Formula One pursues a slice of American pie

Formula One may desperately be trying to pass off the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis as just another race, another hermetically-sealed package plonked down at just another race track, but the traditions of the place won't be beaten down, despite the best efforts to homogenise everything.

Formula One may desperately be trying to pass off the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis as just another race, another hermetically-sealed package plonked down at just another race track, but the traditions of the place won't be beaten down, despite the best efforts to homogenise everything.

This reluctance to acknowledge the speedway's pedigree is odd, given the crucial need for this last hurrah in Uncle Sam's backyard to succeed for the good of Formula One's image. For too long it had traded on its world championship tag while steadfastly avoiding the world's most economically powerful country.

Tony George, the deep-pocketed owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has invested a not inconsiderable slice of his fortune - estimated at $40m - to modify the 2.5 mile oval circuit made famous by its 500-mile race. Formula One has long needed an American beachhead, after Bernie Ecclestone's rare error in misjudging the Long Beach promoter Chris Pook and failing to agree financial terms to continue the highly popular race in downtown California. Pook switched the day after the 1983 race to run Cart's IndyCars (now called ChampCars) and has never looked back.

The US GP then meandered through a series of lacklustre venues, including Detroit and Phoenix. The races singularly failed to regenerate the great days of New York state's Watkins Glen, or Long Beach. One newspaper in Phoenix observed as F1 raced for the last time in the States in 1991: "At a downtown mortuary and funeral home a man reportedly sat up in his coffin and asked what was going on. Told it was the Grand Prix, he lay back down again."

Cart, meanwhile, went from strength to strength until an acrimonious and irreparable split with IMS in 1995. Suddenly Cart lost the jewel in its crown, and George set up his own single-seater series, the Indy Racing League. But while Cart undoubtedly suffered from the loss of the 500, so the IRL has failed to sustain the great race's reputation. The best deals are always struck when both parties need something of the other and F1 and IMS have a passionate mutual need.

There are some diehards - and diehards don't come more steadfast than residents of the Hoosier state - who believe that George has sold Indy's birthright. Certainly the Brickyard, so called because its entire surface was once paved with bricks (there is now just a strip across the start-finish line), has been changed as never before. The 2.5 mile F1 track fits within the oval, running in the opposite direction and employing as its final corner the first banked section of the latter.

By and large the drivers like the place. David Coulthard said: "I think it's a very good job. It's quite interesting through the infield section, probably more so than any track other than Monaco. On the oval section it's quite fun to be banked into the corner, but that's not a problem for anyone. It's more a spectacle to us.

"You're aware of it, but it's easily flat-out so it's not really a challenge as such. But it makes you feel like a racing driver when you're going fast all the way through it, so of course it's fun."

Michael Schumacher, who set the pace initially for Ferrari, was surprised by the number of spectators. This was estimated at 30,000 on Friday, and that was deemed to be a far more conservative figure than the 35,000 claimed on the last day that F1 raced in America. On that occasion one local writer came up with the wonderful line: "If 35,000 were here, then a lot of people came disguised as empty seats."

"You normally don't see so many on the first day," Schumacher offered. "I hope they feel they got something for their money." But that did not stop him from exposing the shortcomings in F1's presen-tation. In a graceless conference the German (and a mumbling Mika Hakkinen) failed completely to deliver what the locals wanted to hear. Instead of acknowledging the charisma of Indianapolis - and charismatic it is - both dismissed its aura with the sort of arrogance that only self-obsessed F1 can muster. It is not, after all, just another track.

Spectators were rewarded on Saturday afternoon, however, as Ferrari and McLaren battled for pole position. Schumacher relied on his other-worldly reflexes to help him run a miminal downforce set-up, and it proved crucial as he maintained the upper hand to take his seventh pole of the season and the 30th of his career.

The Italian team used slipstreaming tactics in an effort to pull Rubens Barrichello on to the front row, but he was running more downforce and could not take any benefit. Late in the day McLaren tried a similar tactic. Hakkinen, his own effort over, towed Coulthard round into his hot lap and the Scot gratefully used the opportunity to snatch second place on the grid - ironically enough displacing the Finn.

"Mika certainly helped me, judging from our straight-line speed," Coulthard said. "I could feel the difference getting the tow, so thanks to him for that."

"The second row isn't so bad," Hakkinen reflected, "especially as the front row guys might lose traction as they cross the bricks." But the race will also be about running low downforce, as drivers try to overtake at the end of the straight, and Schumacher already has the perfect set-up.

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