The International Automobile Federation Sports (FIA) Vice President, Surinder Thatthi, was in Nigeria recently and he played host Adrian Egonu of Naija Car Lovers (NCL) and he spoke on sundry issues.
Among other things he talked about during the eye opening interview was Nigeria not taking her pride of place in the world of Motorsports.
Please read the engaging and riveting interview…
ST: My name is Surinder Thatthi.
NCL: I hope you’re enjoying Nigeria. Is this your first time?
ST: Yes I am. No it is not my first time. I was here back in 2008 with Ishaku Bamaiyi. When he was trying to set up his club. He was then not a member of the FIA. I came and we started some Motorsports activities.
NCL: Oh really?
ST: As at then Ishaku was more interested in Motorsports. But unfortunately we already had a Motorsports member in Nigeria. He is Abdulraheem Agunbiade. He runs Automobile and Sporting Club of Nigeria. But he is not very active. We are hoping that either he pulls up his socks or he gives up the Motorsports power to an alternative person who might be able to do something better, because Nigeria has a lot of money, we can have a lot of sports as well.
When Ishaku approached the FIA for the Motorsports arm, he was told it had been given to another person but he however was given the Mobility arm.
NCL: Based on our population, the truth is that many people here have a lot of interest in automobiles and motoring sports in Nigeria. So what are the things you think he should do to improve even if an alternative person coming in, what are the things best for them to do?
ST: It’s not expensive to start grassroots Motorsports. And grassroots Motorsports for your children is karting for example. Building a karting track is not expensive at all. So if somebody builds a karting track and the kids have an opportunity to show their talent, you never know, there is nothing to say that a Lewis Hamilton can’t come out of Nigeria, but they have to be given an opportunity to get there. If you don’t give them the opportunity, you will never find the Hamilton. Ishaku Bamaiyi; President-Automobile and Touring Club of Nigeria, an affiliate of the FIA (Mobility arm).
NCL: Why has it taken you this long to come to Nigeria to do this?
ST: Quite frankly we have been pushing Abdulraheem to do more in Motorsports and he’s been attending our conferences, our regional congresses and we keep saying to him over and over again including the President of the FIA Jean Todt has expressed to him that we would love to see more happening in Nigeria. But you know we are a governing body, we are not going to make Motorsports happen for you. All we can do is to create the enabling environment and encourage the clubs to do more themselves. So that’s what we are doing basically. It’s trying to say that the club either does more for Motorsports in Nigeria and if they can’t do it then we have to give it to somebody who can.
NCL: Right now do you have any affiliations with the Nigerian Government or are there other agencies here you are working with?
ST: No. Not in Motorsports but certainly on the road safety side, we are working with the FRSC (Federal Road Safety Corps). And they were in kenya for a road safety conference and our President who is also a special envoy for the UN (United Nations) for road safety was in Nairobi for the same conference and he expressed to them that he wants to come here and he is going to be here in August for a UN and the FRSC seminar for all the West African countries on road safety, so he is going to be one of the chief guests. And because he will be here we decided also to have a Motorsports congress here which is what Ishaku is helping us to organize here in Abuja.
NCL: I knew when the conference took place in Nairobi, Kenya last year. Between then and now, do you think they made appreciable progress interms of road safety, and other things that were discussed during the conference? Why I am asking is to know how we can also make progress here in Nigeria.
ST: I am not 100% sure about the road safety side because that’s not my area of competence. I am on the Motorsports side. And on the sporting side, I’m sorry, your progress has been zero. Nigeria is the worst African country in terms of progress in Motorsports. So i will really love to see more happening here in Nigeria because you have the capability, you have people with…,you know Motorsports is all about fast cars and there is no human being that doesn’t love fast cars. Everybody loves fast cars, so you already have Nigerians who have the love for Motorsports so why are we not giving them the medium to create Motorsports here? So that’s what we are trying to encourage and that’s why we want to have the congress here so we can say ‘get into gear’ and do something about it.
NCL: So for the road safety, you can’t speak much on that right?
ST: No, road safety is not my area but certainly our President will be here and he will be the chief guest of the conference taking place for road safety and he will be talking. You know there is a lot of synergy between Motorsports and road safety because some of our drivers like Lewis Hamilton are also ambassadors for road safety and that’s all due to the encouragement of our President which is very good.
NCL: Between now and August we have 5 months. And we also have only 3 more years before year 2020 when the Global Road Safety Decade of Action Plan ends, i know it’s not your area but what are the things you think we should do as a government and as individuals to improve on road safety to achieve the aim of the Decade of Action?
