Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking Back - Part 2

A fortnight back, I wrote an article which looked at the changes that have taken place in the F1 world over the last 25 years. That piece focused on the changes which have taken place in the design of the cars themselves - the move from relatively aerodynamically simple, manual transmission 1.5l turbo cars with upwards of 1200BHP in qualifying trim to normally aspirated 2.4 litre cars with not much more than half the power, but which are still perhaps 8-10 seconds a lap faster.

There have however, been equally seismic changes to the sport itself - the way it is run, the shape of the Grand Prix weekend, and most obviously, where the races are held. In 1985, there was a race in every continent except Asia (it would be another couple of years before the Japanese Grand Prix emerged as a permanent fixture) but 11 of the 16 races took place in Europe. This year, there has been a race in every continent except Africa (post-apartheid South Africa might seem a much more acceptable place for international sport than was the case back in the mid 1980s, but it would seem there is not anyone wanting to pay CVC/FOM's fees) but far and away the biggest change has been that the championship is much less Euro-centric.

We've lost the Portuguese, San Marino, Dutch and Austrian Grands Prix, taking the total down from 11 to 9. A more significant change when one remembers that the calendar itself has expanded from 16 to 19 races. Asia, however, now has no less than 8 races, which perhaps reflects changes in the overall balance of economic power in the world over the last 25 years. This change, though, has not yet let to an influx of Asian drivers into the sport. There have been a smattering of Japanese drivers over the last 25 years, though none has won a race and - while some of them were quite competent - none particularly looked like they would. More recently, there have been a couple of Indian drivers - Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan, though I can't help but feel that they have been there because Bernie Ecclestone thought their presence might be helpful in bringing about an Indian Grand Prix rather than because either looked like they would achieve anything behind the wheel.

Perhaps the location of the tracks has not been the most significant change though, really. Look at the old Zeltweg or Zandvoort circuits - with their winding up hill and down dale layouts and basic facilities, and compare with the expensive architecture and wide open expanses of somewhere like the Shanghai International Circuit or Sepang. The former looked almost like they were natural features of the countryside, like tarmac rivers. The latter look very obviously designed.

There are a number of reasons for the change in the shape and design of F1 circuits over the last quarter century. For one thing, it's much harder than it used to be to get planning permission to build a racing circuit in the kind of pristine countryside in which Spa Francorchamps or the old Nordschliefe were built. Brownfield industrial sites and run down docks, on the other hand, a ten a penny. Perhaps more importantly, safety requirements have become much more stringent – run-off areas are now vastly greater than they were back in the mid 1980s. Look how close the barriers were to the circuit at some of the quicker corners at the old Zeltweg, for instance. As a result, it is much harder to build an F1-standard circuit that fits naturally into the countryside. Look, for instance, at the chicanes that were inserted into Imola following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994. The reason for them? Extending the run-off area would have meant felling ancient trees and diverting a river. It is for similar reasons that I was never much inclined to take seriously the mid-2000s rumours that F1 would be heading back to Brands Hatch.

If you're going to build an F1-standard circuit, far and away the easiest way to do it is to buy some waste ground which gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it. Vast tarmac run-off areas, the ability to have the track go which ever way the designer wants, without having to take account of natural features like rivers or hills. At its best, the result can be quite appealing – I still rather like the Sepang circuit with its mix of long straights, slow hairpins providing overtaking opportunities, and fast sweeping variable-radius corners that test both car and driver's balance and feel. On the other hand, Bahrain, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi do little for me, and certainly don't make up for the loss of Zeltweg, Zandvoort, or even the old Paul Ricard circuit in France. And the Dutch, in particular, were (and still are) passionate about the sport in a way that the Bahrainis and Chinese do not appear to be.

If the cars have got faster, the circuits more expansive and less dangerous, then what of the men behind the wheel? Perhaps the most significant change from the driver's point of view can be gleaned by looking at the list of drivers entered for the opening race in Rio that year. By the season's end, two were no longer with us – Germans Manfred Winkelhock and Stefan Bellof both losing their lives in sportscar races that year. A year later, Elio De Angelis would perish in a testing accident in the low-line Brabham BT55 at Paul Ricard. They would be followed, in 1994 by Ayrton Senna and, six years later, by Michele Alboreto, who died testing an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring. I hope it is not unduly optimistic to speculate that a similar mortality rate is unlikely to befall the grid of 2010. While motorsport may never be truly safe, in the workaday sense of the word, and while by 1985, it was already much, much less dangerous than it had been in earlier times, there can be little doubting that drivers of that era were forced to contemplate their mortality in a way that their counterparts today are not.

