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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/ F1's passion play whirls along

by Gordon Kirby
It all went wrong in the pitlane at the end of the first round of stops in Montreal on Sunday. Most of the field came in under the yellow but as they tried to rejoin a red light was on at the end of the pitlane and suddenly the race we had been watching was over. Race leader Lewis Hamilton wasn't ready for the unexpected red light and he plowed into the back of Kimi Raikkonen's stopped Ferrari. Seconds later Nico Rosberg also got involved. Hamilton and Raikkonen were out on the spot and the race fell into the hands of Robert Kubica who scored a very popular first win for BMW Sauber with teammate Nick Heidfeld making it a one-two sweep for the team.

Kubica's maiden win also propelled him to the top of this year's F1 drivers' world championship four points ahead of Hamilton and Felipe Massa with Raikkonen another three points behind. In the constructors' championship BMW has moved to within three points of Ferrari with a comfortable lead of seventeen points over third-placed McLaren-Mercedes. So a moment of indecision has cost Hamilton and McLaren some of the momentum they enjoyed by winning at Monaco two weeks ago and suddenly Kubica and BMW look like being contenders for this year's drivers' and constructors' titles.

After the race, Hamilton and Rosberg were found guilty of causing the multiple collision in the pitlane and the FIA subsequently penalized both drivers ten places in the starting lineup at the French GP in two weeks. Until his pitlane faux pas in Montreal, Hamilton looked like the master of the day as he pulled clear of Kubica and Raikkonen on soft tires but critical little errors continue to get the better of him.

One thing I can report with conviction after spending the weekend in Montreal is that without traction control, this year's F1 cars are a pleasure to watch. Rather than simply matting the gas pedal and wailing off the corners in a low trajectory with everything locked into maximum grip as was the case in recent years you can now see the drivers working to balance throttle against steering, fighting for grip, using all the road on the exits from the corners. And with each cylinder firing away as they're supposed to under hard acceleration this year's traction control-free F1 cars also sound much better than the hacking and clattering our ears were exposed to in recent years.

It's worth reflecting, in fact, on how the removal of this key element in today's electronically-defined racing world has had such a positive effect on the spectacle and it might provide a useful hint that Parnelli Jones may be right when he says electronic and digital controls should be banned from motor racing so that--among other benefits--we can more thoroughly see and appreciate the drivers' skills.

Of course, a more enduring lesson from Montreal is how well Canada has done the job of building one of the most popular and successful Grands Prix of modern times. F1 cars have been racing at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Ile Notre Dame for thirty years (excepting 1987 when there was a dispute over money) and all you can say is it's a great event. The city rocks all weekend with street parties galore and the grandstands are full every day as the crowd--many of them from across the USA's northeastern states--streams in as early as seven on Friday and Saturday mornings, let alone raceday. There's nothing remotely like it in the United States for the setting, the track, the event and the massive crowd. Even Long Beach runs a distant second.

The only problem in Montreal is an eternal battle with crumbling pavement, particularly when hot weather arrives after a cool spring as it did last Saturday and Sunday. The track began to break up during qualifying and a lot of repatching was required on Saturday evening. But a proper fix needs to be made so the race can retain its prideful place as one of the best on the F1 schedule.

As we all know, after a nine-year run at Indianapolis we are once again without a United States Grand Prix although Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George says he's committed to attempting to revive the race at his track. With the help of Just Marketing, George and the IMS are looking for a title sponsor and a network TV deal to bring F1 back to Indianapolis. Title sponsorship and a strong TV package are essential to helping pay for the race and also to promote and market F1 in the United States.

But as the past has proven, these hoped-for sales are an uphill push in a country where F1 is so irrelevant. Let's not forget that it will be thirty years this August since Mario Andretti scored the last Grand Prix win by an American driver and given the lack of American racers on today's international scene the chances of that ever happening again seem exceedingly slim. Still, George wants F1 back at his track as do F1's competing manufacturers and the IMS is the only place in the United States that can afford to pay for an F1 race.

Equally important is George's desire to establish the Speedway over the next few years as the unchallenged 'world center of racing' with four major races--the Indy 500, Brickyard 400 NASCAR race, and MotoGP and F1 Grand Prix races. MotoGP comes to Indianapolis for the first time this September and George wants to bring F1 back in the next few years to add panache to the IMS's 100th birthday.

Next year is the hundredth anniversary of the Speedway's opening in 1909. The hundredth anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 takes place two years later in 2011 and the celebrations will extend through 2016 when the 100th running of the 500 takes place. So it may not be the ideal venue aesthetically for either drivers or fans but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only likely and future home of the United States Grand Prix.

In the end, of course, it all depends on Max Mosley and the FIA's ability to do business in America. Given the uncompromising refusal by the American Automobile Association's president Robert Darbelnet to doing business with the FIA as long as Max Mosley remains at its helm, it's possible there may be no future at all for Formula 1 in America.

"(It's) a very unfortunate outcome, a very unfortunate day for the FIA," Darbelnet commented last week after Mosley convincingly won a vote of confidence from the FIA's member countries. Darbelnet said he did not buy Mosley's rationale that a man's private life has no effect on his public activities. "This is not the type of behavior that would be condoned in any organization that I am familiar with," the AAA president added.

After successfully marshalling his recources to win last week's vote 103 to 55, Mosley was not in Montreal. But Bernie Ecclestone was very much in evidence and went into the press room on Saturday during the morning practice session. I was out wandering the circuit, enjoying my annual dose of F1 on a serious track in a wonderful setting with a huge crowd already on hand, so I missed Bernie's show. The previous day Ecclestone had been able to get one London newspaper to write a story suggesting the posibility of a 'breakaway series' but he denied ever saying such a thing and also took the opportunity to rip one well-known reporter's tape recorder from his hands and hurl it across the floor.

It's impossible to read Ecclestone who wears a deadpan expression much of the time, but he looked a seriously troubled man in Montreal last weekend.

It's said Bernie has spent the past few weeks pushing the case for Michel Boeri to replace Mosley on a temporary basis. Boeri reportedly has no interest in the job but says he would take on the task strictly as a interim president to help lay the ground for the FIA's next fulltime president.

Meanwhile, Mosely is said to be bouyed by the strength of last week's vote. Even 'though a lot of Mosley's support came from the FIA's smaller, developing countries he believes the strong vote in his favor means there is substantial support for his technical and promotional agendas for both F1 and the World Rally Championship and has no intention of stepping down.

There's also a growing belief within some corners of the F1 paddock that Mosley, Ecclestone and the FIA are so embroiled in their own egos and politics that they have not noticed their real opposition is not so much the enemy within, but Rupert Murdoch. The Australian media tycoon owns many newspapers, including the UK's Sunday Times and News of the World, and both currently are engaged in suits with the FIA.

Murdoch also owns Sky TV in Europe and Fox in America, both of which are heavily committed to NASCAR and for the first time this year all thirty-six NASCAR Sprint Cup races are being televised live across Europe on Sky. Some people believe Murdoch is poised to take advantage of the current political upheavel in F1 to expand NASCAR's global television market. Other longtime observers of F1 think Murdoch may be positioning himself to buy CVC Capital Partners, the holding company that owns F1.

So as Robert Kubica and BMW bring a refreshing new flavor to F1, the ongoing battle for political and financial control of the sport also appears to be entering a new era. At this stage, nobody is prepared to place any bets on how it's all going to shake out.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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