ST: One thing that i discovered yesterday, because we had a meeting with some officials of the FRSC is that they don’t have any teeth. They have not been signed off by the President yet to be able to actually go out there and check for speeding, yeah, because the bill has been passed by the Legislature but not been assented to by the President if i understand well. The FRSC is quite a big organization, there are many vehicles in the organization, but if those vehicles are not going out there to check the people that are speeding, people that are drink driving, that means the organization is set up but not active yet. So that’s something that maybe this conference will also talk on that I will report to Jean Todt from the things I discussed yesterday and if that’s the case then maybe he can encourage the people in authority to do something about it so that road safety can be improved here. You know that Nigeria has a very high statistics on road crashes in the Africa. I think you are only second to South Africa so if that’s the case, then somebody has to do something. The body that is designated for road safety does not have the full powers yet which is important.
NCL: Have you been to Lagos before?
NCL: You have come to Abuja, which is a very different place compared to Lagos interms of culture especially as it concerns road usage, everything is different. Lagos is where you can describe more as an ideal miniature Nigeria unlike here. Why don’t you think that you find a way to route your trip through Lagos so that you can talk more about Nigeria. Why i say it is because the level of development interns of road safety, traffic management and road usage in Lagos is very different from what one get here. Lagos is putting up lots of structures both interns of rescue for crash victims, traffic management etc, unlike what you might have here so you might have to factor these in to help guide better for one to decide if Lagos is on the right track or should the entire country emulate/adopt the Lagos model? Or what things need to be added or adjusted to their model? So I will also like the FIA to put more eyes on the Lagos model.
ST: I will pass the message across to our President. And see if he has the time so he probably passes through Lagos as well.
NCL: What other advice do you have for the Nigerian motoring population?
ST: Well, in the continent of Africa we have probably the top two wealthiest countries; South Africa and Nigeria. South Africa today has 6,900 competition license holders; people that have the license to take part in Motorsports events. They have about 7 racing circuits around the country, they have probably about 15 karting circuits, they have various other forms of Motorsports like rally, Crosscountry, Autocross and Oval Racing events, so, so many forms of Motorsports. In one year, they have 1,100 events in the whole of South Africa.
And what does Nigeria have in comparison? Zero license holders and zero circuits. So that’s what we are saying that certainly there is a vast opportunity to improve Motorsports in Nigeria. Now Motorsporting complements road safety. You make better drivers and better cars, so the proper thing is to start with karting from the grassroots. Those young boys and girls who go into karting, as they grow up might want something else to do. Then it’s up to the people in authority to form that something else for them to do like a race circuit. You know a racing circuit is a safe and controlled environment. It’s not out on an open road. I’m sure you have a lot of young people who go on your highways or are driving in the night to satisfy their need for speed. And even the drifters who might even be out on the streets in the middle of the night, so you know, this is uncontrolled. It is better to create a controlled environment that is also safe….this is very important. Motorsports right from the grassroots has not developed at all in Nigeria. There is a vast potential and huge revenue to be made from this potential because those 6,900 licensed holders pay a license fee to the Federation. Those 1,100 events pay permit fees to be part of a legal event. So there is so much revenue for the Federation to be gained. That revenue is not revenue for use rather to promote Motorsports.
NCL: This brings me to my next question. Motorsports is a capital intensive venture. How do you think Nigerian sponsors can benefit from been involved in Motorsports in Nigeria.
ST: Motorsports related activities are few companies….for instance, at the moment, there is a big Fuel Conference going on here…..Chevron and others are here, these are all people involved in Motorsports. So they can all gain from sponsorship of these Motorsports events. And when you create a Nigerian Motorsports hero, the sponsors will go behind him.
NCL: Will you be here for the Zuru Tourism Trophy in December this year?
ST: Unfortunately no. We do go to events, but we go to events when we are invited to or if they are part of FIA Chairmanship. So unfortunately this event is not part of the FIA Chairmanship. This is even my first time hearing of such.
NCL: Maybe you grant them an exception since every form of Motorsports is still in an infancy stage in Nigeria as encouragement.
ST: Well I have been in the FIA Motorsports for the past 15 years and since the past 15 years, Nigerian Motorsports has remained at an infancy stage so what are you doing?
NCL: Maybe we are baby elephants so we need a longer gestation period.
NCL: Have you heard of Eleko Motor Race?
ST: I have met one of the organizers; Edward Osakwe at one of our congresses outside Nigeria.
NCL: I hope that within the shortest possible time, things will improve as per Motorsports here in Nigeria so that the status quo will change. With the likes of Ishaku Bamaiyi, Edward Osakwe and others trying to do great things in this area despite the challenges and limited resources they face, I believe there will be quantum leaps in terms of Motorsports in Nigeria.
ST: I will like to see progress, that will be good. I’m sure when things start they will flourish very fast because even the rich need something to do and also put their money into. Motorsports as you said is a capital intensive venture and there are many people with the resources who won’t mind putting it into Motorsports so like one wise man once said; “if you want to be a race driver, you have to choose your parents carefully and make sure they have money”.
