Columns - Big Al
A first-timers guide to F1 at the Brickyard
BY ALAN HENRY
When Bernie Ecclestone decided to cut a deal with Indianapolis speedway president Tony George to bring the United States Grand Prix to the famous American oval track, he knew he was storming the bastions of the most important citadel of American motor racing.
"There are only three places in the world that are absolutely household names when it comes to motor racing," he said when the race was first mooted.
"They are the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans and Indianapolis. It's as simple as that."
Up to now, the American fans' enthusiasm for F1 racing has been an intermittent and patchy affair. When the F1 fraternity last took its leave of the home of the brave, land of the free it was after two commercially unsuccessful races through the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.
Ecclestone quickly recognised that if F1 was going to regain the firm foothold it previously held in the USA with a regular fixture at Watkins Glen, in New York state, from 1961 to 80 then it would have to be at an established location. So when George indicated that he would be prepared to make the necessary 45 million pound investment to build a state-of-the art grand prix circuit, Bernie knew he was home and dry.
The sheer scale of the place is mind-boggling for those raised on a diet of Silverstone, Magny-Cours or the Hungaroring. Once inside the perimeter of the famous 2.5-mile banked oval circuit one enters a strangely exclusive world large enough to include a championship standard golf course in one corner of the infield.
It was clear from the very outset that the formula one cars could not simply run, flat-out, round the Indycar oval and that a European-style road circuit section had to be incorporated. Yet Ecclestone and George knew it was crucial to the race's credibility to include at least some of the existing track. Indianapolis clearly would not be Indianapolis without at least one of the banked turns.
The result is an juxtaposed mish-mash of old and new, a compromise between American traditionalism and supposed new-age polish.
For Jacques Villeneuve, the event marked his to America's most famous race track for the first time since winning the 1995 Indianapolis 500 at the wheel of a Reynard-Ford. The Canadian driver will be the nearest thing to home-grown talent that the 208,000 capacity crowd will identify with when the first US grand prix to be held for nine years gets underway on Sunday afternoon.
Worried race organisers will be scanning the volatile weather forecasts for the mid-western states, deeply concerned that the the heavy rain predicted for Saturday and Sunday could turn both qualifying and the race into a treacherous skating rink on the 170mph banked turn which leads the cars back onto the start/finish straight.
Yet Villeneuve, who lapped the banked 2.5-mile oval at around 220mph as a matter of course on his way to that Indy 500 win, plays down this understandable concern.
"At least in the wet the speed will be lower, which will help things," he said. "The Champcars do not race on ovals in the wet, so that will be something of a new attraction for the spectators."
"What you've got to understand is that the Indy drivers go through there at 230mph in the dry. Our F1 cars won't be doing anywhere near that, so I don't think the banking, wet or dry, will be any problem."
Villeneuve also gave a qualified green light to the revised circuit.
"The track looks quite good, although there are a couple of corners which I don't think needed to be so tight," he said. "But as an event, it will be an interesting contrast to the Indy 500 which is the biggest race in itself, almost a world championship bound up in a single race. The grand prix is just a single race in the championship.
"For myself, when I raced here five years ago my car was more competitive than my BAR is at the moment. I left here with great memories in 1995 - and haven't been back since - so I think I had rather forgotten just how impressive the whole place looks."
Even the blase formula one regulars, run raw by a relentless fortnightly schedule which started in early March, could not fail to be impressed by the massive permanent grandstands which line the entire circuit, capable of seating over 400,000 spectators for both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 Nascar races.
Villeneuve also offered some words of encouragement to fellow Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya who was finally confirmed as Jenson Button's successor in the BMW Williams team for the 2001 season.
Williams has traditionally taken no prisoners with its uncompromising and generally unsentimental approach towards its hired hands, as Villeneuve himself experienced during his three years with the team.
"It is a very good team and both Frank Williams and Patrick Head are racers at heart," he said. "If there is a good amount of respect, then the results will come."
Montoya, who has signed a two year deal with Williams, is not short on self-confidence. In twelve months time he will be back at Indianapolis at the wheel of a Williams-BMW, aiming to score his second win at this home of US motor racing.
As a footnote, the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis represents another blow for CART. This American racing series is set to lose Montoya, Bobby Rahal, Mercedes-Benz and probably Barry Green. It has already lost the Indy 500. So the arrival of the US Grand Prix at the Brickyard means that Tony George, Indianapolis and the Indy Racing League have emerged decisive winners in a five year protracted battle.
Game, set and match.