Cold start for Formula One at 'Brickyard'

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The Independent Online

The self-styled world capital of motor racing stages the US Grand Prix here this weekend in a venture which will make or break Formula One's reputation in north America. Yet, remarkably, the teams and drivers who have assembled here will not get their first experience of Tony George's dramatic Indianapolis Motor Speedway facility until today's opening practice session.

The self-styled world capital of motor racing stages the US Grand Prix here this weekend in a venture which will make or break Formula One's reputation in north America. Yet, remarkably, the teams and drivers who have assembled here will not get their first experience of Tony George's dramatic Indianapolis Motor Speedway facility until today's opening practice session.

It may seem odd that nobody has yet been able to run a current Formula One car round here at "The Brickyard". After all, it might have been helpful for the tyre supplier, Bridgestone, to gain empirical experience of how the nine degree banked turn that is such a feature of the place might affect tyre temperature and longevity. But this is a business that is not renowned for logical thinking. Instead, nobody could agree on whose car might be used for such tests; whichever team supplied it would surely gain an unfair advantage over their fellows, be it 10 laps' worth or just two. That is the way that Formula One minds work.

Indianapolis has much to thank Formula One for. When Jack Brabham brought his 2.5 litre F1 Cooper here in 1960, on the way back from the US Grand Prix at Riverside, he stood the establishment on its ear by lapping at 145 mph. It was quick enough to have taken eighth place on that year's Indianapolis 500 grid. A year later he raced a 2.7 litre version to ninth place, and set in train the rear-engined revolution that changed the face of American racing.

In 1962 Jim Clark lapped his 1.5 litre Lotus well over 140 mph. Thus encouraged, the Lotus builder Colin Chapman came back in 1963 with a Ford V8-engined version; by 1965 he and Clark had a 500 victory in their pocket. Indy was never the same again.

It is fitting, therefore, that the cultural exchange should be reversed this weekend, with the official confirmation that the former Indy winner and CART champion, Bobby Rahal, has been asked to take on the salvation of Jaguar's struggling F1 effort. The deal will bring the charismatic American back to Europe, where he raced early in his career. Rahal, more than most, is well placed to judge whether the Americans will embrace this latest - some suggest final - attempt to establish a Formula One beach-head in a country not starved of alternative sporting attractions.

"There's a very rabid group of Formula One fans in this country already," Rahal said. "Obviously the interest level in the States towards Formula One is very low relative to other forms of motor sport. I think the fact that grand prix racing has been out of sight, out of mind for about 10 years now hasn't helped that. But certainly when it was at Watkins Glen or Long Beach, the interest was quite good. So I think over time certainly it can regain some interest. To what level, I don't know.

"You say F1 is the pinnacle? CART racing is as different to Formula One racing as is stock car racing. I think it's arguable. Depending on who you had in the room with you, you'd hear probably three or four different opinions as to what's best. I think they're just different. They're apples and oranges."

The year before he graduated to Formula One, Jacques Villeneuve had etched his name on the Indy 500's Borg Warner trophy. The former champion says he is pleased to be back, even though he will not be racing on the famed oval. "I guess Indianapolis is the best place for the comeback of Formula One," he said. "It's the centre of racing in north America."

But he has no time at all for the historical implications. "I'll leave that until I have kids or grandchildren, so then you can talk with them and show them all the pieces of paper. But while you're driving..."

Michael Schumacher was similarly dismissive. Did he feel any sense of history as he entered this hallowed ground? "No," was the clipped response.

Americans might be forgiven for thinking them a cold bunch, these Formula One drivers.

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