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The Way It Is/ Formula One in America. Rolling backward rather than forward?

by Gordon Kirby
Montreal was my destination last weekend for the Canadian GP to write a story for Road & Track about this year's high-revving 2.4 liter V8s. Engine rules are a mattor of hot debate in Formula One at the moment after Max Mosley declared the FIA's intentions at the British GP two weeks ago to require homologated (volume produced) engines in F1 in 2008 replete with common ECUs for all. But as much as Mosley says there's no negotiating about his proposal it was quite clear in Montreal that the engine manufacturers are intent on a few more rounds of parsing words and phrases with the inimitably dexterous Mosley.

The FIA president's ideas are aimed at making the manufacturers bend to his ways while masking them in the rhetoric of cost-cutting and achieving a level playing field. These well-worn rubrics have been trotted out time and again in the history of motor racing but they are goals that have rarely, if ever, been realized.

As we all know, the economics of racing are determined not by the rules, but by the amount of money any team or category is able to generate. The budget of any serious racing team is determined by its sponsorship income. Whatever the rules, the better-funded and motivated teams will spend what's required to get the most out of the rulebook and otherwise outfox and outmaneuver the rulemakers.

NASCAR is the classic, modern example of course, where massive amounts of money and engineering are lavished on the tiniest details. And of course, in F1 the likes of Ferrari and Renault have been running the FIA ragged in recent years with flexible wings and methods of dynamically tuning the changing aerodynamic balance between front and rear wings.

Meanwhile, the hot button issue in Montreal last weekend concerned the future of the United States GP in the wake of Bernie Ecclestone's comments in an edition of last week's London Times newspaper. "What do we get from America?" Ecclestone told the Times. "Aggravation, that's about all. If you say, 'Good morning' over there, and it's five past 12, you end up with a lawsuit."

Tony George's contract with Ecclestone for the USGP expires this year and George wants to renegotiate and reduce his annual fee of more than $20 million. By talking to the Times, master negotiator Ecclestone laid the groundwork for his conversations this week with George. Neither Ecclestone nor Mosley were in Montreal last weekend, allowing Bernie's comments to the Times to do their talking. "I am not prepared to subsidise a race in America," Ecclestone said. "We have more viewers in Malta than over there."

Having made his point, Bernie then threw a bone in Tony George's direction. "I have a very good relationship with the people at Indianapolis and I'm sure the talks will go well," he added.

In Montreal, nobody could understand Ecclestone's agenda and all the other F1 heavyweights jumped in to defend racing in the United States. In a Friday press conference, Ferrari's Jean Todt, Mercedes-Benz's Norbert Haug, BMW's Mario Thiessen and Honda's F1 team boss Nick Fry pledged their individual commitments to racing in America.

"We like racing in the US," Todt said. "Ferrari has its biggest market in the US. One third of our cars are sold in this country. So for the visibility of Ferari and of Formula One, we think it's important to do this race."

Haug has always been very vocal about having two or more United States GPs as well as enticing American manufacturer-backed teams from the likes of Ford and General Motors. Mercedes' motorsports boss said these things to me last year in Montreal and repeated his wishes to me again individually as well as in last Friday's press conference. "I wish we could have at least two races in America and I would love to have an American team," Haug commented. "We should encourage a guy like Roger Penske."

Added Haug: "[The USA] is our second biggest market for Mercedes Benz and is obviously very important for our hosts Chrysler. We are producing a lot of cars there and we want to support America. I think we need to explore America further in Formula One in the future. My wish in the longterm would be to develop an American team with American drivers, even American engine manufacturers."

These, I'm afraid to say, are merely gratuitous statements, a pipe dream in fact, and every time I hear Haug say these things I have to ask, what world is he living in? Has he not read the newspapers recently? Neither GM nor Ford are in a position to spend the megabucks required to field an F1 team. Nor do they have the technical or engineering expertise to successfully operate a serious racing team as their racing efforts over the past thirty or forty years have amply demonstrated.

More than anything, Haug's comments shed some light on Formula One's incredible misunderstanding of America as a whole and of the country's unique sporting culture, as discussed in this space last week. Indeed, in the same Friday press conference, BMW's motorsports chief Mario Thiessen further underlined the depths of the Europeans' misapprehension of America. "The US is basically the only big country in which Formula One does not play the dominant role in motorsport," Thiessen said, "and I think we shouldn't give up on achieving this."

Once again, if the FIA is serious about making a big impact in America, it needs to get to work immediately on romancing the domestic media and getting them to cover F1 on a more expansive basis. The only American press in Montreal last weekend were Jenna Fryer of AP, a man from NASCAR Scene who was writing about the arrival next year of the Busch Grand National series in Montreal, and myself and my old friend and photographer Gary Gold working for Road & Track. We also counted three American photographers, but none were shooting for a major media outlet of any description.

And indeed, the results were there in Monday morning's newspapers with just a few inches coverage from Montreal. It was the eve of the much-discussed United States GP at Indianapolis and not a single sports editor in America--not even the Indianapolis Star!--cared to send a reporter to write about the Canadian GP or prepare some pre-race stories for this week's editions. The ball is rolling backward rather than forward.

If the FIA, Mosley, Ecclestone and F1's engine manufacturers are serious about making an impact in the USA, they will have to work much, much harder to attract and nurture this country's media. Frankly, I don't think they have any idea how to do this, nor as I wrote last week, does their misapprehension of America's sports culture provide them with a basis to tackle this job.

The fact is, USGP at Indianapolis or not, F1 appears doomed to exist as a marginal sport, or less, in the United States. A cultural revolution within F1 is required before there's any hope for something more, and that's unlikely to happen.

In closing, I must report a brief conversation with Renault's F1 team boss Flavio Briatore about Sebastien Bourdais. I asked Briatore why there's no interest in Bourdais from Renault or any other F1 teams. "He's a very good driver," Briatore shrugged. "I have no idea why he's not here."

Even 'though it's not clear who will partner the overrated Giancarlo Fisichella chez Renault in 2007, Briatore insisted he had the situation under control without Bourdais. "We are very happy," Briatore said. "We have a very good team of drivers, and we will next year."

And so it goes...

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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