Friday 15 December 2017

F1: Make-or-break time for US Grand Prix

Ian Parkes

IT was hardly any great surprise when an announcement was made last Friday that the Grand Prix of America would be postponed for a year.

With the United States poised to make its return to the F1 calendar in three weeks' time, this is a crucial period for the sport as it again has another shot at a market it has long found hard to crack.

The United States Grand Prix, to be held in Austin over the weekend of November 16-18, has to be a success, otherwise the other race in New Jersey, with Manhattan as a backdrop, may never run at all.

The majority of Americans have long struggled with F1, its elitism, the vast discrepancies from the front to the back of the grid and the lack of overtaking, in particular in contrast to NASCAR and IndyCar.

In southern America, especially, the motorsport king is NASCAR, with races predominantly on banked ovals, a gladiatorial arena in a number of respects viewable from every angle.

So for F1 to make an impact, the topography of the Circuit of the Americas track that has relied on private money for its construction - rather than government funds as has been the case with many venues of late - has to be spot on.

The American public, in giving F1 another opportunity to prove itself after so many failed attempts, will want to see plenty of action.

If the race fails to capture the imagination, what hope will there be for the street track along the banks of the Hudson River in West New York and Weehawken, despite its long dreamed-about setting?

Promoter Leo Hindery Jnr has conceded to encountering construction problems with the Port Imperial circuit - another privately-funded enterprise - resulting in a delay through to 2014.

In the build-up, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone had previously aired doubts about the race going ahead next June due to contractual and financial issues.

Ecclestone, who turns 82 on Sunday, claims he is “totally committed” to the GPA cause, and with good reason, given his desire to stage an F1 race in New York.

It is understood, however, that behind the scenes GPA's difficulties extend to more than just building works and various permissions as it is understood there are over-riding money concerns.

It is why New Jersey will be looking to Austin to put on a good show because, if that is achieved, then perhaps further investors might aid Hindery Jnr and the GPA.

In more ways than one, a lot is riding on Austin. It is make-or-break time for not just one race back on American soil, but two.

After three successive grand prix victories for Sebastian Vettel, the burning question now is whether Ferrari have anything up their sleeve that can salvage Fernando Alonso's world title challenge.

The long-time leader from early in the season, Alonso at one stage held a 44-point cushion over Vettel heading into the summer break.

But the reigning double world champion has suddenly conjured a run of form when it mattered most, finally overhauling Alonso to lead by six points going into the final four races.

First corner crashes in Belgium and Japan, the former after a run of 23 consecutive races in the points, have undermined Alonso and his bid for a third championship of his own.

Remarkably, since the summer break ended and that race at Spa, the 31-year-old has even been outscored by team-mate Felipe Massa, which is saying something given the Brazilian collected just 25 points from the opening 11 races.

Alonso has undoubtedly carried Ferrari this year, collecting results seemingly beyond the strengths of the car, which has rarely been the quickest over the course of a GP weekend.

Without doubt Ferrari unveiled what proved to be an horrendous car at the start of the year, but with Alonso at the helm and their own vast resources, he and they transformed their fortunes.

It goes without saying that if Alonso is to avoid falling short again with Ferrari, as was the case in 2010, the team have to dig deep into their development and engineering.

Otherwise, only Vettel fans will likely celebrate the German's latest success, even if he does become just the third driver in F1 history to win three or more successive titles, with Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher the others.

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