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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Recreating the ideal alternate formula to F1

by Gordon Kirby
A dozen years ago the now-defunct CART/PPG Indy Car World Series was on a roll. Jacques Villeneuve scored a great come-from-behind win in the 1995 Indy 500 after each of Scott Pruett and Scott Goodyear messed up in the race's closing stages and the 24-year old Villeneuve went on to win that year's CART championship, beating Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti to the title. Villeneuve then moved to Formula 1 with Williams-Renault and was instantly competitive, finishing second in the 1996 world championship ahead of Michael Schumacher and winning the world title in '97.

A few years earlier of course, Nigel Mansell quit F1 and the Williams team to go Indy car racing with Newman/Haas. Mansell won the CART championship in his first year with Newman/Haas, then after a winless second year in CART made a brief return to F1 at the end of '94 with Williams and drove a few races for McLaren the following year.

In those days the CART series enjoyed a tremendous worldwide reputation and a fast-growing global TV audience. The series provided a real alternative to Formula 1 boasting a broader range of tracks from superspeedways to street circuits and a more controlled but still interesting level of technology and competition among manufacturers. The racing was closer, more exciting and much less predictable than F1 and fans around the world started tuning-in to this American-based but very international form of racing.

And let's not forget that in 1995 the Penske team famously failed to qualify for the Indy 500 after dominating the previous year's race. That's how deeply competitive CART was in those days.

For a few years, incredible to recall, CART began to threaten F1's dominance of motor racing's worldwide TV market and also provided a serious, money-making alternative to F1 for the world's best open-wheel drivers. But of course, politics, power struggles and the CART/IRL civil war ruined all that, allowing F1 to carry on unperturbed and unchallenged as the world's only major form of open-wheel racing.

Today, Champ Car is trying to be what CART once was, but without any ovals and only six 2008 races in the United States--the smallest number in the ninety-nine year history of what was once the American national championship. Champ Car is trying to focus on international or European expansion while the IRL is a Midwestern-centered, oval-based series with little or no interest in adding international races. The two series are almost mutually exclusive entities, neither serving the continuing gap in the market created by CART's failure.

© Paul Webb
For indeed, much more so than a dozen years ago, there remains a yawning chasm in the global racing landscape for exactly the alternative to F1 that CART once was. As the global economy begins to assert itself over the US economy's long primacy there's a greater pool of talent than ever in drivers, engineers, technicians, car builders, racetracks, sponsors and fans. More and more people are involved in the sport and more and more fans are watching from trackside and on TV. The globalization of the sport is readily apparent in racing today as drivers from around the world infiltrate all forms of racing, including NASCAR.

We can credit Emerson Fittipaldi for unleashing this great wave of internationalism on American open-wheel racing. A two-time F1 world champion from a decade earlier when he made his CART debut in 1984, Fittipaldi enjoyed a very successful second career in Indy cars, winning the CART title in 1989 and the Indy 500 in 1989 and '93. When Emerson arrived in CART there were only two or three other foreign drivers in the field but when he retired after crashing heavily at Michigan in 1996 no fewer than fifteen of CART's regular twenty-six starters were born outside the United States. Today, of course, both Champ Car and IRL are dominated by foreign-born drivers.

Yet as the world has come to American racing and F1 continues to make piles of money for a privileged few and dominates racing's global TV and media markets, both IRL and Champ Car are merely struggling to survive. In this incongruous environment, a smart, powerful man could make a fortune of his own by finding a way to merge America's two broken open-wheel series and relaunching a newly-branded series as an American-based international series in the style and spirit of the old CART/PPG Indy Car World Series.

It would differentiate itself from F1 by including an eclectic selection of ovals, road courses and street circuits and by enjoying a technologically-challenging but somewhat more restricted formula than F1. The formula would embrace new technology, as discussed in this space at some length this year, including some type of 'green' fuel and possibly hybrid engines. The authors of the rulebook have to write a technically and crowd-pleasing formula which will attract engine manufacturers, car builders, teams, drivers and racetracks, not to mention fans.

A very big problem, of course, is that a revitalized American open-wheel series would have to go up against NASCAR in the United States and the combination of Max Mosley and FIA and Bernie Ecclestone and F1 around the world. It would have to compete with NASCAR and F1 both politically and in the marketplace. And having achieved positions of supreme dominance in their respective bailiwicks neither NASCAR nor Ecclestone and Mosley will grant any competitor--least of all an upstart recreation of CART--any wiggle room with racetracks, team owners, manufacturers or drivers.

This was one of CART's major problems throughout its quarter century of life. It was essentially an outlaw organization, embraced by neither the FIA, nor the established American sanctioning bodies under the umbrella of ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee of the United States) and its most powerful player, NASCAR. CART was always working against rather than with City Hall and today's Champ Car organization has inherited exactly the same position.

Champ Car has put together three European races for next year and is hoping for a fourth at Donington on September 21st. Also, Tony Cotman has been appointed to the FIA's Circuits & Safety Commission. Cotman is Champ Car's best man by far and I'm sure he'll do good work for the organization in this added role. But Champ Car is very naive about working with the FIA, Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone. In fact, it's like casting a school of goldfish into a shark's tank. If there is to be a revitalized, American-based, international open-wheel series it would have to be blessed--Cotman and his operations people aside--with much sharper and more knowledgeable management people than those currently employed by Champ Car.

The only way forward I can see for American open-wheel racing is for the IRL and Champ Car to adopt an identical formula for 2011. Really, it needs to happen much sooner, like 2009. But let's agree that the IRL's goal of creating a new formula for 2011 is the way to go and get everyone working together to actually make it happen.

I know it's ridiculous to suggest such a thing and eleven days ago in this space Honda's Robert Clarke expressed his deep disappointment in the situation after two years of intensive effort to try to get the two factions together. Still, everyone in the sport knows it's the only solution and that it really needs a bold leader, somebody who can take the whole thing over with a clear vision, deep political savvy and plenty of resources.

Like I wrote last month, a blue ribbon panel needs to be established to provide expert guidance about creating the new formula. Allow me to reiterate my choice for such a panel of experts. They are: Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, John Barnard, Gordon Murray, Adrian Newey, Tony Cicale and John Ward, and let's add an engine man or two, starting with Mario Ilien. Most of these guys have been involved in numerous ground-breaking designs over the years and their eclectic brand of thinking is sorely needed.

There also have to be cohesive, well-funded marketing and promotion programs to push the whole thing forward. Over the years, CART, IRL and now Champ Car have failed comprehensively in these departments with a dizzying series of turnovers in marketing people and themes, all trying to reinvent the wheel during their short and pathetically unsuccessful tenures.

And again, the new formula must attract the right mixture of manufacturers, car builders, teams and drivers to create the critical mass required to make the series sufficiently strong to be attractive to racetracks, fans, the media and sponsors. It's a very tough job and I'm afraid all the historical and contemporary evidence tells us there isn't anybody out there with the smarts and cajones to make it happen.

But I keep hoping somebody will prove me wrong.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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