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Indian GP awaits playboy Mallya

2012-10-26 07:39

GREATER NOIDA, India - Vijay Mallya's nameplate gleamed on the door of his office in the Force India hospitality at the 2012 Indian F1 GP on Thursday while a team sponsor board outside carried the words 'Fly Kingfisher'.

The flamboyant Indian F1 team owner and self-proclaimed 'King of Good Times' was nowhere to be seen, however, and his debt-ridden Kingfisher airline was not flying anywhere.

The tycoon's whereabouts have been the subject of considerable interest while his airline staff have not being paid since March and the country's aviation regulator has suspended Kingfisher's licence.

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Although Kingfisher employees agreed on Thursday to resume work after a meeting with the company's chief executive, the liquor and aviation baron has not been seen in India or an F1 paddock for weeks. A report in The Times of India on Thursday suggested Mallya's private Airbus could be impounded if he landed in India because of dues allegedly owed to airport authorities.

Another non-bailable court warrant issued against him over bounced cheques to an Indian airport operator was revoked this month after the bill was settled.

Force India deputy principal Bob Fernley, speaking to Reuters in Mallya's office, played down such speculation. "He'll be coming into India on Friday evening or early Saturday," he said. "As far as I am aware, it's just the normal business. Arrive Saturday, do qualifying and come in for the race on Sunday."

Fernley said Mallya was in Europe and had attended a meeting with F1 teams, the governing body and commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone in Paris on Monday over a new Concorde agreement.

"You have to have sympathy for the employees of Kingfisher airlines. Huge sympathy," he said when asked about reports of possible protests at the circuit, "but at the end of the day it's a public company.

"My feeling is that no Kingfisher personnel have any negative thoughts to Sahara Force India personnel or the success of Sahara Force India. They are two completely separate entities."

Force India, the first F1 team to race under an Indian licence even if it has never had an Indian driver and is not likely to any time soon, is Mallya's private plaything although Indian business conglomerate, Sahara, took a 42.5% stake in 2011. Its branding is prominent on the race cars as title sponsor but the company has also been attracting negative business headlines after being ordered by the Indian Supreme Court last October to refund about $4.6-billion to investors.

Indian newspapers have run large Force India advertisements ahead of Sunday's race, with similar hoardings on circuit approach roads, urging "C'mon India, raise the flag!" and declaring the team to be the only one "powered by the hopes of a billion people".

The team's drivers, Germany's Nico Hulkenberg and Britain's Paul di Resta, have both been busy carrying out promotional duties around New Delhi in recent days. Di Resta told reporters, at a crowded briefing, that he had detected no hostility towards the team as a result of Kingfisher's woes.

"I've not seen anything and I'm not aware of anything," he said. "If there's anybody they want to target then it's Vijay they should target because he's the one involved in the issues."

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who will have his 82nd birthday on Sunday, defended his friend. "I've known Vijay for 30 years. Vijay during his life has had ups and downs," the Briton told Reuters. I don't think Vijay's problem will affect the team. I hope it doesn't affect him, because he's a good guy."

Stay with Wheels24 for the 2012 Indian F1 GP weekend.

Reuters