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Road Warriors

The Grand Prix racing circuit is one of the world's top sporting events. But is America ready for it?
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

The most technologically advanced racing cars in the world also happen to be the most dangerous. Powerful enough to accelerate to 100 mph from nothing in four seconds and brake from 200 to 100 mph in half that time, Formula 1 cars until recently ran on a compound similar to rocket fuel. Drivers pilot them around serpentine tracks on tires with the consistency of bubble gum while experiencing astronaut-level G-forces. It's no mystery the mortality rate of Formula 1 racers ranks with smoke jumpers and bullfighters.

Perhaps because each race may be their last, the best drivers earn as much as $50 million annually, and they're followed from racetrack to racetrack and continent to continent by some of the world's most beautiful women. Power, danger, money and sex: if the programming geniuses at Fox or NBC could put such testosterone-fueled entertainment opposite CBS's "Survivor," they'd do it in a minute.  

Yet Americans have never really taken to Formula 1. It returns to this country for the first time in nine years on September 24 with the United States Grand Prix, to be held on a road track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the rest of the world, only soccer's World Cup and the Olympics are more popular; according to the Swiss-based Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the sport's governing body, an average audience of 500 million watches each of the season's 17 races. Television coverage is available in more than 200 countries.  

Those are impressive numbers, but irrelevant to Americans, who seem to delight in ignoring the athletic passions of the rest of the world. In no other arena are Americans so parochial. Pluck a frat boy and his microbrew from the ESPN Zone and set him down in a London flat with a TV remote, and see how long it takes for his face to contort like a bad beer commercial. Snooker? Cricket? Darts?  

While the rest of the world is fixated on Formula 1, we're watching stock car racing. With its roots in the law-evading escapades of bootleggers racing through the Carolina mountains, you'd expect the NASCAR circuit to be far more exciting and romantic than it actually is. Tweaked-up engines are fitted with the husks of Plymouths, Fords and Chevrolets, and drivers careen around oval tracks locked in an endless left turn. The draw is that the cars are theoretically street-legal, something you could perhaps put together with enough cash and free weekends. But any resemblance to a vehicle you might actually be driving would be purely ornamental.  

In Formula 1, drivers must change gears on their multimillion-dollar machines more than 100 times a lap on some circuits, and the high-tech command center inside each team's pit resembles a NORAD base. While NASCAR teams hand-time their cars with stopwatches from press-box level, Formula 1 uses a fiber-optic system of radio transmitters run by prestigious Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer to instantaneously transmit information to race officials and television viewers. Cars emanating impulses on assigned frequencies pass over sensors embedded in the track, enabling monitors to chart the progress of each driver. Television cameras can automatically find a car simply by having a producer punch its number into a computer. This is sport at its technological apex.  

It sounds like the latest development out of Silicon Valley, but Formula 1 is nothing if not European. The heart of the sport beats in the British design studios of performance car manufacturers, while its soul lingers on the Ferrari testing track in Fiorano, Italy. The quintessential F1 event is the Grand Prix of Monaco, with cars speeding through the narrow streets of the principality as European royalty looks on. For years, F1 cars bore the national colors of their manufacturers: Italian red, French blue, British racing green.  

Formula 1's seminal images involve the sleek, cigar-shaped, incredibly dangerous vehicles of the 1950s and '60s, with open engines and airfoils that could have been lifted from Fokker triplanes. Their oval grills grinning out at the world like wildcats, they were piloted by heroes with names like Stirling and Jackie, Juan Manuel and Jochen.  

It's nothing like that anymore, of course. A Grand Prix race, held anywhere from Japan to Argentina, brings the roar of hundreds of thousands of horsepower, the neon flash of 180-mph cars disguised as billboards, the flashbulbs incessantly popping at celebrities, the rows of staggeringly beautiful women specially outfitted in tight skirts or bodysuits for the occasion by one or another of the competing cigarette companies, six of which have Formula 1 title sponsorships.  

Here in Montreal in mid-June, for example, George Harrison is blowing air kisses at aging Beatles fans while congratulating Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Michael Schumacher for winning a pole position. Paul Newman sits idly by, gawked at by a row of Marlboro's blondes. Not far away, a downtown strip bar attempts to lure customers inside with the tape-recorded roar of a Formula 1 engine emanating from a miniature race car parked in the street. "Sex and cars, they go well together," the doorman will be quoted saying in the newspaper the next morning.  

It's the eighth stop on the 2000 Formula 1 tour and, since the last U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix in 1991, the only annual stop in North America. For years, the U.S. Grand Prix ran in the unlikeliest of places: the soporific hamlet of Watkins Glen in upstate New York, which came to life in the chill of early autumn each year to celebrate the arrival of Formula 1's traveling carnival. It was auto racing's equivalent of the New Hampshire primary, sport on the retail level. Such an event would be utterly impossible in today's corporate age. It seemed quaint and charming even in the early 1970s, a relic of a bygone age even as it was happening.  