And this, I think, is a part of the explanation for a lot of the changes we have seen in the Grand Prix driver's life over that period. 1985 marked perhaps the crossover point between the earlier, free-wheeling amateur spirit of the 1950s and 60s and the much more sterile, professional attitude of today's racers. Drivers who always knew that it could all end suddenly tomorrow might have been more independent-minded, less inclined to toe the party line for their teams, more willing to speak their minds. It is hard to imagine a James Hunt, or even a Niki Lauda or a Keke Rosberg, lasting long in today's more sanitised sport. And perhaps because of this, or perhaps because the sport was not quite so hyper-competitive as it is now, you would find drivers who would smoke, who would drink heavily, and who took the view that as long as you could get through the race in one piece, there was little reason to compromise your lifestyle with an unduly onerous fitness regime.

A number of developments came along to change this. Niki Lauda, a man who had a very methodical, professional approach to his sport from the outset, employed a fitness guru by the name of Willi Dungl to speed his way back to full health after his fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, and in the years that followed, other drivers began to follow suit, seeing that there was an advantage to be had from being in better physical shape than those around you by the end of a 2 hour Grand Prix. Even without that search for the unfair advantage, the increasing cornering speeds of more modern F1 cars might have forced drivers to spend more time in the gym. When Nico Rosberg tested his father's title winning Williams last year, he remarked on how physically easy it was to drive – because while it might not have had power-steering and he might have had to physically change gear, the downforce and g-loadings through the quick corners were nothing like those which the cars of 2010 are capable of.

But the increasing importance of physical fitness was only one part of the story. Where once, drivers were very much their own bosses, the influx of really serious money, much of it from international corporations mindful of such things as 'brand image' has played an extensive part in turning drivers into salaried mouthpieces of their employers. And so it is that even highly respected journalists now find it difficult to get face-time with drivers without a PR-minder being present, and drivers are expected to be 'on message' and never to be critical of the team or engine supplier who is pouring millions into the sport – a good chunk of which is going directly to the driver's bank account.

However, the single biggest change to the sport has been not in the cars, which are essentially more refined versions of those being run 25 years earlier, nor in the drivers, who are at heart still young men in a hurry who believe themselves the fastest in the world, nor even in the circuits, which might have more run-off (and are certainly in some bloody odd places) but in the sport's place in the world as a whole. It has gone from being an essentially European minority-interest sport to a worldwide and mainstream entertainment. Thirty years ago, I wouldn't have staked my life on the man on the street knowing who Alan Jones, Didier Pironi or Gilles Villeneuve were. But I would be very surprised if that man's son wouldn't know who Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso or Michael Schumacher are now.

And what drove this was television. By 1985, the whole F1 season was being broadcast on the BBC, but this had only been the case for five to ten years, and the sport had yet to become a part of the popular consciousness in the way it is now (come to that, very often all the BBC showed was a 35 minute highlight programme, especially if the timezone in which the race was held got in the way of Eastenders, or whatever it was they were showing on a Sunday evening.) The man who would drive F1's TV revolution, of course, was Bernie Ecclestone. By 1985, he was already a significant figure within the sport, but he was, as the owner of the Brabham team (which scored its last F1 victory with Nelson Piquet at Paul Ricard that year – a circuit Ecclestone would later buy) he was only the head of the Formula One Constructors Association – the team's 'union' which had wrested control of the commercial rights to the sport from the FISA following the FISA/FOCA battle of the early 1980s.

Over the course of the following 25 years, though, Ecclestone would take control of the sport's commercial rights from the teams who were perhaps not really inclined to fight him too hard. After all, the likes of Mclaren, Williams, et al, were fundamentally in business to build racing cars, not to act as sports promoters. And Ecclestone appeared to be doing a good job for them. He might have been taking the lion's share of the vastly inflated television revenues the sport was now bringing in, but a small share of a large fortune beat a large percentage of not very much. And the men running the teams perhaps didn't much begrudge Ecclestone his fortune – thought he deserved it.

