By Alan Baldwin
GREATER NOIDA, India (Reuters) - Vijay Mallya's nameplate gleamed on the door of his office in the Force India hospitality at the Indian Grand Prix on Thursday while a team sponsor board outside carried the words 'Fly Kingfisher'.
The flamboyant Formula One team owner and self-proclaimed 'King of Good Times' was nowhere to be seen however while his debt-ridden Kingfisher Airline is not flying anywhere just at the moment.
The tycoon's whereabouts have been the subject of considerable interest while his airline staff have protested at not being paid since March and the country's aviation regulator has suspended Kingfisher's licence.
Although Kingfisher employees agreed on Thursday to resume work after a meeting with the company chief executive (READ STORY http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/10/25/kingfisher-airlines-staff-salary-strike-idINDEE89O06B20121025), the liquor and aviation baron has not been seen in India or a Formula One paddock for weeks.
A report in the Times of India newspaper 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Another non-bailable court warrant issued against him over bounced cheques to an airport operator was revoked this month after the dues were settled.
Force India deputy principal Bob Fernley, speaking to Reuters in Mallya's office, played down such speculation however.
"He'll be coming into India tomorrow (Friday) evening or early morning 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 Formula One teams, governing body and commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone in Paris on Monday.
"Obviously 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 Airline 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 Formula One team to race under an Indian licence even if they have never had an Indian driver and are not likely to any time soon, are Mallya's private plaything although business conglomerate Sahara took a 42.5 percent stake last year.
Sahara, whose brand is prominent on the cars as title sponsor, have also been attracting negative business headlines after being ordered by the Supreme Court last October to refund about $4.6 billion to investors.
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 the New Delhi area 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."
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who celebrates his 82nd birthday on Sunday, defended his friend.
"I've known Vijay for 30 odd years. Vijay during his life has had ups and downs," the Briton told Reuters. "And I hope if he's on a down, which I don't know whether he is, he'll be up again.
"I don't think Vijay's problem will affect the team. I hope it doesn't affect him, because he's a good guy."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)