Bored and isolated, the likes of world champions Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter would play video games with teenage kids while Jean-Pierre Jarier and Carlos Reutemann debated racing strategy with half-drunk patrons in hotel bars. You'd see the drivers on their way to the track in the morning, waving to pedestrians from their rental cars. It was like watching Rod Laver walk, rackets in hand, down the sidewalks of Forest Hills.  

The racing community, which numbered hundreds of drivers, mechanics, journalists, cameramen, wives and girlfriends, and devoted followers then, and now is surely in the tens of thousands, finally outgrew the little town's lack of accommodations, even as the Watkins Glen course couldn't make the necessary safety improvements as the cars became faster. So the U.S. Grand Prix became a road show, alighting in Las Vegas one year, Long Beach, California, another, Dallas the next. Without a permanent home, it generated little spectator interest.  

While even soccer's World Cup was played in the United States to great financial success in 1994, the FIA is perhaps the only sporting organization that can exist on a global scale and not need America. At least, that's the belief of the imperious organization, rivaled only by the International Olympic Committee for institutional arrogance in sport. Formula 1's following in countries such as Germany, France and Italy is so fervent that a pay-per-view network is thriving in those countries, despite an initial investment of hundreds of dollars for a descrambler and hundreds more for an annual subscription--assuming, of course, one already has the necessary rudimentary equipment, such as a satellite dish and a television. Five thousand media credentials are issued for every F1 race. Magazines devoted wholly to F1 exist in most every European language.  

But perhaps the United States is ready for Formula 1 this time around. What has changed is the demographic of the American ticket buyer. Our sports have become more elite and exclusive, and that's the Formula 1 demographic, too. On race days, corporate sponsors stage elaborate parties complete with lobster lunches and Mumm's Champagne, and masters of ceremonies inside each team's hospitality area host live video hookups to their team's pit bay.   The competition for sponsors involves a rigid calculus. Winning teams, nearly always those with the most technologically advanced cars, get the most television airtime, so championship points (awarded to the top six finishers in each race) are at a premium. And it isn't only about airtime. Having your logo on a losing team's car can send a negative message about the quality of your product, which is why the least successful teams are always scrambling to find new sponsorship at the end of each season.  

At the same time, the drivers are legendarily competitive, so personality clashes are all but inevitable. In 1989, for example, France's Alain Prost held a slim lead over Brazil's Ayrton Senna in the points standings entering the Japanese Grand Prix. Though he has insisted it was accidental, Prost caused a collision that put both drivers out of the race and clinched the championship for himself. The two were McLaren teammates at the time. In 1997, Michael Schumacher was knocked out of first place in the driver's standings when a car sideswiped him on the first turn at Nurburgring in his home country of Germany. The car was driven by his brother, Ralf.  

The latter occasion was by all accounts truly an accident. But Senna and Prost for nearly a decade had what might have been the ultimate Formula 1 rivalry, the sport's version of Ali versus Frazier, if only because their personalities were so different. The calculating Prost always understood the odds. Senna was the innate risk-taker, seizing on an opportunity to pass a competitor before he even had time to think about its prudence, willing to do whatever he deemed necessary to win a race or crash his car while trying.  

Between 1985 and 1993, Prost won four world championships and Senna three. Prost, who now owns and runs his own F1 team, retired with more Grand Prix victories than any other driver and his faculties intact, while Senna's verve and daring inspired a generation of followers and fans. The rivalry ended--inevitably, in retrospect--when Senna's Williams car slammed into a concrete barricade at Imola, Italy, six years ago, and he was killed.  

His death had an impact that far exceeded the realm of motor sports. When the Brazilian soccer team won the World Cup later that year, the players solemnly unfurled a banner paying homage to their fallen countryman. Books about Senna have become a cottage industry, and he holds the comparable position in Brazilian society that Elvis Presley would have held in America had he died in his prime. Inside racing, Senna's death (and that of Austria's Roland Ratzenburger earlier that same week) became the catalyst for a series of safety measures--for example, more turns and fewer straightaways, to reduce speeds--at some of the older tracks that have theoretically made the sport far less dangerous now than it has ever been.  

And yet, death has been a part of Formula 1 since its official beginning in 1950. Its unspoken presence hangs over each racetrack like a shroud. In a strange way, it inspires as much as frightens. When Gilles Villeneuve, a Canadian national hero, died at Belgium's Zolder track in 1982, his distraught wife told their young son that he could grow up to be anything he wanted except a racer. Yet Jacques Villeneuve is now a top driver, a former Formula 1 world champion who wants nothing more each year than to win the Canadian Grand Prix at the circuit named after his late father.  

