Tuesday 12 December 2017

Formula One: The sport's future in America hinges on this weekend

Ian Parkes

FOR the future success of Formula One in the United States, there is an awful lot riding on this weekend.

And for the men that have ploughed an estimated £250m into the Circuit of The Americas, you can bet your bottom dollar they will be sweating profusely on the drivers' verdict following the opening two practice sessions on Friday.

The city of Austin in Texas will on Sunday become the 10th venue in America to stage a F1 race such has been the nomadic existence of the sport since it first graced the land of the brave and the home of the free in 1959.

Unfortunately for F1, like many immigrants over the past 200 years or so who have travelled to the States in the hope of finding a place to settle, it has struggled to lay down roots.

F1 has traversed the country, flitting from coast to coast, taking in places such as Sebring (Florida), Riverside and Long Beach (both in California), Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix.

Who can forget F1 pitching up in a car park in Las Vegas in 1981 and 1982, akin to a hobo sleeping rough in a cardboard box under an old railway bridge.

After a nine-year absence in the 1990s, Indianapolis and its Motor Speedway, otherwise known as 'The Brickyard' and renowned for its staging of one of the world's most famous races, the Indy 500 - had a shot at hosting F1.

There was initial enthusiasm, but like any race in America, it began to dwindle until killed stone-dead in 2005 in light of the Michelin tyre scandal.

Fearing for their drivers' safety on Michelin rubber struggling to cope under the stresses and strains of cornering the banked oval, seven teams withdrew their drivers following the parade lap.

As the six Bridgestone-shod cars lined up on the grid - Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi - there were unforgettable scenes as the fans expressed their unsurprising displeasure.

The race that followed was a farce, from which F1 never recovered, for although Indianapolis stumbled on as a host for two more years, the death knell had already been sounded.

Only Watkins Glen in New York state, and to some extent Long Beach, can lay claim to hosting F1 with any great success, the former for 20 years from 1961 to 1980, the latter from 1976 to 1983, until both ran into financial difficulties.

So following another five-year gap, F1 finds itself back on American soil this week believing it finally has the package to silence their detractors.

Much has changed in F1 since Lewis Hamilton triumphed at Indianapolis in 2007, even if there is the prospect of a three-peat when it comes to the victor of the world title given Sebastian Vettel's resurgence.

The most-technologically advanced sport in the world now boasts KERS, the power-boost system that at the press of a button can assist with overtaking, or aid defending, depending on the circumstances.

Crucially, given the American fans' desire for action and their ire for processions when it comes to motor-racing, F1 has DRS.

At a specific point on a circuit, the drag-reduction system provides a straight-line-speed injection that ensures overtaking is less of a gamble, more of a given.

Whether it is enough to satiate the whims of a doubting public weaned on NASCAR and IndyCar - the former in particular given its southern-states heritage - time will undoubtedly tell.

For those that have staked their name and fortune on the project, and you have to bear in mind that unlike circuits in Abu Dhabi, China and Korea et al that are government subsidised, the next few days will be make or break.

Forget the circuit slated for the shores of the Hudson River in New Jersey, a race that was scheduled for next year, but has since been put on hold until 2014 due to construction and financial troubles.

The organisers of that event will be keeping a very close eye on how the next few days pan out and, moreover, how the profit/loss column will look come the conclusion.

A 100,000-plus crowd is expected, unsurprising given it is a debut track which always provokes initial curiosity, and the fact we still have a title race to enjoy as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso go head to head.

All 24 drivers, though, hold the key to future success because should they step out of their cars on Friday after practice professing their love for COTA and its prospects of staging a great race, that will be music to the ears of those desperate for the US to take its place in F1 on a permanent basis.

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