Stars and strife: Formula One in America
Formula One returns to America this weekend after a five-year break – and it's more desperate than ever to woo a reluctant audience.
There is plenty at stake at this confluence of cattle and oil. Austin is the portal through which Formula One launches what is effectively a last crack at the sport's final frontier; America. The return to the Lone Star state evokes memories of Nigel Mansell collapsing in 100 degree heat following a mad attempt to heave his Lotus across the line after running out of juice. The staging of the Dallas race in 1984 was a typically entrepreneurial stab at making a success of the sport in the United States after Watkins Glen had run its course in 1980. It failed like all the others because it couldn't make a buck out of the pageant.
In the post-Mansell era, the growing reliance on technology as a unique selling point was thought not to chime with an American audience demanding something easier to digest, like overtaking. The absence of thrills and spills combined with the colossal expense of Bernie Ecclestone's commercial scheme drove the pinnacle of motorsport from its biggest potential market.
They tried and failed in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Long Beach. They poured £75m into Indianapolis, adding a Formula One track configuration that embraced a part of the Brickyard's famous oval.
After eight years, including a catastrophic 2005, when seven teams went from the parade lap to the pits following a safety row concerning Michelin tyres, the owners gave up the unequal struggle, leaving the field clear for Nascar to mop up racing weekends.
At an estimated cost of $25m (£17m) a pop to host a race, turning a profit has not been possible for independent promoters. The same thumping economic squeeze has seen F1 retreat from its European heartland, too. France, where road racing began a hundred years ago, has quit the scene. San Marino and Austria, too. The Nürburgring and Hockenheim share the German race and Spain is split between Barcelona and Valencia.
Somehow Silverstone has clung on. Belgium and Italy as well. Canada comes and goes. Australia wrestles with the project. Only the state-backed ventures on F1's new frontier make a fist of it, and that as a result of writing down the losses as an investment to raise global profiles. So Malaysia, China, Singapore, India, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and South Korea raid the national purse to promote their countries on the international stage. Russia and Mexico are said to be next in line for the F1 makeover.
The exotically-named Circuit of the Americas is the first purpose-built F1 venue in North America and cost a whopping £250m to build 15 miles from the gates of Austin. This being Texas the largest investor goes by the marvellous moniker Red McCombs. The big idea is for the facility to drive the local economy to the tune of £3bn over a 10-year cycle through a variety of motor sport staples, the highlight of which is tomorrow's inaugural F1 Grand Prix.
According to Jenson Button they could be off to a flier with a circuit earning early plaudits. "Indy was an interesting circuit and the venue was spectacular but it wasn't built for us," Button said. "We need a circuit that has more high-speed corners where you can really show off what an F1 car is capable of. Turn 2 to turn 8 is spectacular, with the change of direction. If you're watching there, you will see an F1 car on the edge. It's very special to see that."
The presence of the sport in the land of the dollar is a no-brainer for the car manufacturers and sponsors involved. An agreement to keep the race in Austin for 10 years ought to be time enough to make the experiment work. There may even be a second race in New Jersey across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
For its part, F1 must challenge old prejudices by enhancing the spectacle. The introduction of sporting Pirelli tyres designed to fail helped no end at the start of the season, though the teams have cracked the code of late. The addition of DRS (drag reduction system) zones, which permit the use of aerodynamic devices to aid overtaking, is another innovation aimed at creating excitement.
Eternal optimist and team principal at McLaren, Martin Whitmarsh, believes F1 has the balance right to lure the American viewer. "I've always maintained Formula One's presence in the United States is crucial. So I'm personally pleased and satisfied we're back in America after spending far too long away from its shores.
"On a wider level, the arrival of a state-of-the-art, purpose-built grand prix track is perfect for Formula One. This is a golden opportunity for the sport to finally put down roots and find a long-term home, here. From a business perspective, too, we are in the right place at the right time.
"America is such a vast market, and it's such a car market – they love motor cars in North America, and I think we've got a product that's very different to Nascar but ought to be able to conquer America. I think there's a great challenge but also a great opportunity. We need North America more than it needs us, and therefore we've got to be prepared to work at it, adapt the sport if necessary, but make sure we do everything we can so we can appeal to the American market."
The season has reduced to a two-way duel between championship leader Sebastien Vettel and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, with Lewis Hamilton the random variable capable of turning a weekend on its head as long as his McLaren remains in one piece. A fuel pump failure at the last race in Abu Dhabi, where he led from pole, cost Hamilton what would have been a dominant victory. In Singapore a faulty gearbox stole from him another shot at the chequered flag.
Vettel leads the championship by 10 points and could secure a third successive drivers' crown this weekend to move alongside Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Jack Brabham in the F1 hall of fame.
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