Drivers call off practice as rain curtails Oval debut

The launch of CART oval racing in Britain barely got off the ground yesterday as wet patches on this £50m North-amptonshire circuit forced drivers to abandon the first practice session for tomorrow's 500 race.

The launch of CART oval racing in Britain barely got off the ground yesterday as wet patches on this £50m North-amptonshire circuit forced drivers to abandon the first practice session for tomorrow's 500 race.

The drivers managed only 10 laps at speeds of no more than 100mph before concluding that the track was too dangerous to proceed with normal running.

Racing is never held on ovals in the wet, and rain delayed practice for five and a half hours. Jet dryers and rescue vehicles were used in the operation to bring CART cars onto a British track for the first time.

However, those few laps, run at less than half the normal speed and behind a pace car, were enough to convince drivers that they had to call off practice for the day because water was seeping through the tarmac.

Michael Andretti, one of the most distinguished members of the CART cast, said: "There was no way we could run on that. The problem is that you can't see the weepers until you are on top of them and at speed you could be in big trouble. It's like driving in winter and hitting a patch of ice you can't see.

"The facility itself is great. The surface looks really smooth. The straights are short but that probably makes the track safer. We need a day of practice to be ready for the race, but we could manage with an hour on Saturday morning.''

Andretti and his colleagues are still shaken by Alessandro Zanardi's horrific accident in Germany last weekend but Dario Franchitti, the Scottish driver anxious for CART racing to win over the British public, maintained this was no over-reaction. "It's not a case of people being a bit scared. You just cannot run on a track with damp patches. Bringing CART over here is a big thing for us, and everybody has been working really hard trying to dry the track, but we had no choice.

"I never got above third gear and 100mph. We've got to come up with a solution to the problem so that we can get out there tomorrow.''

Even as Franchitti spoke, contractors were being summoned to drill two 50ft-drainage shafts in the hope of finding that solution. A circuit spokesman said: "The problem here is the clay beneath the track surface and the fact that the temperature is only 11 deg C. We need to dry up the weepers, and these shafts have worked at American circuits. The work will be completed overnight.''

Zanardi was told in a Berlin hospital yesterday that he had lost both his legs in the accident but he said he feared he was dying and told his wife: "I am happy because I have you and our son.''

Doctors said that the Italian, who lost 70 per cent of his blood, had been 10 minutes from death. He is expected to be transferred from Germany to a rehabilitation clinic in Italy at the end of the month.

* The Czech driver Tomas Enge will compete in the final two races of the Formula One season, at Indianapolis on Sunday week and in Japan two weeks later, after the Brazilian Luciano Burti was told not to race until the end of December following his 170mph crash at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps earlier this month.

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