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SEPTEMBER 14, 2007

The real threat to F1

Formula 1's top management seems to believe that it exists in a vacuum, untroubled by the real world. Everyone is consumed/outraged by the penalty inflicted on McLaren but no-one seems to be looking beyond the end of their noses. And those blinkers may be a much bigger problem for F1 than any scandal over fines. There are clear signs from the United States that NASCAR, a series that understands how to deal with fans and gives them what they want to see, is quietly building up for international expansion.

The first big step was the arrival this season of Colombia's Juan-Pablo Montoya, a Formula 1 refugee. Montoya has done well and this has encouraged others to follow suit. It has already been announced that former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve will be seen in a Toyota next year and Ford is pushing Australian Marcus Ambrose into the big league in 2008 wit the Wood Brothers team. Sam Hornish Jr, one of IRL's stars, is starting racing in NASCAR with Penske.

Now we are days away from an announcement that Scotland's Dario Franchitti, one of the leading lights of American open-wheeler racing in recent years, is on his way to NASCAR. Rumours from the United States say that Franchitti will be joining Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing with backing rumoured to be coming from the St. Louis, Missouri-based battery manufacturer Energizer.

The car is currently being driven by David Stremme but sponsor Coors Light has recently announced it is terminating the relationship with Ganassi, which dates back 14 years.

Ganassi has been looking for a new team-mate for Montoya and Reed Sorenson. It is anticipated that Franchitti will undergo a racing programme similar to that used by Montoya to get up to speed with events in ARCA and the NASCAR Busch Series.

Franchitti's defection, following that of the series' rising star AJ Allmendinger at the end of 2006, could start a run of others from the blighted Indy Racing League and Champ Car worlds.

At the same time a number of former F1 men are now lining up to drive NASCAR-style machinery in Asia and the Middle East with the new Speedcar Series. This will give them experience in the stock cars and perhaps ambitions to try to make it in the United States.

The internationalisation of the NASCAR drivers is the first step. Once there are established foreign names in the series, there will follow foreign fans and then it will be easier for NASCAR to begin the next step, holding races in foreign parts.

F1 should be watching and not spending all its time worrying about Max and Ron.