Ecclestone weighs up future of the Brickyard

Judgement day for Formula One's American adventure
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The Independent Online

Formula One has some special tracks on its calendar. Places steeped in history, where men tempered themselves in the crucible of triumph and failure. The US Grand Prix has only had a home at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2000, but this is such a hallowed place.

You don't come here without being touched by the ghosts of long-departed heroes of the famed 500 mile race that began in 1911. It's not just the line of historic bricks across the main straight that marks all that is left of the old surface that gave the track its nickname: the Brickyard. As Ron Dennis might say, the place has a culture all its own. The Indy 500 is pure Americana, but in keeping with the way of the world it has been diversified by the added cultures of F1 and the US NASCAR series, whose Brickyard 400 will be held here in August.

Bringing the grand prix here was an inspired move, placing F1 right at the heart of US motorsport after years spend in wildernesses such as Detroit, Phoenix or, the Lord help us, a car park in Las Vegas. It belongs here, despite last year's fiasco in which only six Bridgestone-shod cars ran after all of the Michelin runners withdrew on the grid formation lap having suffered grievous tyre failures in practice.

The IMS owner Tony George ­ perhaps perturbed that recent quotes he had given concerning a possible merger of the warring open-wheel factions of his breakaway Indy Racing League and the long-established ChampCar series had not been interpreted quite the way he'd intended ­ relied on a written statement when faced with the much-asked question of whether the F1 contract will be renewed after this weekend's race. "We appreciate the interest and support from everyone who has inquired about the future of this event," it said.

"Many months ago, Bernie and I agreed to wait until the conclusion of the 2006 event to evaluate our future together. We expect to do that in the coming weeks. The good news is that we enjoy the partnership that has been forged and are committed to working towards continuing to build on the foundation that has been laid over the last seven years."

Ecclestone, with whom George had talks earlier on Friday, gave his interviewer what he wanted to hear. "Ask Tony George," he said. "We are happy here, and I hope we can build it up. Let's see. We are not anti, but it needs to be commercially viable for both of us. Everybody is being very positive and that's good. I'm happy. If we can make it happen, we will."

Friday signalled a possible improvement in fortune for Jenson Button and Honda. As his team-mate Anthony Davidson set the day's fastest time and dominated both practice sessions, Button set the sixth best time overall. "The car is good, actually, at the moment," he said.

"After Canada we haven't really changed it much. There's a few set-up things we've done. So really we knew this was going to be a tough meeting for us before we get back to Europe. But today has been reasonable. We've run through all of our programme and we're trying a lot of different things with the set-up, and we've found a good direction. I'm happy with what we've achieved today. I'm positive we've gone in the right direction."

Despite spinning off into the gravel in the morning after a silly mistake, Michael Schumacher also expressed confidence that he might be able to repeat his 2005 triumph even if he has genuine opposition. "I am happy with what we have seen," he reported.

"The situation looks pretty good, which means we can tackle the rest of the weekend with confidence. Let's say I had more problems trying to watch the World Cup quarter-finals on television than I did in the cockpit. When I went off this morning, maybe I was thinking a bit too much about the grass on the football pitch. I'm very happy Germany beat Argentina."

Schumacher's chances improved dramatically as he and his Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa qualified on the front row. Four-on-the-trot winner Fernando Alonso said he has no concerns that Michelin's tyres will be strong enough this time, though Bridgestone appear to have the faster tyre. Alonso took only fifth place, his lowest grid position of the season, behind Giancarlo Fisichella and Rubens Barrichello.

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