Motor Racing: An American tale stirs the memories

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IT WAS, Jackie Stewart admitted, one of the few times he felt fear in the cockpit of a racing car. Back in 1971 the Ontario Motor Speedway in California celebrated its opening by bringing together not just the cream of European and American drivers in the one and only Questor Grand Prix, but also Formula One cars and their American-derived equivalent, F5000 cars, powered by 5-litre stock-block engines. The American legend A J Foyt was down to drive an F5000 McLaren for the Arciero brothers, but after problems prevented him setting a time Stewart helped out by shaking the car down when Foyt was called elsewhere.

"I set a reasonable time in the car," Stewart recalled. "But for some reason I heard myself saying: 'If AJ can't beat that time, maybe it's time to hang it up.'

"Well, next day AJ was back, and I saw him swinging down the pit road towards me. He's one of those guys that when he's mad each arm swings in the same direction as each leg. Left, left, right, right. I figured he was coming down to thank me for sorting his car. Instead, he looked at me red-faced and snarled: 'I'm the first guy you're gonna come up to lap today, Stewart, and you're dead.' I didn't realise until then that he'd failed to beat my time.

"Sure enough, in the race he was the first guy I came up to lap, and the closer I got the further down I tried to get in the cockpit, desperately hoping he wouldn't see me or wouldn't do anything silly. As it turned out, he was as good as gold. But you could never tell with him whether you were going to get the bear or the pussy cat."

Back then F1 was an intrinsic part of the North American scene and legends mixed easily. Not long afterwards US grand prixs, east and west, book- ended the World Championship, starting in California's Long Beach and ending in the glorious Finger Lakes of New York's Watkins Glen. Today, Montreal is as close as it gets to the US, where NASCAR stock cars and the domestic ChampCar (nee IndyCar) series hold sway. But as F1's aspirations of Far East expansion recede in the wake of Indonesia's political problems, a new horizon of American involvement beckons.

"America has to come back into the World Championship," said Chris Pook, the expatriot Englishman who was the driving force behind the grand prix at Long Beach and, indirectly, the reason why F1 left after he played hardball over money with powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone and opted instead to run the race for the IndyCars. It never looked back. "Anything that purports to be a World Championship must race in America," Pook stressed while visiting Montreal. "You can't afford to ignore one of the world's largest continents."

There is talk of a race in 2000, in San Francisco, Atlanta or Dallas. "But the city needs to get behind the race, the way that Montreal does, or Adelaide did," Pook counselled. "It needs to install itself within the business community. The race and the city have to become synonymous."

F1's last attempt in America was at Phoenix in 1991, when the local ostrich race was said, perhaps apocryphally, to have attracted a larger crowd. Montreal, meanwhile, goes from strength to strength. In the days leading up to the race national athletics hero Bruny Surin kept crowds entertained with a bold but doomed effort to out-accelerate on foot a small-bore single- seater racing car in a match race in the streets. F1 belongs here, the way it used to at Long Beach before Pook called Ecclestone's financial bluff. The bars and clubs are heaving, their patrons fuelled by the pride Canadians take in celebrating their first-ever world champion driver, Jacques Villeneuve.

Equipped with Goodyear's latest tyres, which he said improved his Ferrari, Michael Schumacher set hearts fluttering by setting the early pace in qualifying as Mika Hakkinen slowed his McLaren with a mechanical problem and David Coulthard fell just short of the red car's pace. After half an hour Hakkinen still hadn't completed a flying lap, but shortly after Coulthard took fastest time from Schumacher, Hakkinen aced him by six- hundredths of a second to restore the status quo. In the dying seconds, however, Coulthard in turn beat him, taking the pole he desperately needs.

In their wake Schumacher was again left on the second row, joined by the impressive Giancarlo Fisichella. Villeneuve, for all his pre-race optimism, languishes sixth. This could have been a historic weekend for Mercedes-Benz, with the chance to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Canadian GP and the Detroit ChampCar race. But after the early failure of the two Silver Arrows at Le Mans, only a one-two for the McLarens can appease the disappointment of failure to complete the Grand Slam.