The inaugural Indian Grand Prix appears to have attracted its first major sponsor, despite suggestions that the event could be heading for a new problem with the local population.

According to SportsPro, telecom giant Airtel has signed a five-year agreement, worth some US$13.2m a year, to become title sponsor of the latest addition to the F1 calendar, and would represent a first foray into the Indian market for Formula One Management and sister company Allsport Management, which arranges the sport's trackside advertising and hospitality packages.

F1 title sponsorship deals have traditionally been sold for around US$4m or built into central sponsorships of the sport - such as UBS' sponsorship of this year's Chinese Grand Prix - but Airtel would represent a new name to enter the fray. The company, which has over 200 million customers and operates in 19 countries across Asia and Africa, is already heavily involved in Indian sport, and is currently sponsor of the country's World Cup-winning cricket team.

The first Indian Grand Prix is schedule for Sunday 30 October, subject to the completion of the purpose-built new Buddh International circuit on the outskirts of Delhi, but rumours persist in suggesting that the venue, like last year's addition in Korea, will not be ready in time.

While those involved in the project insist that all is well, the venue continues to attract negative publicity. The latest blow comes amid revelations that the siting of the circuit has all but cut off a temple previously used by villagers and farmers, causing the locals to fear for its demolition. A cremation site has already been moved as it falls within the circuit's boundaries, causing consternation among the local population, and the grounds in which the temple previously sat have been reduced to a scant 30 square metres.

Despite circuit officials insisting that an amicable solution can be found, the Hindustan Times newspaper warns that opposition is almost inevitable.

"Hundreds of devotees throng the temple on Sundays," local villager Sunder Singh pointed out, "Hurting the religious sentiments can turn things ugly."



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