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The Way It Is/ Lewis Hamilton arrives in America as Audi continues to dominate Le Mans

by Gordon Kirby
Summer formally arrives this week and we are literally in the heat of the racing season. Both the Le Mans 24 hours and the United States GP at Indianapolis took place this past weekend and only a few hours north of Indianapolis at the Michigan Speedway NASCAR ran another of its many races at the same time the F1 cars were racing at Indy.

And in my home state of New Hampshire, last week was 'Bike Week', with thousands of Harley and other two-wheeled aficionados descending on the Granite State and in particular the towns of Laconia and Weirs Beach near Lake Winnipesaukee. Some of the 'bikers even made it out to New Hampshire Int'l Speedway to watch Sunday's 84th Loudon Classic--America's oldest motorcycle race--on the Speedway's road circuit.

Of course, the big news last week was Dale Earnhardt Jr's announcement that he's joining Rick Hendrick's team next year, signing a five-year contract with Hendrick. Dale Jr's move to Hendrick's operation consolidates the team as NASCAR's most powerful in equipment, technology, drivers and commercial and marketing strength. With Jimmie Johnson winning last year's championship and Jeff Gordon dominating the first half of this year's Nextel Cup series it's clear that Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's top team and that Gordon and Johnson are a pair of fast, smart drivers who are able to dial-in their cars at each track a good deal better than most of their rivals.

Indeed, next year Earnhardt no longer will have any excuses about not having the equipment to win races and challenge for the championship. Without doubt 'Junior' is NASCAR's most popular driver and biggest draw. By all accounts he's a good guy and NASCAR could not have invented or cloned a better marketing tool for modern stock car racing. But no other superstar in the sport's long history has made it to 32 years of age with such a meager list of accomplishments as Dale Jr. With Hendrick over the next five years we'll find out what he's really made of as a driver and how he stacks up against Gordon and Johnson.

Certainly, there are no doubts about the driving ability of Lewis Hamilton. At Indianapolis, the young Englishman won his second Grand Prix in a row, withstanding constant pressure from his teammmate and world champion Fernando Alonso and confirming that he is one of the finest racing talents to come along in many years. To qualify on the pole and win back-to-back races at tracks he'd never seen is a sign that Hamilton is going to be a hard man to beat this year and possibly for many years to come.

He is the first black driver to race and win in Formula 1 and it's inevitable that comparisons now will be made between him and Tiger Woods. Like Woods, the 22-year old Hamilton is the product of a mixed-race marriage and it's beginning to look as if his prodigious driving ability may be the equal of Woods's remarkable skills as a golfer.

"It's fantastic," Hamilton said after winning at Indianapolis. "I'm extremely pleased and proud for the team. I would have never thought in a million years that I'd be here today sitting with these drivers here and winning both races in North America. So, a great leap in my career, in my life, and I'm extremely proud and thankful to my family and to God and to the team."

Hamilton is an amiable, pleasant young man as well as a fierce competitor and at this stage of the season with ten more F1 races to go it looks as if he and Alonso are going to battle among themselves for this year's world championship. Indianapolis was the third, one-two sweep of the year for McLaren-Mercedes and the team already has amassed 106 points, thirty-five more than Ferrari. So too are Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen third and fourth in drivers' points and really, nobody else is in the hunt.

To this point, the highly-paid Raikkonen ($135 million over three years) has been the disappointment of the season. He responded somewhat in Indianapolis but was still beaten by Massa. It's entertaining in fact, that Hamilton is thrashing Alonso and Massa seems to have the measure of Raikkonen. Number two drivers (at least in terms of salary) beating numbers ones rarely occurs in F1, particularly among the top teams. So it's refreshing to see and a great thing for the sport.

It was also good to see Heikki Kovalainen drive a strong race to fifth at Indy. After a rough start to the season the highly-touted Finn was told prior to leaving for Canada that he would be replaced by Nelson Piquet Jr. if he failed to bring home any results in Canada and the United States. But Kovalainen did exactly what was asked of him in the two North American races and appears to have saved his job.

