Yas Marina (Abu Dhabi): When the green light came on at the end of the pit lane and the first car, driven by Malaysian Alex Yoong roared off on to the Yas Marina Circuit track here in a Radical SR3 car, it made for a momentous occasion for Indian motor sports.

The start of the first pre-season test session ahead of the inaugural and ambitious IPL-style i1 Supercar Series promoted by Bangalore-based Machdar Motorsports, finally fleshed out a project that had aroused as much skepticism as optimism and hope.

'Our journey has just begun and there is still a long way to go. Of course, I am happy that after three years of hard work, we are able to show you the cars and the drivers. This is just the first step,' remarked Machdar Motorsports CEO Darshan M soon after the session got underway.

The franchise system envisions nine Indian city teams with a mix of foreign and Indian drivers. As of now, only five teams - Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi - have confirmed ownership, while negotiations are underway for four other franchises to complete the grid.

Darshan's right-hand man and who looks after the commercials of the project, Vinod Menon admitted that the lack of motor sport credentials and pedigree has made it much tougher for them to get the project on stream.

'The i1 Supercar Series has been in the pipleline for three years over which the format evolved. When Darshan and I got together, we were aware of the realities that had to do with the fact that neither of us had any motor sport background or pedigree. It took a lot of convincing for others to get involved in our project.

'The basic principle is to provide a platform for young Indian racers to showcase their talent on a bigger stage than just India. The i1 Sportscar Series enables our youngsters to mix with some of the big names of the sport and learn from them,' said Menon in an interview to IANS on the sidelines of the pre-season test.

Appreciating the fact that any form of motor sport is essentially capital-intensive given the huge costs to put together a series, the duo worked out a business model that envisaged a break-even on investments in the fourth season.
'To this end, we kept the format very simple. A single-make series would ensure equality in terms of the cars. We also put together a centralised control system whereby we provided not only the cars, but also the technical support, driver contracts and vendors so as to not burden franchise holders with the complexities of the sport.

'The tipping point would be for an Indian to win the championship and we believe there are a couple of them who can do so. That would hopefully bring in more sponsors,' said Menon.

At the outset, however, Menon and Darshan had to surmount big odds since both were unknown quantities in motor sport. Their approaches were met with cynicism and suspicion, but both persisted with the project.

The series received approval from the FIA, the World governing body for the sport and thereafter, Sachin Tendulkar agreed to be the brand ambassador. The two factors provided much-needed momentum.

'A few curve balls came our way, but getting FIA approval was crucial. We also needed someone like Sachin because of his passion for motor sport and of course, his iconic stature and the mass following he enjoys in India. When he agreed to support the series, it was a big step of validation,' Menon said.

For all that, it still demanded sizeable initial investment and to this end, Machdar Motorsports secured support from a Hyderabad Media house that is also into IPL.

Menon disclosed that the promoters have already invested $10 million that has helped them to procure the Radical SR3 cars besides put in place the support system and also organize a pre-test session here with the Indian Media in attendance.

From Indian perspective, the series is also the first time that the drivers are paid to drive rather than the other way around as in other Formula championships.

The line-up of some well-known Formula One drivers like 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, Jean Alesi, Giancarlo Fisichella, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Mika Salo, besides India's own Karun Chandhok along with the cream of domestic racing talent, has helped to flesh out the project.

However, as Menon admitted, the success of the series and also the future are linked to sustainability that alone will provide the endorsement to this unique project.

'We are hopeful but confident that it will take off once we deliver what we have promised. To this end, the pre-test session here was the critical first step,' said Menon.

Given the fact that the two-hour test session enjoyed a trouble-free run though the cars arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit barely 48 hours earlier was as good a good omen for the series that offers $2 million in prize-money at the end of a five rounds of double-headers to be held in Malaysia (Jan 21-22, 2012), Bahrain (Feb 3-4), Qatar (Feb 10-11), Buddh International Circuit, Delhi (Feb 25-26) and Abu Dhabi (March 9-10).