Embattled Force India team boss Vijay Mallya made his Indian Grand Prix entrance in combative mood today, lashing local media for their coverage of his business troubles and grounded Kingfisher airline.
The liquor and aviation tycoon, no longer a billionaire according to the latest Forbes list, flew in from London on his private Airbus after suggestions that he might stay away to avoid having it impounded.
"Was there any doubt about my presence here?" he told Reuters, minutes after walking through the paddock turnstiles with cars roaring around the Buddh circuit as final practice got under way.
Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines had its licence suspended by India's civil aviation authorities last week and has not flown since the start of October after a protest by employees, unpaid since March, turned violent.
The airline has never turned a profit and, according to the consultancy Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, has total debt estimated at about $2.5 billion.
Mallya has not been seen in India for weeks and the airlines troubles, as well as a threat of protests by Kingfisher employees outside the Formula One circuit, have led to speculation about whether he would return for the race.
"I have always been available and whatever settlement has been reached (between the airline management and the employees) it's because of my participation," he told PTI
"You believe Indian papers have any credibility?"said Mallya, bristling when asked about the recent coverage of his affairs.
"There is no libel law in India, so there is nothing you can do to bring them to book," he added, accusing his media critics of 'cooking up sensational headlines daily' and writing nonsense. "Obviously, if I am not at my home grand prix, why should I be anywhere else?"
Mallya is an important figure in Formula One, a longtime friend of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and sitting on the governing International Automobile Federation's world motor sport council.
He was also instrumental in bringing the sport to the country and co-owns the first and only Indian-licensed team.
"Why should there be even one iota of doubt that I wouldn't be here? I just don't understand it," he said. "Kingfisher Airlines is a Plc. They (the local media) don't understand the concept of a Plc. In a Plc where is one man, who might be the chairman, responsible for the finances of the entire Plc? And what has it got to do with all my other businesses? I have built up and run the largest spirits company in the world in this country."
Asked whether he had flown to India on his plane, Mallya vented more frustration.
"You are probably referring to my plane being seized? Wonderful. I don't owe anybody money," he said. "Why should my plane be at risk. It's so stupid."
Mallya also controls United Spirits, which is in talks to sell a stake to UK giant Diageo Plc, and flagship liquor business United Breweries.
Asked about the Diageo talks, Mallya said no deal had been done yet: "Whenever we need to say something we will, we keep discussing but we don't know whether a deal will happen or not," he added.
Ferrari move to calm navy flag row
Ferrari moved to placate angry Indian authorities on Saturday with an assurance that a navy flag on their Formula One cars was not a political statement of support for Italian sailors detained for killing local fishermen.
The Italian navy flag will, however, remain on the cars for the remainder of the Indian Grand Prix weekend.
Indian motorsports federation (FMSCI) head Vicky Chandhok said he had had talks with Ferrari after the Indian Sports Ministry wrote to him and race promoters expressing concern about the Italian team's gesture.
"(Ferrari) were very clear that they do not want to interfere in the Indian judicial system. They have the utmost respect for India and the Indian public and do not want to hurt any sentiments here," he told Reuters. "They have given us a fresh statement that is very clear that it (the gesture) is not political in nature."
The two sailors were detained in February on charges of killing two Indian fishermen while protecting a cargo ship off the Indian ocean coast.
Italy says the sailors, who were released on bail in June in the southern state of Kerala, mistook the men for pirates.
Ferrari issued a statement on Saturday saying they had put the flag on their cars as a tribute to "one of our country's outstanding institutions".
The declaration overwrote one published on their website (www.ferrari.com) earlier in the week that had also hoped the sailors' situation would be resolved.
The sports ministry, in their letter to grand prix organisers, had asked the FMSCI "to take steps to ensure that the event is not politicised in any manner and sentiments of the people of India are not hurt".
"The ministry have the view that any such action by Ferrari may also be construed as an attempt to subvert the process of justice," the letter added.
Formula One's governing body, the International Automobile Federation, has an apolitical and non-religious stance. The FMSCI said in a statement of its own that it would "not permit any attempt to subvert the process of justice by politicising" the grand prix.