On the other hand, the axe may be about to fall on Ralph Schumacher after he crashed at the first turn at Indianapolis. Incredibly, Schumacher is the second highest paid driver in F1 but after a series of uninspired performances he may be about to be sidelined by Toyota. When young fellows like Hamilton, Kovalainen and nineteen-year old Sebastien Vettel are able to blow Schumacher away, it's time he found another line of work.

This year's 75th Le Mans 24 hours was dominated once again by Audi's turbo diesel R10s as the German manufacturer scored its seventh win and fourth in a row in the world's most famous long-distance race. Only one of the three R10s survived the twenty-four hours this year but one of the team's cars was in front almost all the way with last year's winners Frank Biela/Emanuele Pirro/Marco Werner coming through to win again. It was the fifth win at Le Mans for Biela and Pirro, and Werner's third.

The new Peugeot 908 turbo diesels couldn't match the speed of the Audis in the race but the French cars performed well in their Le Mans debut. Only one of the Peugeots made the finish, driven by Sebastien Bourdais/Stephane Sarrazin/Pedro Lamy, and it finished second. Next year, with a full season of racing under their belts, Peugeot hopes to offer Audi a serious challenge. One of Henri Pescarolo's reliable old Judd-powered cars finished third with most the field, as usual these days, comprising GT1 and GT2 cars.

Forty years ago this week we were fortunate to celebrate what turned out to be the apogee of America's involvement in international motor racing. Back in 1967, Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt scored Ford's second consecutive Le Mans victory and Gurney went on the next weekend to win the Belgian Grand Prix at the amazing eight-mile Spa-Francorchamps road course aboard his own All American Racers Eagle-Gurney/Weslake V-12. It was the first and only time an American driver won a Grand Prix race driving not only his own car but also one built in the United States. The '67 Belgian GP was also the fastest road race ever run at the time as Gurney averaged 145.74 mph and also set a new track Spa track record of 148.85 mph.

In those days, Dan was recognized as one of the world's fastest, most versatile drivers, winning races and setting records in F1, long-distance sports cars, CanAm cars and even NASCAR stock cars. He and the great Jim Clark were close friends and rivals, working as teammates on the Lotus Indy team in 1963 and '64. After winning at Le Mans, Gurney invited Ford teammate Foyt to drive the second AAR Eagle at Spa the following weekend. Richie Ginther had started the season as Dan's F1 teammate but after failing to qualify at Monaco the deeply disappointed Ginther, knowing he was approaching the end of his career, disappeared.

That left a seat open at AAR but with a NASCAR race to run back in the States Foyt decided to fly home rather than try to compete with Gurney aboard one of Dan's cars and engines at a renowned track he didn't know where Gurney had previously qualified on the pole and fought to win races. So there was only one Eagle in the field on that momentous day at Spa forty years ago.

Those were great days for American racing with no fewer than eleven top American drivers from F1, USAC, Can-Am and Trans-Am series competing in the '67 Le Mans 24 hours. Included were winners Gurney and Foyt, plus the likes of Mario Andretti, Phil Hill and Mark Donohue--all champions in one category or another. And too, Gurney and Foyt covered 3,252 miles, more than all the winners from the past eighteen years and still the third fastest Le Mans 24 hours of all-time. Of course, the track has changed a lot since those days, including the addition of a couple of chicanes on the Mulsanne straight. But it's also much safer and less intimidating with plenty of modern run-off areas instead of walls and houses marking the edge of the track.

It's also interesting that the '67 race was rated by the late Jabby Crombac--France's most respected racing writer--as history's greatest long-distance sports car race featuring multi-car teams from Ford, Ferrari, Chaparral, Porsche, Matra and Mirage, and more than a dozen F1 drivers taking part as well as the large contingent of top-ranked Americans. All you can say is times certainly have changed!

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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