Features - News Feature

JANUARY 22, 1999

F1 at Indianapolis


It may sound like a crazy idea for Grand Prix cars to race on a combined oval and road course at Indianapolis but it is a little-known fact that there has already been a "Grand Prix" on a combined road-oval circuit, which was almost identical to the track which is being laid out at Indy for the United States Grand Prix in the year 2000.

It may sound like a crazy idea for Grand Prix cars to race on a combined oval and road course at Indianapolis but it is a little-known fact that there has already been a "Grand Prix" on a combined road-oval circuit, which was almost identical to the track which is being laid out at Indy for the United States Grand Prix in the year 2000.

The event was called the United States (West) Grand Prix and it was held on Sunday March 28 1971 at the Ontario Motor Speedway near Los Angeles, California.

Ontario is a forgotten racing circuit which was bulldozed away to make room for the ever-expanding Los Angeles suburbs. It was built in the 1970 as an exact copy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a 2.5-mile oval with nine-degree banking in each of the four corners. Unlike Indianapolis, Ontario had a road circuit built in the infield and this used a portion of the oval circuit, running the wrong way up the main straight, through one of the corners and then twisting off into the infield.

Does that sound familiar?

The 3.20-mile road circuit was opened with the United States (West) Grand Prix, which was a curious event for a mixed field of 3.0-litre Formula 1 cars and 5.0-litre Formula 5000s. It was not part of any championship and was billed as a "Race of the Two Worlds" with the top names from F1 taking on the big stars of USAC racing. It was certainly an impressive field with all the major factory Formula 1 teams, including Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus, BRM, Brabham, Matra and Tyrrell. Jacky Icky, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Denny Hulme were among the F1 stars present. The Americans used mainly Lola 192 chassis with Penske running Mark Donohue and the field including AJ Foyt, the Unser Brothers (Al and Bobby), Sam Posey, Bob Bondurant, Peter Revson, George Follmer and Swede Savage. The two-heat event was won by the F1 Ferrari of Mario Andretti.

It is also a little known fact that when Williams Grand Prix Engineering finished the first FW07 chassis - 20 years ago - the team took the car for secret testing away from the cameras in California and chose Ontario to do those shakedown runs. Williams technical director Patrick Head was there at the test and remembers it well.

"Ontario had the road course in the middle and we ran the car around that and then came out onto the oval in much the same way as the track in Indianapolis will do," he says, "and I must say it was interesting but we didn't have to change the set-ups at all.

"The mathematics is very simple. If you have nine degrees of banking and the static weight of the car you can calculate the centrifugal effect quite easily. As a rough calculation I would say that it will mean an extra 100kg of downforce for three or four seconds. That basically means that for a short period the car will be pushed down onto the track by an extra 100kg. That is a relatively small percentage of difference for a short time. I don't think we would have to change anything on the set-up but I guess that some of the more astute drivers might try to run different springs on different corners of the car. I don't think it will make that much difference."

Head's opinion is shared by other top engineers in Formula 1.

"The oval section of track will not do anything," says Mike Coughlan of Arrows. "It is only one corner and we wouldn't do anything to the car. Off the top of my head I would say that we probably go to other circuits which have corners which are more banked than that one corner at Indianapolis. The first corner at Suzuka leaps to mind, but I am not sure of the angle of camber. Whatever the case it is not like racing on a mixture of an oval and a normal circuit."

When people outside America think of oval circuits they seem to envision what the Americans call "a high-banked oval" such as Daytona Beach in Florida which has straights banked at 18-degrees and fearsome 37-degree banking in the corners. In fact, Indianapolis is what is called "a flat oval". The front and bank straights and the two short "chutes" between the Turns 1&2 and Turns 3&4 are actually not banked at all. They are flat. In the four Turns the road is cambered to only nine degrees, a gradient of only 10%.

