Right formula for morale booster

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Of all the many banners draped from the giant grandstands on the pit straight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the spectating public is separated from the garages by the wide track and its famous strip of startline bricks, none was more heartfelt: "Thanx [sic] for coming, Formula 1," it said.

For all the speculation and introspection at Monza about the desirability, wisdom, ethics ­ call it what you will ­ of racing in America so soon after the events of 11 September, F1 was presenting a united front that seems to have succeeded in boosting battered spirits.

A year ago, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, the champion of the time, had to be coached in the art of speaking after a hapless effort at the first press conference. They had mumbled and dismissed one of the most charismatic venues in motor sport as "just another track". That was then and this is a very different now.

Both Schumacher brothers, together with many of their fellow racers, had been back to their helmet painters to have the Stars and Stripes included in their fighting colours. "It's the least we can do to express our feelings for the victims, and the people of the United States," Ralf said quietly.

The spectators were not the only ones delighted to see F1 come back to Indianapolis. This may be the land of the free but the local hoteliers have made sure that nothing comes cheap in one of the worst examples of American greed since the Klondike. So much so that Tony George, who owns the IMS, has stated his intention to take them on and fight their outrageous piracy, and its negative effect on ticket sales. If there's one thing that this circuit has always understood, it is the need to get butts on seats.

There seems little likelihood that anyone will try to impose any sort of follow-my-leader "safety" philosophy at the start of the race this afternoon. The world champion, who had attempted such a move at Monza where a tight chicane follows a high-speed blast from the startline, appears much more relaxed.

"Despite the way things have ended, the kind of discussion we had has made drivers aware of that particular situation and, probably except one, everybody behaved very good," he said defensively.

Jacques Villeneuve, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1995 prior to joining the F1 circus a year later, was the clear focus of Schumacher's implied criticism, having refused to agree to any "no overtaking" clause. But Flavio Briatore, the Benetton chief, also came in for his share of the Schumacher knife, having told his drivers, Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella, to race during the Italian start.

"I said already that I don't agree with what Flavio has done to his drivers or what some other team principals tell their drivers to do," said the German, who used to wrap his legs ingloriously around Briatore's waist when they celebrated wins during their Benetton days in the mid-Nineties.

"The drivers are there to drive, they know how to do this job," he continued. "I guess Flavio has never had to sit in a racing car so far. He doesn't know what it feels like, therefore it's inappropriate to tell the drivers what to do."

This fighting talk was more like it. Drivers such as Gil de Ferran, Kenny Brack and Helio Castroneves served up a fine post-race conference after last weekend's ChampCar event at Rockingham. The second-placed Swede, who was beaten on the last corner, responded to queries about improvements for the race by saying he would like it a lap shorter in future. With staples like that it's easy to appreciate why the American media don't go for drivers who mumble and millionaires who look miserable even when they're successful. In more ways that one, F1 does seem to have made a conscious effort to give them the sort of stuff they wanted to hear this time around.

On the track, Schumacher and his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello also gave them what they wanted to see: racing cars being driven fast. But by the end of the first day it was Hakkinen, celebrating his 33rd birthday, who was quickest in Friday's first practice session.

In qualifying yesterday Schumacher and Hakkinen again fought for pole position, the reigning champion narrowly beating the Finn after a gripping to-and-fro battle that left their respective team-mates floundering in their wake. "I'm coming here to win, that is what motivates me," Hakkinen said as he contemplated a sabbatical in 2002. "So I'm going to go for it in these two races."

Their principal opposition came as expected from the BMW Williamses of Ralf Schumacher and his Monza-winning team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, another previous Indy 500 winner. They were third and fourth quickest, but lower than anticipated temperatures prevented their Michelin tyres from giving their best.

The big surprise was the speed of Nick Heidfeld, who in his Sauber Petronas could have beaten Barrichello for fifth until he had to back off for a yellow flag when the Czech driver Tomas Enge crashed his Prost. There was an upturn for Button, too, who qualified his Benetton in 10th, comfortably ahead of his team-mate Fisichella.