MARCH 16, 2001
Formula 1 on American television
THE announcement just before Melbourne that Speedvision has been awarded the TV rights for Formula 1 in the United States of America was not really a surprise but it was an indication of just how much more work is needed before Grand Prix racing achieves recognition in America. Recognition will only really be achieved when one of the big television networks decides to screen races and that is not looking likely at the moment as the numbers of viewers do not currently seem to make any commercial sense to the big broadcasters. The race at Indianapolis will obviously help the process of raising the profile of the sport in the United States of America and until then F1 fans in the US are going to have to continue to suffer from lack of coverage. The growth of the Internet has to some extent alleviated the problems of the past - when race fans often had to wait for 10 days before racing magazines arrived from Europe - but a lot of F1-related websites are struggling to survive at the moment with even some of the better-funded operations laying off staff.
The key to breaking into the American market is for Formula 1 to find an American driver with the speed necessary to make it against the top names in the sport. At the moment there are a few Americans racing in Europe but it is not an easy life and there are much simpler ways of building up a racing career in US racing. The highest profile American this year is expected to be Derek Hill, the son of 1961 World Champion Phil Hill. He has landed himself a drive in Formula 3000 with the DAMS team but in testing to date he has not made much of an impact. In the recent testing at Silverstone Hill was outpaced dramatically by his DAMS team mate Sebastien Bourdais and ended up two and a half seconds a lap slower despite completing as many laps. The changing weather conditions may have compromised Hill's chances of setting a better lap but it is hard to believe that he is going to be a frontrunner in Formula 3000 this year.
The popularity of a sport in any country is enhanced dramatically if there is a successful exponent of that sport. It is a cycle which has been repeated over and over in the history of Formula 1. Mika Hakkinen, JJ Lehto and Mika Salo, for example, were inspired in their efforts to be racing drivers by the success of Keke Rosberg. Hakkinen's success has helped to inspire the next generation of Finns now arriving in F1, led by Kimi Raikkonen. Similarly the number the constant success of Brazilians has been caused by interest generated by early drivers. The current youngsters from Brazil will all tell you that they were inspired by Ayrton Senna. The problem is that if a country does not have a successful racer for a period of years the interest level drops and so fewer youngsters get the inspiration necessary to break through and this becomes a vicious circle as lack of interest in F1 means a lack of money available. This is one of the reasons that it took Germany so long to get any serious F1 contenders. Now seems to be an endless supply of Germans, inspired by Michael Schumacher's success.
The problem is that one cannot manufacture talent. The French discovered this in the 1970s and 1980s when the Elf oil company funded driver after driver on their way to Formula 1. There were some notable successes (such as Alain Prost, Patrick Tambay and Didier Pironi) but in the later generations fewer survived the test of F1. Olivier Panis was one of them while Jean Alesi was spectacular in that he made his way to F1 without the help of Elf. Today, however, France is struggling to find new stars because of the anti-tobacco legislation which exists in France and because of Elf's decision in recent years not to be involved in F1. The new Renault engine program is likely to change that with Renault already having plans for a series of teams to take youngsters from karting through to F1.
America needs a similar system if Formula 1 is to make it big in the United States. The last successful American driver in F1 was Mario Andretti and most of the rising stars of today were not even born when Mario was racing in F1.
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