2005 sees the sixth running of the United States Grand Prix on the Indianapolis ‘infield’ circuit and, for the first time in this period, the field of drivers will include an American. But will F1’s brave new rules win over the notoriously indifferent American audience?
F1 has had a rough time in America. Although for many years two races a season were held in America, this was always more out of financial expedience than any burgeoning passion for ‘European’-style road racing in the US. The Grand Prix has chopped and changed its way through seven different venues before winding up back where it started, in Indiana.
In Canada Kimi Raikkonen clawed back the ground in the title chase he lost at the Nurburgring, and will hope to make another step forward as rival Alonso is forced into an early qualifying slot.
Ferrari had their best weekend and carry a qualifying advantage going to Indianapolis: surely they can finally translate their ever-growing speed into a race victory? Toyota, meanwhile, must be looking to harness their reputed engine power to claim victory at this power-orientated circuit.
The US GP has always been something of an oddity. The Indy 500 counted towards the world driver’s championship from 1950 to 1960, but remarkably few European drivers bothered themselves with the trip. A second, one-off race was held at the unloved Californian Sebring circuit in 1960.
For 1961 the race moved East to Watkins Glen in New York, and it was here that the race enjoyed its best years. It remained at the Glen until 1980 and usually provided a warm, golden, autumnal end to the year’s racing.
Even if the championship was already decided, in the years before the Formula One Constructions Association fixed race winnings it offered the greatest prize money, and the combination of that plus the fast, undulating circuit enticed teams across the Atlantic.
From 1976 a dispensation allowed a second race to be held, back on the west coast of California on the streets of Long Beach. This, one of the more popular street venues Formula One has visited, sadly lasted only until 1983 and in 1980 ended the career of Clay Regazzoni who crashed horribly and suffered paralysis.
When Watkins Glen became too unsafe for the turbo and ground effects generation in 1980, Long Beach was left as the only American Grand Prix. But for 1982 a new race appeared, fittingly, at Detroit, the ‘motor city’. The exceptionally tight street circuit was not quite the equal of Monaco (despite also having a tunnel).
There was precious little practice for the first race and the inevitable first-lap shunt caused a two-hour delay. But when the race finally started John Watson put in an amazing drive to win from 17th on the grid.
With the passing of Long Beach, the second US Grand Prix in 1984 was held at Dallas, and it was nothing short of a farce. The lunacy of trying to hold a race in Texas in the height of summer has perhaps never been equalled in F1 history. The double-whammy blunder of not having the track surface properly tested before the weekend caused the circuit to disintegrate beneath the cars’ wheels. The race was won by the fearsomely strong Keke Rosberg aided, ingeniously, by a water-cooled skull-cap. One of the organisers made off with the proceeds and F1, thankfully, never returned.
This left only Detroit, with its pitifully low and unimpressive average speeds. After 1988 it, too, was dropped from the calendar after a late attempt to switch the race to scenic Belle Island was thwarted by environmental lobbyists.
The US Grand Prix hit a new nadir by moving to the angular Pheonix street track until 1991. The race suffered the final ignominy in that final year when it held the season opener, yet drew a smaller audience than a nearby ostrich race.
That was it for F1 in America until Bernie Ecclestone finally brokered a deal with Indianapolis and Indy Racing League owner Tony George to run the United States Grand Prix on a track combining the historic oval with a purpose-built infield section. In practice, the circuit combines the sublime with the ridiculous, as the machines scream through the mighty banked turn of the oval, then pootle about in a skinny circuit alongside a golf course for the rest of the lap.
The Grands Prix held at the new venue have been mixed affairs. The 2000 race, held at the height of the Schumacher-Hakkinen championship battle, promised high drama but petered out, taking the championship with it, when Hakkinen’s engine blew and Schumacher strolled home untroubled. Ferrari dealt F1’s hopes of achieving popularity in America a hammer blow when Schumacher inadvertently handed victory to Rubens Barrichello on the final lap while trying to engineer a dead heat.
In 2003, as in 2000, the race proved the undoing of the championship battle as Juan Pablo Montoya received a ridiculously harsh penalty for tangling with Barrichello, and a wet race handed Schumacher a much-needed win. The drama in 2004 was supplied by a serious of frightening high-speed punctures and a serious accident that befell Ralf Schumacher.
A lone American in a spare Red Bull on Friday is not going to be enough to win over US audiences to F1. The circus goes to Indianapolis off the back of an entertaining season’s racing, but badly needing to keep the excitement up to turn more Americans on to the sport.