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Motor Racing: Hakkinen faces Schumacher challenge

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 AJFoyt 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 then 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 Grands Prix, East and West, book-ended the World Championship, starting in Long Beach, California, and ending in the glorious Finger Lakes of Watkins Glen, New York. 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 expatriate 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 the 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. I've no doubt Bernie would come back if the circumstances were right."

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 firmly 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, the 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.

They didn't have much of him to see on Friday when his Williams ground to a silent halt early in afternoon practice with a hydraulic problem. But Villeneuve came home fired with enthusiasm for his car after testing significant modifications after the Monaco Grand Prix.

"I'm very happy with the changes and for the first 10 laps the car was great," Villeneuve said. "We need more laps to sort out the set-up, but I think we should be more competitive here. It's difficult to judge the situation on Fridays because you've no idea what weight of fuel other teams are carrying, but I was confident before the weekend and I still am."

Throughout initial practice, Mika Hakkinen maintained a narrow margin of superiority, but Michael Schumacher's pace in the Ferrari offers hope that further improvement from Good-year's tyres may yet render the Canadian Grand Prix less of a procession than Hakkinen's recent walkovers in Spain and Monaco.