Columns - Big Al

Getting ready for Indy


With the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis a little over a month away, there is a huge sense of anticipation surrounding the return of the F1 world championship to the country it last vacated a decade ago after two unremarkable races through the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.

Indianapolis promises to be an altogether more brassy, high profile, razzmatazz affair and another substantial boost to the family fortunes of the George family who have owned the speedway since 1945. Yet the big losers in all this must be the CART series. Not only have they lost their place at the Indy 500 table thanks to the damaging split with Tony George's Indy Racing League, but that abject frustration has surely been compounded by the sight of Bernie Ecclestone's circus rolling into town to the accompaniment of the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd which once was theirs.

It is all very difficult for European race fans to understand. CART is one of the most closely contested and entertaining racing categories, yet its TV viewing figures are on the skids and crowd attendances down. On the face of it, this is not a scenario which looks too clever for either Rockingham or the Lausitzring, both of which are set to host their inaugural CART oval races next year.

The problem is twofold. The damaging IRL/CART split is simply not understood by the average Joe in the US street. NASCAR stock car racing seems to have filled the TV viewing void in the USA and, with 390,000 people packing Indianapolis to capacity for the recent Brickyard 400, these are attendance figures to make even Bernie's eyes come out on stalks.

Bernie was right on the money at the Hungarian GP three years ago when he first told me about his plans to take F1 to Indianapolis. "There are three motor racing venues which everybody has heard of," he said. "Monaco, Le Mans - and Indianapolis."

Inevitably, there are potential problems attending F1's return to the States. Adrian Newey, McLaren's technical director who spent three years engineering March Indycars on the superspeedways back in the 1980s, drew attention to one of those problems at Hungaroring over the weekend.

It will be good to go there for three days, and not a full month," he said, nostalgically recalling the days when one had to spend the entire month of May at Indy preparing for the 500."

"It will also be strange to see the cars going to slowly. Of course, F1 is a very different spectator sport compared with a superspeedway. Whether they will appreciate the difference between F1 and a super speedway remains to be seen. Rather Mickey-Mouse infield. There was an opportunity to create quite a fast track, but there is one fast corner and many slow bits."

And whether they will come back in their droves for the 2001 US Grand Prix remains the great unanswered question. If they don't, then it's just possible that this will lead to Tony George having to open realistic commercial negotiations with CART in order to revive the Indy 500's credibility.

Moreover, if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Bernie Ecclestone being on pole position to broker the deal. In exchange for backing an FIA-approved world oval track championship. And the television rights which go with it.