Formula One: Tycoon Mallya's date with Indian investigators clashes with F1 opener

Motor racing boss Vijay Mallya has to appear before Indian investigators on the same day as the F1 season opener in Melbourne.
Motor racing boss Vijay Mallya has to appear before Indian investigators on the same day as the F1 season opener in Melbourne.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (Reuters) - Drinks tycoon and motor racing boss Vijay Mallya faces a sensitive diary clash this week as the season-opening Australian Formula One Grand Prix coincides with an appointment to appear before Indian investigators.

Mallya, under pressure from banks to repay $1.4 billion owed by his collapsed Kingfisher Airlines, left India for Britain on Mar 2. His departure sparked outrage in parliament, after creditors had asked Indian courts to ensure he stayed in the country.

A senior official from the Enforcement Directorate, India's financial crime-fighting agency, said last week that Mallya had been summoned for questioning this Friday as part of an investigation related to one of the bank loans.

Friday is also the first official practice day before Sunday's Australian Grand Prix. Mallya, who co-owns Britain-based team Force India and regularly attends races, did not respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to go.

If he does, without first making a pit stop back home, it is likely to trigger further uproar in India. Mallya, who sports a goatee, an ear stud and a ponytail, is one of the country's most flamboyant entrepreneurs and a fixture in the society pages.

The self-styled "King of Good Times" and chairman of the Federation of Motorsports Clubs of India has denied fleeing the country, saying on Twitter he was the victim of a media witch hunt. He said in his posts that he would comply with domestic laws.

A spokesman for Force India told Reuters last week that he did not know about Mallya's plans. In February, the team's chief operating officer, Otmar Szafnauer, said he expected Mallya to attend more than half of this year's 21 races.

Force India cars were reported to be coming and going last week at Mallya's 11.5 million pound (S$22.6 million) mansion in the village of Tewin, just north of London. The run-up to a season-opener is a hectic time for teams, as cars must be readied for air freight.

Mallya bought the sprawling Hertfordshire estate last year from Anthony Hamilton, father of triple Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton. The house boasts two swimming pools, multiple cars and at least 20 windows, all of which had their curtains drawn tight when a Reuters reporter visited on Friday.