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India raises the flag for F1

By Alan Baldwin

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - With both Formula One championships already wrapped up by Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team, India takes the starring role on its long-awaited grand prix debut this weekend.

It would be little short of a miracle if Narain Karthikeyan, the only Indian on the starting grid, scores a point with struggling Hispania but there is plenty of pride nonetheless at the new Buddh International Circuit.

Built as scheduled at a cost of some $400 million, the track promises to change perceptions about the capabilities of Indian sport after the chaotic preparations for last year's corruption-hit Commonwealth Games in the capital.

"This weekend is a very significant moment and I'm extremely proud," said liquor and aviation tycoon Vijay Mallya, the principal of the Force India team.

"It's a major step forward for Indian motorsport and for sport in general in our country. We are all looking forward to it immensely."

British-based Force India, who have no Indian drivers or mechanics, have taken out full-page advertisements in local media and set up a website calling on fans to 'Raise the Flag' under the slogan 'One nation. One soul. One Indian Team'.

Indian cricket great Sachin Tendulkar is set to wave the checkered flag on the race while Bollywood's leading lights are sure to be jostling for a share of the limelight before the start.

Mallya's team are sixth in the championship and hope to score more points in the 17th of 19 grands prix this season. He said it would be the biggest race in Force India's history.

"We are all determined to be as competitive as possible," he declared. "I want to savor every moment of what will surely be one of the most spectacular events of the season and the start of a great Formula One tradition in India."

There will inevitably be teething problems, and critics also question the staging of such an elite and costly event in a country that combines a booming economy with grinding poverty and severe malnutrition.

VETTEL CONFIDENT

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who turns 81 on Monday, is confident all will go to plan.

"I was pessimistic a fortnight ago. I was sent pictures of the track and I thought: 'Christ, we're not going to get it finished in time'," he told Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"But what they have done in the meantime - and I've been sent more recent pictures - is incredible. The people there are very anxious to be sure they're doing a good job and they are very passionate about their sport."

On the track, the main battle will be between Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari with the leading drivers focusing purely on winning now that the championships are over.

Vettel will be gunning for his 11th victory of a season in which the German could still equal compatriot Michael Schumacher's 2004 record with Ferrari of 13 in a single year.

Like his rivals, the 24-year-old has been busy learning the layout of the new track.

"By the time we race in India, I'll have done several laps of the track on the simulator," he said this week.

"We're expecting the track to have the second highest average speed of the season after Monza. That means that we'll be completing a lap at an average speed of 235kph, so there should be plenty of good opportunities to overtake."

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who ended Red Bull's run of 16 successive pole positions at the last race in South Korea, is also looking forward to the weekend after doing a demonstration in Bangalore last month.

"I think we're set to be competitive at all of the final three races," said the 2008 champion. "We were quick at Singapore, Japan and Korea, and I think the pattern at the front has sort of settled down now as we reach the end of the season.

"I think we have a car that can be quick anywhere, so I'd like to think we'd be in the hunt again next weekend."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Robert Woodward; For Reuters sports blog Left Field go to: http://blogs.reuters.com/sport)