Formula 1 has had a posthumous world champion in Austria's Jochen Rindt, and has lost many of its most charismatic drivers, such as Revlon heir Peter Revson and Scottish superstar Jim Clark, to crashes. Such tragedies heighten the tension inherent in the sport. There's no such thing as a boring Grand Prix if you're driving in it.   The current crop of drivers offer the nascent spectator a range of rooting interests. The best of them, clearly, is Schumacher, a firm and logical German who has won two world championships, and now races for those emotional romantics at Ferrari. This sport's New York Yankees or Montreal Canadiens, Ferrari is the only Formula 1 team with a fan base that transcends drivers' personalities. Ferrari has won nine drivers titles--yet, puzzlingly, none since Scheckter beat out Gilles Villeneuve in 1979.  

Now the team has finally managed to unite the most skilled driver with a car that has equaled or even outstripped McLaren's as the best. The result should be the third drivers title for Schumacher, who previously drove for Benetton and won in 1994 and 1995. Schumacher took the first three of this season's races and four of the first six before a McLaren resurgence tightened the standings, but in unpredictable fashion. McLaren's Mika Haakinen of Finland is attempting to become the only Formula 1 driver other than Argentina's legendary 1950s star Juan Manuel Fangio to win three championships in succession. (Fangio won four.) But by midseason Haakinen was arguably not even the best on his own team. David Coulthard's run of success after surviving a deadly plane crash in Spain had lifted the Scot above Haakinen in the drivers standings.  

Machinery has become so important in Formula 1 that a superior driver without one of the top cars will have trouble winning a single race. Villeneuve, now the lead driver on the Lucky Strike BAR, or British American Racing, team, won 11 of his first 33 Grand Prix while racing for Williams. As of this summer, he hadn't won another, a losing streak that had reached 41 starts by July 2.  

A performance like that won't keep a driver married to a team for long. While Villeneuve fields questions about whether he's wasting prime years of his career driving for a noncompetitive team, BAR wonders if it's wasting its money on him. To keep a car operable for a season can cost, in The Wall Street Journal's estimate, more than $300 million, so teams are looking at an expense of $600 million a year. The Jordan team has a single gearbox that costs an estimated $106,000, yet it has managed only a handful of points all season.  

But then, many of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend every F1 race weekend aren't there for the drivers at all. They want nothing more than the spectacle: the raw, unharnessed power of these roaring machines speeding by. An F1 race isn't as loud as NASCAR, where the racing is done inside a stadium bowl and all the cars are audible all the time. It's more like watching a precision flight team like the Blue Angels roar past where you're sitting--but 60 or 70 times in an afternoon, and from only a few yards away.  

It's thrilling on an elemental level, yet these fans are mostly executives and professionals, many of whom own and drive expensive sports cars of their own. To increase public interest in the U.S. Grand Prix, it is telling that a McLaren sponsor, watchmaker TAG Heuer (recently purchased by the luxury-goods firm LVMH), is planning not an all-out television campaign, but a $200,000 party to be held in East Hampton, Long Island, the weekend playground of wealthy New Yorkers. Mercedes sedans will chauffeur the elite out from the city. Celebrities have been told they can fly their private planes to a private jetport only minutes from the site. That's a long way, by any reckoning, from Watkins Glen.  

The last of the Mumm's has been polished off in the paddock suites and used to douse the winner on the victory podium. Already, Formula 1's roadies are packing up the caravan for the next stop. Like Ringling Bros., F1 carries its own equipment--estimated value: easily into the billions of dollars--from track to track. After Canada will be France, at Magny-Cours in early July, so the digital television studio and the fiber-optic cable network threaded throughout the track and the trailers of one-of-a-kind car chassis and shells are loaded onto vans and trucks and then to airplanes. Two and a half 747s are needed just to carry the pay-per-view television equipment alone.  

On Rue Maisonneuve in downtown Montreal, a pack of fans in Ferrari clothing come across some McLaren loyalists. Ferrari has taken one-two earlier in the day, and the McLaren mood is grim. Momentum, always fleeting in Formula 1, appears to have shifted back to the Italian team. "Next year," one of the McLaren supporters shouts, and that generates laughs and comments all around. "We'll be right here after next year's race, and we'll see who's winning then," he adds.  

That's more than the organizers of the U.S. Grand Prix can say. If Formula 1 racing fails in Indianapolis, the center of mainstream America's auto racing culture, there may be no hope for it anywhere in the country. With emerging European nations clamoring for their own Grand Prix and a steep surge of interest in Asia, where Japan and Malaysia are currently on the schedule, opportunities will be scant for another attempt in the United States after anything less than a resounding success in September. For that reason alone, Indianapolis will be worth the trip.   What will remain afterward, however the race's future is decided, is a memory of having seen the state of an art, the ultimate intersection of design and sport. More than any other type of racing, Formula 1 is art in motion, albeit art fueled by millions and millions of dollars of commercial sponsorship, made for the profit of the fortunate few. As such it's a paradigm for the twenty-first century, perhaps: the way all sport is headed. As usual, Formula 1 has arrived there faster, and with more power, than anything else.    

Bruce Schoenfeld, who has followed Formula 1 racing for three decades, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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