F1 stunned by Indian poverty
Delhi - They screech in on private jets and party with the rich and famous, but Formula One's pampered drivers admitted India's grinding poverty had given them a jolting reality check.
Although the brand new Buddh International Circuit appears, against many expectations, to be ready for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix, the plush facilities cannot hide the sheer squalor of the country outside.
Britain's Jenson Button said coming to India was "difficult" for the drivers, who have been stunned at the living conditions glimpsed outside their luxury hotels.
"You can't forget the poverty in India. It's difficult coming here for the first time, you realise there's a big divide between the wealthy people and the poor people," he said.
"Hopefully the race here is going to help everyone. It's good to see that we've got a lot of workers here and hopefully that's helping them out in terms of making their life a little bit easier."
While high-powered Formula One cars scream round the new course, cycle and auto rickshaws are favoured modes of transport for the masses outside.
Piles of burning rubbish flank shanty towns and decrepit buildings, while the acrid stench of urine fills the air as men and women relieve themselves on the roadside.
German champion Sebastian Vettel caught his first glimpse of Indian life on the 200-kilometre (125-mile) drive from New Delhi to the Taj Mahal, and he said it was a humbling experience.
"It definitely brings your feet back on the ground in many ways and makes you understand a lot of things," Vettel said. "It's an inspiration and makes you appreciate things you take for granted."
The jarring spectacle of lavish Formula One coming to Greater Noida, a dusty satellite of New Delhi, has prompted some disquiet with one British newspaper calling it "grotesque" and a well-known athlete saying it was "criminal".
The track is in Jaypee Greens Sports City, a new housing and business development which will offer India's growing middle class a chance to keep the poverty at arm's length.
"I feel very bad because such hi-fi business (Formula One) has nothing to do with 99 percent of Indians. It is a criminal waste," former Olympic hurdler P.T. Usha told the Economic Times.
"First, Twenty20 cricket spoiled the spirit of Indian sports, and now here comes another avatar which will mostly attract corporate money, who rarely spend for sports promotion. Only God can save the Indian sports."
Shooter Gagan Narang said Formula One was out of reach for the vast majority of Indians, as witnessed when organisers had to slash ticket prices to try to fill the 120,000-capacity circuit.
"Let's face it that the sport is not for everyone. Only people with money will have the access," Narang said, according to the Economic Times.
"I have heard from Indian friends abroad that turning up for Indian GP is more expensive than Singapore GP. That beats the purpose."
Vettel was also fascinated by driving standards on India's notoriously dangerous roads, where motorists routinely use the wrong side of the road and ignore signs and markings at the cost of 340 lives every day.
"So I asked the driver whether people really do a licence here. He said you just pay and you get a licence," said the German.
"The funny thing is, coming from Europe we have so many rules and sometimes it's really complicated sticking to all the rules. Over here, I wouldn't say you have no rules but you have way less.
"But it works, we didn't see a single crash happening. We may say it's chaos, but it's organised chaos."
Button's McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton said Indian fans had shown a passion for Formula One - which could translate, with bleak irony, into big profits for the sport.
"They're incredibly fanatical about it, they're crazy about Formula One," Hamilton said.
"They've definitely got the bug. The energy that I've got from the fans from coming here has been mesmerising for me. The last time I was here there was supposed to be 5 000 people but 40 000 turned up.
"They were so excited to see me or touch me or whatever, they were coming over the fences. It was really quite special. I hope we get the same reaction here."