So when you examine the plans which have been announced for Indianapolis you will see that the F1 track will arrive on the oval at what is normally the entry to Turn 2. At that point the road is flat at it goes down the chute to Turn 1. By the time the Grand Prix cars go through that Turn they will be doing around 150mph and will still be accelerating. The best way to get through the cambered corner is to go low, as close as possible to the apex, which is where the F1 cars would be on any normal race track. Drivers with a power advantage or those trying to take advantage of the mistake made by a rival might attempt to go around the outside of another car but this will not be easy to achieve. After three or four seconds the F1 cars will be back on flat tarmac again as they hurtle down the main straight and across the start-finish line. They will remain on the flat, getting up to 200mph before they brake for the turn into the infield - but this will occur they reach the banking in Turn 4.

In many respects it will probably be rather similar in sensation to the old final corner at the Mexico City Autodrome, last visited by Formula 1 in March 1992. The Peraltada, as it was known, was a 180-degree banked sweeper, taken in fifth gear. There was virtually no run-off and it is remembered as a great challenge to the drivers. In the 1980s it was considered to be one of the great corners in Grand Prix racing but as the cars ran closer to the road so the bumps became a problem and there were a series of very large accidents, notably for Philippe Alliot, who flipped his Larrousse in 1988

By the 1990s, however, the bumps in the corner were becoming dangerous and there were a series of large accidents including Derek Warwick in 1987 (which stopped the race), Philippe Alliot, who cartwheeled his Lola in practice in 1988 and even the great Ayrton Senna flipped his McLaren in 1991. These were not so much problems of the corner but rather of the bumps. Without them the Peraltada would have been a magnificent corner and it was the scene of one particularly memorable manoeuvre when Nigel Mansell - in an active Williams which was not badly affected by the bumps - went around the outside of Gerhard Berger's McLaren to snatch second place on the last lap.

Such things may be possible at Indianapolis in 2000. One thing is certain, there are no problems with bumps at the speedway, the tarmac at the circuit being kept as smooth as a billiard table.

Of the current Formula 1 drivers only a few will remember the Peraltada. Mika Hakkinen, Johnny Herbert, Michael Schumacher and Jean Alesi all raced in Mexico so Indianapolis's Turn One will not come as a surprise to them. In addition Jacques Villeneuve and Alessandro Zanardi have both raced on ovals in the United States so will have no problem at all with the corner.

Villeneuve - ever the nonconformist - says that he would prefer the Formula 1 cars to be run on the Indianapolis oval.

"It's just a sad thing that they are not going to be able to run on the oval," he says. "Whenever you have an oval and build a track on the inside - like they're going to do - it never feels real. It just feels like an artificial track."

That is not a practical idea. The Formula 1 cars of today are not suited to race on ovals and would have to be completely redesigned to cope with the different stresses and strains on the chassis and suspensions. If you took an F1 car onto the banking and tried it out you would break the suspension because the cars were not designed to run with such loadings.

There is a huge irony in the fact that although he has twice won the CART title, Alessandro Zanardi has not raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When he left Europe to become an Indycar driver, Indianapolis became part of the split between CART and IRL.

"It's quite funny that I have to come back to Formula 1 to race at Indianapolis," laughs Alex.

It is difficult to know who is the best driver to ask about racing F1 at the Speedway simply because the modern generation - apart from Villeneuve and Zanardi - really know nothing about Indianapolis.

Perhaps the man best qualified to comment is Eddie Cheever. He took part in 134 Grands Prix between 1978 and 1989 - more than any other American driver in the history of the sport - driving for a variety of teams including Tyrrell, Ligier, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Arrows. He never managed to win a Grand Prix and eventually decided to race in America where he has started in over 100 CART and IRL events. Now 41 Cheever's biggest victory came last year when he won the Indianapolis 500 at the wheel of a Dallara-Aurora.

"Right now the top open-wheeler drivers race in the Indianapolis 500," says Eddie, "the top NASCAR racers drive there in the Brickyard 400. I think it makes sense that the top circuit racers come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and have their race there. They are not going to have to explain to the viewing public all over the world what Indianapolis is. They already know.

"What Formula 1 lacked in America was a circuit like Monaco or Spa or Suzuka which has a lot of history. It lacked a strong and stable foundation in the States."

