Why Montreal may be a better bet than Vegas

Business as usual as Alonso strolls to pole
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The Independent Online

"I just don't get it," Jackie Stewart said as, inevitably, conversation got around to Bernie Ecclestone's much publicised remarks that Formula One does not need America. "What's the point of saying that?"

It is contract negotiation time between Ecclestone and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway magnate Tony George, and this is the first stop on Formula One's north American tour. You may also have noticed a thing called the World Cup, which has tended to hog the sports news headlines these past few weeks. Ecclestone certainly has, because he does not miss many tricks. His deliberately provocative remarks have had the desired effect over here. People are talking about Formula One, and that's what counts.

People are also talking about Las Vegas as a possible race venue if a deal cannot be struck with George. Stewart didn't get that, either.

"You know, it could happen, but where? It'll be in a car park, like it was the last time back in 1982. The US economy is in a fluid state; it's possible they could finance a race there, and that it would run for a couple of years, but it won't attract the right kind of crowd and it won't last. They won't make the sort of investment that Indianapolis has. Three years on, F1 would be out of the States, and I don't believe that it can afford to be. America is the world's biggest consumer market, and F1 needs to be there."

The good news is that it seems set to be in Canada - read Montreal - for some time. Grand Prix F1 du Canada Inc has agreed a new five-year deal with the City of Montreal to continue to use the track in the Parc Jean Drapeau on the Ile Notre Dame. So long as ongoing commercial deals are renewed, the race will remain at the venue that has hosted it since 1978. The racetrack's facilities need a lot of modernisation, but the event works here even if some Canadian newspapers are paying it only lip service. It is the biggest single-day event in the country, and the fans love it. Last year 121,000 of them flocked into the circuit named in honour of racer-turned-pop-singer Jacques Villeneuve's father Gilles, the racer-turned-pop-singer.

One man with unfinished business here is the world champion, Fernando Alonso, who admits that he started the season with Canada as a "to do" item on his wish list. Having recently ticked off the races in Spain, Monaco and Britain, he is ready get his pen out again here this weekend.

"I'll really be pushing to get a strong result here," he said. "I didn't finish in 2005 or 2004, but we were very quick in both races, and I set the fastest lap in 2003. This is always a tough race. We see a lot of retirements during the race, because the engines are stressed hard, there is heavy braking, and the transmission has a tough time from launching out of the slow corners."

Countering suggestions that he might now start taking it easy to preserve a 23-point advantage over his arch-rival Michael Schumacher as the championship reaches its midpoint, he has vowed to take an aggressive strategy as he took his fifth consecutive pole position yesterday. "In Ferrari, we have very strong competition. Last year, we were fighting against teams who had reliability problems - but that won't happen with them. They will be there at every race, and very strong in Canada as well. So we are still attacking, still being aggressive."

In Stewart, the former triple champion, Alonso has a major fan. "He is the best one out there," the Scot said. "If you look at his inputs at the wheel, he makes so few. He is so smooth, and he doesn't make mistakes."

Well, not often. In fact, last year's race marked his last significant error, when he whacked one of the walls that are so disconcertingly close to the road on the back section of the track and damaged his Renault's suspension. The Spaniard shares an arcane distinction with Stewart, whom he so closely resembles in style both on and off the track: the Spaniard has led every race this season, and the last man who could lay claim to that was Stewart, back in his first championship year in 1969.

Maintaining that record, and staying out front to the flag this afternoon, would suit the man from Oviedo very nicely. "We did what we sought to do today," he said after qualifying. "Now we have to finish the job tomorrow."