings of luxury to his son. Whether it was parties on his yacht or at his beachfront holiday home in Goa, they were the talk of the town. Invitees rarely declined such revelries.  

With the Narendra Modi government snapping at his heels for alleged collusion with officials of IDBI Bank to obtain a loan of Rs 900 crore and transfer of nearly half of it off-shore, the “Branson of Bangalore” could be feeling disenchanted about India, where he still owns nearly one-third of United Breweries, which produces Kingfisher and enjoys a 50 per cent share of the beer market.

When asked by Reuters if he’s missing India, he replied: “There’s nothing to miss. All my immediate family is either in England or the US. Nobody in India…  So there’s nothing family-wise to miss.” His mother, who has lived in England for the past 26 years, was loyally at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last weekend.   

After a decade of racing, he is considering dropping his country’s name from the branding. “Since we are a much-improved team in terms of performance and attracting more international sponsors, and sadly less Indian sponsors, there is a debate as to why the name should not be changed to give it a more international flavour,” he told the media. “I named the team Force India only to give India and all of the motorsport fans in my country pride of place on a Formula 1 grid,” he added.  

“There are international sponsors who are interested who have no business in India,” he explained to reporters at the British Grand Prix. “They have a global audience. I think the time has come that we provide them with a global opportunity or global platform.” He finished by saying, “So after living with Force India for 10 years, the time has come now to change. But you can’t keep changing the name of the team frequently, so whatever decision we take has to last another 10 years.”   

Elsewhere, he remarked: “Getting the right people and culture in place and motivating them and developing a car that has fought in the World Championship — that is no coincidence or stroke of luck. This is proper performance. This is the time I’m enjoying the fruits of my 10 years of ownership.”  

Earlier, he examined deals with Aston Martin of James Bond fame and Johnnie Walker whisky. Now he’s registered “Force One” at Britain’s registrar of companies as a possible rebrand. But this isn’t final. And, he hastened to stress whatever the new incarnation, the team will still be entered from India, flying the Indian flag — which, incidentally, flutters outside Force India’s factory in the English countryside of Northamptonshire, a stone’s throw from Silverstone, the home of Formula 1 racing since 1950.

This year, Force India signed up BWT, an Austrian company, which is Europe’s leading firm in water technology, as its prime partner. As a result, its cars have been repainted a distinctive pink from the previous black colour. Other sponsors include Johnnie Walker, NEC and Kingfisher, which Mallya continues to control in Europe and the United States.    

To the addicted, a Formula 1 Grand Prix is a three-day festival of ringside observation and off-track merriment. A congregation of the rich and famous. It’s right up Mallya’s street. 

I have just settled on a barstool in a hospitality area at Silverstone to make sense of the myriad images and information on a large television screen, when a thump on my back brings me face to face with the man himself attired in black trousers, a polo shirt and cap — reflecting Force India’s merchandise. He is on his way to his team’s pit. The race over — in which his drivers, Mexican Sergio Perez and Frenchman Esteban Ocon, performed slightly below par — he returns to claps from family and friends, some of whom have come all the way from Bengaluru and Delhi.

He orders champagne. The gathering fills their flutes. Having partaken of a round or two, they are then shuttled to the factory premises where a bigger party awaits them. Music, multiple watering stations and Perez and Ocon lending their presence cap the day.

As he nimbly negotiates his way through the crowd, shaking hands, signing autographs, this is not the flamboyant Mallya people have admired or found allergic over the years. He smiles, but there’s no swagger. There are pretty women aplenty, but no calendar girls in his arms. Indeed, in an aside, standing beside a counter serving classy French Rose at his post-race bash, he’s curious to know what’s really going on in India, for recent reports in the British media speak of an economy tanking and tension on the border with China.

On stage, he tells an applauding audience at the elegant party, “The success of the team on the track and the points that we score is the collective effort of everyone, down to our receptionist.” Critics in India may carp motor sport is not a sporting discipline; they may condemn it as a pastime of the wealthy. But there is no denying it demands a level of engineering excellence, human skill and technological sophistication almost unmatched in any other sport. 

With the annual 20-leg Formula 1 series at mid-point, Mallya is asked how his team will fare in the rest of the competition. He replies, “Hopefully stronger. I think this time last year we were actually fifth, behind Williams, and during the second half of the season we outperformed them, caught up, overhauled them and finished fourth in the World Championship. This year, fortunately, we are a good 54 points ahead of them and that’s a strong position to be in. With the development of the car continuing as it is, I think we should only get stronger.” More cheers, more raising of glasses from 100-odd fans and sponsors for the slightly portly, sun-tanned, designer-bearded king of good times.

To go a step further will be a challenge. Red Bull, who are presently placed third, are a hefty 79 points ahead of Force India. In other words, only if Perez and Ocon consistently finish fifth and sixth or above in the second half of the season can it hope to narrow the gap.

Force India uses Mercedes engines, each of which cost a whopping $500,000. Under Federation Internationale de l’Automobile rules, these have to be identical in every respect to the ones fitted to the Mercedes team’s cars. So what makes the difference? Aerodynamics. Mallya says, “In designing and developing Formula 1 cars at the highest level of the sport, where a 100th of a second makes a difference, whatever we develop here at our factory, in our wind tunnels and our simulator doesn’t necessarily show off the same way on track.” But he claims, “We’ve narrowed the gap of correlation differences, now we have more of a true car performance trackside. So we have every reason to be confident we’ll get stronger as the series progresses.” The curvature and slimness of the new Force India chassis, which is what it’s all about, has Mallya’s trademark indelibly imprinted on it. It’s called VJM10!   

Formula 1 racing — started in 1950 — is a mega enterprise with well over 400 million television viewers worldwide. It is a dominance of cutting edge automobile giants: Germany's Mercedes, Italy’s Ferrari, France’s Renault, Japan’s Honda, among others. In this rarefied company, an Indian dared to take the plunge 10 years ago. To begin with it seemed he was out of his depth, bound to come a cropper. But he’s proved the pessimists wrong. 

There were whispers in the marquee about Mallya reinventing himself into a London-based businessman from a Bengaluru-headquartered one. Kingfisher is marketed in the United Kingdom as the leading Indian beer. It’s brewed in the county of Kent, adjoining London. Last month, he made a move to thrust it into the mainstream from it being mainly available in Indian restaurants. He tied up with the International Cricket Council as the sole supplier of beer at Champions Trophy matches, thereby enhancing its visibility.

His appearance at an India match in the tourney, though, was a mixed experience, unlike the welcoming environment he encountered in and around the British Grand Prix. Over the summer, he’s also feasted on his other love — horse racing — at Royal Ascot, not to mention tennis at Wimbledon.

But with his passport confiscated by the Indian government, he is unable to venture out of Britain. “I enjoy meeting all the guests and sponsors and walking around the paddock,” he admits. However, since he’s restrained from going to other Formula 1 races, he’s installed a virtual pit wall at home to watch them. He does not deny he misses being at other venues. “My time will come and I’ll go back to the tracks,” he predicts.

On July 31, he will be served a 30-page summary of the evidence the Indian government claims it has against him — distilled from the 2,030 pages submitted earlier — in its application to extradite him to India. Perhaps, to psychologically unnerve him, stories have been planted — somewhat prematurely — that he’ll be lodged at Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison. “This witch hunt against me has been going on for a while,” Mallya told Reuters. He maintained, “I have done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, I am glad that it is finally before a UK court and an impartial court. So we wait and see how it plays out.”

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