NCL: The congress coming up in August, is it open to the public or for specific people?
ST: No it is for delegates from the 22 member countries of Africa, will come to Abuja. We will invite one delegate from each club. Some of the other people that will be coming will come from Geneva which is the FIA headquarters, are people involved with motor rallying etc; we have to think and talk of ways to revamp the African Rallying Championships which is a regional rally championship which at the moment is lacking entries. We have to think of ways to make it a little bit better so it’s going to be a big think-tank meeting. So the public will not be there and neither is it for the press but the press can be around at the sidelines for interviews probably during the dinner for the delegates so they can also ask questions from the President of the FIA and other top officials.
NCL: What are the things you intend to achieve with this congress?
ST: Every year we all get together and discuss the various aspects of Motorsports in each individual country. To see what improvements have been made since the last time we met. So basically it’s to encourage Motorsports throughout the continent. We have seen a lot progress in the last 10 years. Things have improved incredibly all over Africa, many countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ethiopia never had Motorsports, now they have started karting, and other aspects of the sports like drifting. You know they are not allowed to rally again because of police restrictions on speeding cars. So various forms of Motorsports are discussed. Then another thing the President of the FIA has started is the grants programme whereby the FIA uses some of the money received from Formula 1 in giving the clubs some grants for development of Motorsports so there are certain aspects they can use money from the FIA to develop programmes like timing systems, safety developments in Motorsports events. The’s also infrastructure development like we won’t build your karting circuits for you but we can give you money for the planning, the architecture etc for the circuit but you have to find the money from your government to build the circuit. What the FIA is trying to do is to encourage Motorsports throughout the world. Many countries like Rwanda, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa have already applied for grants to get a karting programme going. So what they’ve done is that they’ve bought 12 karts and they also started a schools programme whereby they are inviting children from schools to come to the circuits and drive karts and if there is any outstanding talent that comes out of that endeavour, they come in and try to give him an opportunity to go further. You never know, you know in all these schools in Nigeria, there might be a Hamilton in one of those schools like Felipe Massa once said; “the best driver in the world might be a taxi driver in Brazil or any other country at the moment but we haven’t found him yet”. So talent has to be found.
NCL: It’s been very nice speaking with you sir, what other words do you have for Nigerians?
ST: Nigerians have all the potentials to be the great sportsmen because we have seen their exploits in major sports activities like the Olympics, etc you guys do so well in sprints etc, so another thing is that all Africans have stamina. Look at the Ethiopians and Kenyans, they are marathon runners. You all have the stamina. What we have to do is to find or give a medium to that stamina to be used in the right direction in Motorsports and I’m sure you guys will excel. Nigerians should embrace Motorsports ‘cos it’s a fun sport and very exciting also with a very bright future. 10 years down the line, or even 5 years down the line, if somebody has the interest, it’s to bring a Formula 1 race to Nigeria, but that is an expensive circuit to build and an expensive race to run because this is the pinnacle of motorsports. So if this can come to Nigeria, why not? Nothing is impossible.
NCL: Can you give an idea it can cost to build a Formula 1 circuit?
ST: The Formula 1 circuit that was built in Abu Dhabi cost about 350 million Dollars to build. But it was not only a circuit, it also involved a lot of other infrastructure around it which i think finally made the cost around 1 billion Dollars. But the circuit alone was about 350 million USD.
NCL: In Nigeria, for one to do something big and succeed, you need to have some sort of government backing, endorsement or affiliation or partnership, from your interactions with the FRSC so far, do you think they are favourably disposed to supporting Motorsports in Nigeria?
ST: No. As of now no because they don’t understand it yet. And you know, Motorsports, Formula 1 circuit for example, the biggest benefactor is not any individual, it is the country. Singapore had a Formula 1 race and people that never knew where Singapore is now know where it is. They saw incredible images of the country as never seen before. And they said; “my God, what a lovely city, I would love to visit this city as soon as possible”, so this boosts the tourism potentials of any host country and infuse a lot of foreign exchange into the local economy, so the country benefits. It also gives you television coverage/audience comparable only to the Olympics. But a Formula 1 race gives you a a television audience that can boost tourism. For instance, if you have a Formula 1/street race in Lagos, can you imagine the beautiful images of Lagos that will be broadcast to the world? So what I’m saying is that at the moment, your government doesn’t understand the benefits accruable from Motorsports or the impact something like this can create but hopefully, with time, things will turn around for good.
NCL: We look forward to better Nigeria interns of Motorsports. As you have come to Nigeria, have you eaten our food?
ST: Yeah, yeah, I have gone to ‘point and fish’.
NCL: Thanks so much sir for your time.
ST: You are most welcome; it’s been nice meeting you.