Phoenix from the Flames

Phoenix from the Flames
by Toby Waller

Yet again, as seems to happen every year, the rumours are beginning to circulate of an American Grand Prix being held next season. If, as suggested, race weekends are to be shortened next year, and more events are subsequently added to the calendar, then a race in America looks increasingly likely. The concern amongst fans is whether we really need to stage a race in America at all. Bernie Ecclestone's main argument seems to be that the current Formula One World Championship is not truly a global series until it dominates the hearts and minds of the American populace. Most fans would argue that it this is not necessarily true. No other championship can surely claim to host rounds in Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, the only exception being Africa. If the South African motorsport commission can convince the FIA to stage a race, probably at the Kylami circuit, then the Formula One circus will soon be turning its wheels in every continent. Formula One's main rival, the Indycar championship, has only recently begun having rounds abroad, with the season openers at Surfers Paradise, Australia, and this year's race at Rio.

The most recent Grand Prix events in the United States were fairly unpopular with the teams and drivers. Watkins Glen was the exception, hosting the event throughout the 1960s and '70s. The Long Beach circuit in the early '80s was a disappointment, despite its intention to rival Monaco. The street circuit ran along the harbour front but, instead of snaking through a millionaires paradise, it threaded its way through a dirty industrial landscape that was only made worse by the dubious use of plastic palm trees. After a couple of monotonous races in the Caesar’s Palace car park at Las Vegas, and equally poor events in Detroit and Dallas, the Grand Prix circus soon found itself at Phoenix. The Phoenix circuit was little better than any before and this, combined with a poor crowd on race day, meant that the race contract went to South Africa for 1992.

There have recently been several e-mails sent to ATLAS regarding the subject of race coverage in the States and this is where the crux of the problem lies. The American audience has its own home-grown formulae in Indycar and Nascar. Of these, Nascar gets the bigger fan-base. There seems to be little room in the American market for a foreign single seater series, and it is a known fact that the attendance for the final American Grand Prix was pretty poor. Less coverage and crowds mean less sponsorship for any event, and this will inevitably lead to a poor quality effort by even the best circuit. This all probably stems from the recent lack of American drivers in Formula One. Michael Andretti was the obvious exception, but even he got limited coverage in the US media despite his good reputation and the fact he was driving alongside Ayrton Senna. There is something definitely invigorating about seeing the fans at a Grand Prix cheering on their national driving hero. Would Imola be the same without the fanatical tifosi, or Silverstone have had such a charged atmosphere without the crowd cheering on the British drivers? Jacques Villeneuve's success has already guaranteed a sell out event in Canada, but would he be able to do the same for an American event? I think not.

The main discussion now concerns which circuit should host the event. Existing Indycar road circuits would probably have to be modified extensively to cater for F1 cars and it is doubtful that the circuit owners, already hosting successful Indycar events, would be keen on this additional expense. Also, with the demand for circuits (after the Indianapolis circuit decided to set up its own racing series), would there be enough venues to go round? The original intention was to construct a purpose built facility at Brandy Station, Virginia. The plans, unveiled in 1993, were brought to a halt after two and a half years of legal battling with preservationists, keen to see the site of the largest cavalry battle in North American history remain untouched. After this fell through, the next suggestion made was Las Vegas. It was felt that The Strip, the cities famous main road, would be the most appropriate venue. Many fans have reservations though, as the previous races at Las Vegas, in 1981 and 1982, were dull affairs, conducted on a track in the Caesar’s Palace hotel car park marked by concrete armco. However, one option for any race held at Las Vegas does immediately spring to mind. Could the famous neon backdrop provide the most spectacular set of starting lights yet? At the current time, the likelihood of a Las Vegas event is small. However, Bernie Ecclestone has allegedly stated that if a Las Vegas event were to take place, then it would be on The Strip or not at all.

One of the most popular alternatives to host a United States Grand Prix is the new Homestead Circuit near Miami. The oval circuit hosted this year's opening Indycar event and was praised by the drivers. Would the Grand Prix circuit, using a combination of the main straight and a track on the infield, be up to the standards set by current Formula One sites. Drivers are always complaining about the current European tracks are bumpy, twisty circuits that provide little opportunity for overtaking, but I personally feel that the majority of them are still far superior to any of the recent American road circuits.

The most recent of the contenders to host the race is San Francisco. Those of you imagining F1 cars leaping down the hills, as if in an American police movie, prepare to be disappointed. The cars won't be having to dodge the trams, but will be racing around a purpose built track on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. The island is currently the site of an abandoned naval base, and linked to the mainland by the Bay Bridge. A race here would probably be the best bet for fans of Formula One, and the impressive local scenery would surely provide an impressive backdrop for TV coverage.

Basically, the argument from fans world-wide seems to be that if a purpose built, challenging, safe track that provides plenty of overtaking opportunities could be built in the United States, then all well and good. But when we have the dull Hungaroring still in the calendar, and a superb modern facility at Jerez standing idle, do we really need to rush over to the glorified kart track events that America always seems to provide?

Toby Waller
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