Lost in America - Formula 1’s Heart of Darkness
A last minute cancellation of being at Le Mans was responsible for being granted
passage for another visit to the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Once
again, it was Jaguar who picked up the tab for a small contingent of media types
to take in the sights and sounds of what is arguably, motorsport’s highest
technical art form. However, like all high tech, some arouse deep passion and
some are as exciting as a digital watch found in a box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar
Bombs. The current state of F1 falls somewhere in the middle of all this.
The Breath of a Salesman
Ready for a shocking realization ? Indianapolis may well be the most important
race on the current F1 calendar. Not for the racing, not for the crowd, certainly not
for U.S. television, and not for the teams and drivers. Indy ranks at the top for one
Mr. Bernie Eccelstone and not because he likes it. Bernie needs this race as
selling point to the rest of the world. How do you go to China, how do you sell F1 to
Bahrain, how do you get someone to cut loose with millions of dollars to stage a
race ? By convincing those people that F1 is a world championship. Remove the
U.S. from the calendar and F1 becomes another regional series with occasional
trips to Japan and Canada.
A summer song…
The recent schedule change was a brilliant move for Tony George and mainly
benefits the IMS and the city of Indianapolis. Those on the world stage must
wonder why F1 can’t fill the seats in the same manner as the other two main
events held at the speedway. By placing the F1 race between the Indianapolis 500
and the Brickyard NASCAR 400, it doesn’t take a genius to gauge how little
interest F1 generates in the U.S. What F1 does do is generate a windfall of cash
for the city. While the seats may be full for the 500 and Brickyard 400, they are
considered local races. Hundreds of thousands of people drive in for the day and
then leave. You can get a hotel room on the day of either race. That is not possible
for the U.S. Grand Prix. The teams, their sponsors and invited guests of the
manufacturers, take the bulk of the accommodations. The bars and the best
restaurants are booked solidly. Several teams and manufacturers employ off duty
law enforcement officers as drivers for personal and some of the more interesting
observations came from these people. With regards to crowd control, the USGP
has been relatively easy, as the crowd is enthusiastic and well behaved for the
most part. “Nothing like the NASCAR crowd we get later in the summer” quipped
one officer to me.
Now showing, Speed Racer !
Attendance for the USGP dropped after the inaugural year and estimates put the
gate at approximately 120,000 average for the last three years. This would be
considered a huge crowd for every other circuit in the world but the speedway can
top 300,000 easily for the 500. . Ticket prices for the USGP are less expensive
than any of the other venues in F1, one foreign visitor marveled at what a bargain
Indy was. A breakdown shows that almost half the crowd is made up of those who
travel from Canada and South America. That leaves some 60 to 70,000 hard core
enthusiasts for the only stop of the F1 circus in the United States. This is the best
they can draw, 50 states, a population over 200 million ? Sadly, the USGP does
not even enjoy prime television time but is shown on the cable only Speed
channel. Hardly a formula for growth.
The red menace
So let’s get to the er, ah, race was it ? It never happened. Aside from some faux
excitement courtesy of Takuma Sato’s qualifying run in his BAR-Honda, Ferrari
acted like Ferrari performing how Ferrari does. What people have failed to come to
terms with is that Ferrari is no longer racing. Other teams show up to race, Ferrari
shows up to win.
Each circuit is simply a battlefield and the Ferrari approach is we are going to war.
Nothing is left to chance, there is a contingency plan for almost every eventuality.
The only thing Ferrari can not control is the human element. Sato could have won
the USGP, he had the speed, the Michelins were working well, what Sato didn’t
have was a team structure in BAR that could make the instantaneous decision as
when to pit during the early race chaos. Ferrari did and the results speak for
Not another lost weekend or Minardi makes a point, fair and balanced, you
Now let’s look at the lost weekend of BMW Williams. Not only did the cars fail to
answer the bell and challenge Ferrari, they are off the pace of the BAR-Honda.
Montoya’s failure to get off the grid within the allotted time and into the spare T-car
caused the stewards to black flag the remaining Williams 58 laps in to the 73 lap
race. Montoya’s problems with the decisions of the stewards from last year’s race
certainly did not improve the mood in the Williams pits after this latest action.
Ralf’s horrific accident and the time that it took the safety crew to get to the stricken
driver trapped in his BMW Williams was a disgrace. And why didn’t race control
use the spaciously wide pit lane to go through single file and avoid the carnage on
the main straight which required lots of people waving flags and pointing in the
direction for the cars to go. McLaren didn’t fare much better and the team from
Woking has a lot to answer for considering the amount of money they go through.
After the race I went down and spoke with Paul Stoddart of Minardi. I had heard
that he was one of the few that realized that Montoya had not met the time limit and
a call to the tower was in order. Some may say that it was not very sporting of him
but that disqualification of Montoya allowed Baumgartner to move up and give
Minardi a well earned and much needed point in the world championship.
So Stoddy knows how to count and the might of the BMW-Williams team does not.
Let’s spread a little of that money around and give Stoddart a chance to move up. I
bet he would make far better use of the cash than either McLaren or Williams.
He’s number two in number two…
So what is wrong with the rest of the field. Is Michael Schumacher the best ever ?
Well, he has the records and the results and there were certainly times when he
didn’t have the car under him. But what he does have and always has is the best
team around him. His teammate is a number 1’s perfect number 2. Barrichello
shows occasional flashes of brilliance in qualifying but that is more Ferrari than
Rubens. His complete lack of smarts that allowed Schuey to sucker him at the
restart was all the evidence needed to prove the number 2 reference.
If you look at the make up of upper management of the would be contenders the
problem is obvious. Ron Dennis, Frank Williams. Eddie Jordan all came out of
racing the hard way, Formula Two, Formula Three, knocking on doors for money.
The modern era in F1 truly didn’t appear until the 90’s and only Ferrari seemed to
grasp where the business of F1 was heading. Those decisions of the weekend
warriors no longer play the way they used to. “I say chap, we are off to Brands next
week”. Ferrari is staffed by personal that are not connected to the way it used to be
and the sooner the rest adjust will be when someone else may win a race other
than the cars from Maranello.
I want to end this by commenting on my host. Jaguar is finally starting to get their
house in order but the cost has been tremendous. The millions wasted on Eddie
Irvine who proved nothing except how good anyone could be in a Ferrari, the
constant upheaval in team personal, clear up the ladder in team management.
Tony Purnell is now calling the shots at Jaguar and while he is no doubt under
pressure from Ford, his candor and the realistic expectations are a welcome
change from Jaguar’s former administrations. Purnell has it figured out, you can
no longer be just good at a race, you have to be good at everything and that costs
money. Jaguar needs accountability to get more money but money can mask
mistakes and Jaguar has been down that road before.
where their true heritage is and where they belong.