F1 tries to win forgiveness following Indy debacle

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/images/thumbnail/ver1/G/Grandprix.jpg' class='caption'> As F1 returns to the US GP in Indy this weekend, the series' future is at a serious crossroads in the only country, which has yet to embrace it.

Updated: February 25, 2007 11:35 IST
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It was one of the lowest moments in recent Formula One history, when 14 cars ducked off the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a boycott of last year's United States Grand Prix. The drivers were concerned about the safety of their Michelin tires, which had several failures during race preparations. When no solution was offered and no compromise could be agreed upon, they refused to race. "The problem was just too much of a safety issue," driver Giancarlo Fisichella said. "The best thing to do was just go home." But when they walked out the back gate at Indy, they might have permanently tarnished F1 in America. As F1 returns to the US GP in Indy this weekend, the series' future is at a serious crossroads in the only country, which has yet to embrace it. The contract with the Speedway expires after this event, and no one is 100 per cent sure it will be back. Speedway president Joie Chitwood said that, assuming Sunday's event is problem-free, Indy wants to bring back the race it began hosting in 2000. "We absolutely would want to continue the relationship," Chitwood said. "We've made a huge investment in our facility to host the race, and it was for a seven-year event. We think it can be successful in America, and Indy is the place it should be." Question marks on Formula1 in US But when asked if F1 organisers wanted to remain in Indy - or America for that matter - Chitwood had no answer. "I've learned that it's not safe to try to figure out what Formula One thinks," he said. "But I would hope they would feel the same way we do." Even that is up for debate, especially after F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone made puzzling comments in several interviews last week. Ecclestone downplayed the importance of having a presence in the US, and said he wouldn't back down off the enormous fee he charges promoters to host a Grand Prix. "What do we get from America? Aggravation, that's about all," he said. "It does not matter to Formula One if there is no grand prix in the US. "If they want to continue having a round of the Formula One world championship over there, I'm happy to talk to them, which is what I will do when I get there. But I am not prepared to subsidise a race in America." Ecclestone's words should not be taken entirely at face value. The eccentric ruler has a history of saying the outrageous because he knows it will get media attention. And it's possible his comments were an attempt to publicly negotiate a new deal with Speedway owner Tony George. No matter what the motive, team leaders across the paddock were quick to insist Formula One does need to be in America and very much wants to continue the United States Grand Prix. "America is basically the only big country in which Formula One does not play the dominant role in motorsport, and I think we shouldn't give up on achieving this," said BMW team leader Mario Theissen. Biggest playing field Many of the corporations participating in F1 - particularly the car makers - view the US as their biggest playing field and the one with the most potential for growth. And the key players in F1 believe the world championship would be cheapened if the series is not truly global and does not have an event in the US "It is very important for all of us," said reigning world champion Fernando Alonso. "Indianapolis is probably one of the greatest circuits and names in the history of motor sports. We for sure need to be in the US." But so much of it will depend on this weekend. Indy organisers must feel the event is a success this year and worth the time, money and energy they put into it. Michelin's goodwill gestures Michelin has accepted blame for last year's fiasco and taken enormous steps to rectify it. The French tyremaker offered refunds to last year's race, and bought 20,000 tickets for Sunday to give to fans who attended the race last year. The tiremaker also organised a series of fan events for this weekend, including autograph sessions with drivers from its teams. Michelin also will donate five dollars for every tyre sold at participating dealers to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Indianapolis for the Race Against Drugs program. The teams hope Michelin's goodwill erases any lingering hard feelings. "Last year was quite damaging, but I think Michelin took care of everyone - and it cost them an arm and a leg," said Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve. "Hopefully the compensation that everybody got was worth it, and if there's a very good show this year I'm sure part of last year can be cleansed a bit." Track officials have spent significant time this year promoting Scott Speed, the first American F1 driver since 1993, and hope his inclusion in the field can drum up interest. Michael Schumacher, who won last year's six-car race, believes Speed is an important key in promoting the series. "If you have your own sportsman there competing at the top, it will obviously help a lot," he said. But until Speed becomes a household name, Schumacher hopes the true fans will forgive F1 for last year. "I think only real fans will turn up, otherwise there is no point for them to come out if they don't like the show," he said. "You do not have to judge Formula One on the one event, you have to judge on the whole." (AP)

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