A race not a chase

America's lesson for Formula One
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The Independent Online
Two top-class motor races have been run in rainy conditions in the last month. At the French Grand Prix in Magny-Cours the wet weather, normally a great equaliser, simply allowed Michael Schumacher to dominate another processional contest which offered little in the way of excitement or overtaking opportunities. At the Portland Cart race in Oregon a week earlier, the competitors in the top-flight American single-seater series were all over the track and each other in a frenzy of nose-to-tail action.

In terms of excitement, the American race was streets ahead, yet it is grand prix racing that is on the brink of a billion-pound-plus flotation as a global entertainment business while Cart (the acronym stands for Championship Auto Racing Teams) remains relatively unknown outside its home patch.

The Portland race, the closest in the championship's history, was won on a sprint from the last corner by a couple of thousandths of a second by Mark Blundell, the British former McLaren grand prix driver. "That's the beauty of the Cart series," he said last week. "It's the closest racing you'll find anywhere in the world. I still love grand prix racing, but it is just not as entertaining as Cart."

That is something that more and more television viewers are discovering. Cart's world-wide audience has risen seven per cent this year after a deal with Eurosport; those in Britain without satellite or cable can watch reruns of the races on Channel 5. With European drivers in competitive cars, the series could represent a real threat to the television revenues that will underpin grand prix racing's eventual flotation.

But Andrew Craig, Cart's British-born president and chief executive, is careful to point out that the two can co-exist. "Our ambition is to build a world-wide sports product," Craig said last week from the organisation's headquarters in Troy, Michigan. "But we are not in direct competition with Formula One. They are the world championship and we are not. F1 has a unique personality of its own, and so do we. We are very much an American series, and American-ness has some very attractive and appealing qualities."

But they are exportable qualities, and if Craig fights shy of opposing F1 as the world single-seater championship, he is certainly not afraid to expand into areas of the world which have previously been F1's territory. Australia and Brazil are recent additions to the schedule, and Japan will be next. "We do intend to race in Europe," Craig said. "But realistically that won't be until beyond 2000, and most likely then in Germany."

Such expansion would not be possible if the racing was dull, and Cart's rules are designed to keep the cars as evenly matched as possible. "We like to keep the teams in a tight box, as it were," Craig explained. "There is scope for individual initiative and creativity. But one of the things that we don't allow, for instance, is exotic materials in engine construction. I mean, if you do allow that, then everybody has to have them, they are all still evenly matched only everyone has spent a lot more money."

As a result the cars are heavier and slower to accelerate than their F1 counterparts. But, Blundell insists, not without their challenges. "They are cumbersome," he admitted, "but the top speeds we reach are a lot higher than F1. Put an F1 car on one of our high-speed oval tracks and it wouldn't last very long."

Fans can now make the comparison for themselves, with Cart races being shown live on Eurosport on Sunday evenings after several of the remaining grands prix. Craig is diplomatic about the head-to-head contest. "People will see the two best shows in racing in the world," he said. "They are a little different in style, but they complement each other very well."