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Lewis Hamilton centre stage in F1's Indian adventure

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Andrew Benson | 14:49 UK time, Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Indian Grand Prix was not the thrilling spectacle Formula 1 wanted it to be but if that amazing country is to succumb to the sport's advances after this inaugural race at least it won't be under false pretences.

The packed grandstands - unusual for a first race in a new territory for F1 - witnessed a grand prix that encapsulated in many ways what F1 2011 has all been about.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel strolled to a comfortable victory, taking only as much out of his car and tyres as he needed to. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso - the other two stand-out drivers of the year - followed him home. And Lewis Hamilton found himself embroiled in yet another contretemps with his nemesis, Felipe Massa.

Hamilton, as has been well documented, has not had a great year. There have been some fantastic highs but by and large he has performed well below his superlative best.

On the way, he has been involved in some high-profile incidents, many of which have been his fault. But his collision with Massa in India on Sunday was not one of them.

As Hamilton's McLaren edged alongside the Brazilian's Ferrari into Turn Five on lap 24, it looked as if the Englishman was poised to pull off one of the great overtaking moves for which he is rightly famous. Instead, Massa turned in as if Hamilton was not there, and their races were ruined on the spot.

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Hamilton has had so many penalties from race officials this year that it was perhaps no surprise that up in the commentary box Martin Brundle said he thought this might lead to another one.

But it became clear from replays that this time it was not Hamilton's fault.

He was virtually completely alongside Massa as they neared the brief braking zone and he was still halfway alongside when they collided despite - as he said afterwards - trying to pull out of the move when he realised Massa was not going to give way.

Massa could be seen looking in his mirrors a number of times, and made it clear after the race that he knew the McLaren was there. But he felt he was in the right because - as he put it - he "could not see" Hamilton as he turned in. As the stewards decided, though, Hamilton was far enough alongside to have a go - and Massa should have given him more room.

The only question you can ask about Hamilton's manoeuvre was why he chose to go for the move there.

The spot he chose is not, as Brundle and fellow commentator David Coulthard pointed out, exactly an easy passing place. With his speed advantage, and knowing that - because of their history this year - Massa was unlikely to be accommodating, it would have been less risky to try the move at the end of the long straight.

For Hamilton, the collision was especially bad news. While he had struggled in the first stint of the race, he was at this stage looking like he might have a shot at a podium finish.

On his second set of tyres, he was demonstrating good speed and, had he managed to pass Massa, he may well have been able to catch Alonso, too. That would have given him third place, assuming he, like the Spaniard, had been able to leapfrog Mark Webber's Red Bull at the second stops.

As it was, it was another weekend to forget for Hamilton, who was downcast after the race.

His father, Anthony, confirmed on Sunday what many in F1 have long suspected - that Hamilton simply wants 2011 to end and to move on to next season.

Hamilton seems to think he has identified the personal issues that have clearly affected him this year. He talked on Saturday about removing all unnecessary distractions and focusing completely on his job. For his own sake - as well as the global audience of millions for whom his aggressive, attacking style is so attractive - one has to hope it works.

The Hamilton-Massa incident provided a controversial distraction in an otherwise largely uneventful race, one of the least interesting of a year that, despite Vettel's domination, has so far generally delivered a fine spectacle.

That was a shame for the one grand prix with which F1 really wanted to make an impact. Nevertheless, while it remains to be seen whether India takes to the sport, the initial signs were good.

There were teething problems in terms of the organisation and track but these were nothing compared with the terrible problems around the Commonwealth Games last year. So despite the tight deadlines, India has now proved that it is more than capable of preparing for and hosting a major international sporting event.

The track was cleverly situated close enough to Delhi to make it accessible. And although the ticket prices were always going to be out of reach of the average Indian, they were clearly affordable to enough people to make attending the race an attractive proposition.

The result was virtually full grandstands - according to official figures, 95,000 people packed into the Buddh International Circuit on Sunday.

That is already a massive step forward from other 'new' races such as those in China, Turkey and, more recently, South Korea. In all those places - and others - F1 appears to have made virtually no impression at all, to the point that many within the sport privately question why the races exist.

Senior figures in F1 were unanimous in their praise for the work done by the Indian organisers. But that is to be expected - they are all desperate for this race to succeed in the world's second most populous country with one of the fastest growing economies.

Perhaps more telling was that the drivers were also effusive - not only about the flowing, challenging layout of the track, which Hamilton said was already one of his favourites, but also for the experience they had had there on what, for most of them, was their first visit.

"There was a big crowd and it was a big success for India," said HRT driver Narain Karthikeyan, the country's first F1 driver. "Having a high-profile event like this gives the country a boost. We are passionate people, we are happy with what we have and it is fantastic to have F1 here."

India has its share of problems - that is well known. Equally, though, if you spend any time there, it is difficult not to fall under its complicated, captivating spell.

After a debut that was unanimously hailed as a success, F1 is hoping that India will come to feel the same way about its new arrival.

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