Cheever reckons that it does not matter about the circuit on which you race. Competition is about people and machines which have to fit themselves to the individual circuits. Indianapolis will be like any new F1 track. The drivers will quickly learn the layout and then it will be down to fine-tuning the cars.

Will it be a good track?

On paper it looks good. There are many people in racing who believe that the secret of good racing is one of circuit design and is a principal laid down by the great circuit designer John Hugenholz. His circuits - Zandvoort, Jarama and Suzuka - all had one thing in common in their original forms: a slow corner, leading to a fast corner and then a long straight ending in a tight corner. This, he argued, meant that a good driver would be able to go through the fast corner more quickly than a less talented driver and so would be able to carry his extra speed down the straight into the tight corner, where he could get ahead under braking. That theory holds true at many other tracks today, notably Barcelona, Interlagos, Montreal and Spa. Tracks where this combination does not exist feature very little overtaking with the modern cars.

The good news is that the combination exists in the plans for the track at Indianapolis and one can expect overtaking possibilities at the first corner and perhaps even at the end of the back straight. A fair bit will depend on what changes are made to the F1 Technical Regulations but there is no reason why the track should not produce great races.

The track layout and the speeds involved are reminiscent in many ways of the old Adelaide circuit with tight and twisty sections and a good overtaking point at the end of the straight.

Formula 1 has very fond memories of Adelaide. It always produced good racing and the atmosphere was always welcoming. The sport has been looking for a similar race ever since and there is little doubt when the F1 circus rolls into town in the year 2000 the fans at Indianapolis will be giving everyone a warm welcome.

"I know that the Speedway will look after us," says F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, "and that it will see that we have a home for Formula 1 for years to come. The Speedway is famous for glamour and excitement. We will bring some more..."

If Formula 1 has had one big failing in the last 10 exciting years it has been that it has not had a race in the United States of America.

"They've got so much home-grown motorsport in the United States," explains FIA President Max Mosley. "There are 1200 permanent motor sport facilities of one kind or another: small ovals, drag strips, racing circuits, road circuits, permanent facilities. It's saturated with motor sport and so it's very difficult to make Americans appreciate non-US racing - even if it is one of their stars who goes abroad."

F1 used to visit the US twice and even three times a year in the early 1980s but as the sport boomed around the world the American promoters refused to pay the prices the F1 teams - represented by Bernie Ecclestone - were asking.

"Everything in America is so cheap," he used to say. "To afford to have F1 is not easy. In America it is all about the bottom line and what they are going to make next month.

"But we seem to have done all right without a race there. It is not a problem."

But Ecclestone knew that in order to have a truly global World Championship a race in America was essential. In recent years he has been involved in a wide variety of schemes to get a US Grand Prix - he even bought Road Atlanta at one point - but none were successful.

With each passing year Ecclestone has come under increasing pressure for a race in America not just from the team owners but also from sponsors, keen to make an impact in the world's biggest consumer market, where an estimated 270m people have an average annual salary of $28,000. For the big companies who wanted to use Formula 1 for marketing their products globally this was a big market to be ignoring - and many of the big American corporations decided to stay away from F1 as a result. The sport was useful for marketing in Europe, Asia and Latin America but it was useless for the US. A race in the United States should open up new sources of income for the F1 teams.

The arrival of F1 at Indianapolis is also important for the circuit and the Hulman-George Family which owns and operates the facility. Since 1945 the family has built up the track into "the racing capital of the world" but in recent years a split with CART has meant that the Indy 500 has become a less important event than it used to be.

The race nonetheless still makes enormous profits with around 400,000 people attending each year and revenues pouring in from trackside advertising and merchandise.

Tony George, who runs the track, realized that to use the Speedway for just one race a year made little sense and so did a deal for a NASCAR race. The result was the hugely successful Brickyard 400 which brings even more money into the Speedway. George has also overseen the development of the Speedway golf courses and a Hall of Fame Museum. Adding F1 to the calendar will boost Indy's income and its reputation.

George hopes that eventually the CART teams will be forced by their sponsors to return to Indianapolis for the 500.<\#026>