But I wonder if the likes of Ron Dennis, Frank Williams et al later came to regret this. When, thanks to a deal with the FIA's Max Mosley, who had always worked hand in glove with Ecclestone, he found himself in a position to sell the commercial rights to a third party, the sport eventually came to be owned by a venture capital fund with little intrinsic interest in the sport. Whose primary motivation was always to obtain the maximum return for its investors. And while CVC Capital Partners clearly wouldn't want to kill the goose which has laid so many golden eggs for them, I do wonder whether the sport would be gravitating towards Asia (where, Japan aside, the locals don't seem much interested) while Latin America, for example, has been ignored, aside from one race in Brazil, in spite of having produced many of the sport's leading drivers over the last half century and in spite of races in Brazil and Mexico typically drawing in crowds that promoters in Turkey or Malaysia would kill for.

I hope that, a quarter of a century on from now, we are talking about how F1 has taken off in Asia, about the great drivers from Malaysia, South Korea, India and the Middle East, rather than about how a once great sport was run into the ground in pursuit of short term profit through the hosting of races in parts of the world where nobody besides those paying the bills were really interested.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

New Shores

Regular readers will know that I'm a bit of a stick-in-the-mud purist on the question of Bernie Ecclestone's desire to always be dragging the F1 circus to new corners of the globe. OK, so I can live without Magny Cours, although it's not a bad circuit, and I don't much miss the ersatz A1-Ring (a pale imitation of the old Osterreichring which once graced that site) . But the thought of losing Spa Francorchamps because the governments of Abu Dhabi or Bahrain are willing to shovel cartloads of cash FOM's way for their white elephant Grands Prix on mickey-mouse circuits that nobody goes to watch leaves me more than a little worried for the future of the sport.

So you might expect me to despair of the latest addition to the F1 calendar - the Korean Grand Prix. And when stories circulated in the weeks leading up to the race that the track was nowhere near being ready for its debut on 24 October, a part of me secretly hoped that FOM might at last get their comeuppance, and that the brakes might be put on races in parts of the world with no motor racing tradition and no local interest. As with the recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi, though, stories that the venue was only half built turned out to be a touch exaggerated (a friend who was on the Manx shooting team tells me that the horror stories about the athlete's village can only have come from people who'd spent their entire lives in five star hotels) and the race went ahead.

And my first impression of the circuit itself? Well I don't think it's quite up there with the best of Herman Tilke's work - the Otodrom Istanbul and Sepang, which perhaps uniquely among the German architect's works, merit comparison with the classic European circuits, but it didn't look too bad. A couple of long straights followed by first/second gear corners which appear to be a necessity if passing is to occur in a modern-day F1 car, and some moderately interesting off-camber medium speed stuff in the latter part of the lap which caught out not a few drivers over the course of the weekend. The relatively gripless freshly laid asphalt and the inclement weather might have helped, but it provided a reasonably entertaining Sunday afternoon's action once things got going. Whether it will make for good racing on a dry day once the tarmac has cured properly I'm not so sure, but at the very least, it's considerably more likely to than Valencia.

The biggest contrast with other recent additions to the F1 calendar though - particularly the three races in the near and middle east, is that the locals appear to be interested. Insofar as its possible to tell from the television pictures, the grandstands - or at least those which were finished before the race - looked reasonably full and there were tales of long queues of traffic as people tried to get into the venue on the Sunday morning. Not, perhaps, what the organisers were wanting , but it strikes me as the right kind of problem for a new venue to be having. Certainly preferable to Turkey and Shanghai's headscratching around how best to hide the fact the grandstands were empty.

One reason I was a bit sceptical about the idea of a Korean Grand Prix when it first appeared on the 2010 calendar is that the country has little in the way of a real motorsports culture to speak of. Can you name a Korean racing driver? No, didn't think so. Come to that, before the Yeongam circuit opened for the business, did the country even have a race circuit? (I'm genuinely interested - if you know, do get in touch - for once, google is failing me...) There is, though, an important difference between the races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and the South Korean race. While those Middle Eastern States are hereditary monarchies which are at best only partially democratic, South Korea emerged from military dictatorship over 20 years ago, and is now described by the CIA world handbook is a mature democracy. It is not, in other words, a country in which those in charge are so far detached from the ordinary people that they can throw hundreds of millions at absurd vanity projects like the neon monument to bad taste that is the Yas Marina circuit. If a democratically elected government in a country with a free press is going to agree to spend significant sums of money attracting the F1 world to its shores, they will have to be sure that people will be supportive of the idea.

I'm sceptical about the whole idea of Government-funded Grands Prix. I think the sport would be well advised in the long run to stay away from the tax-payers' pockets and if FOM weren't the heavily leveraged play-thing of a private equity house, it would be quite capable of surviving, and indeed making a good profit, without the need to charge event hosting fees that no race, no matter how well attended, can hope to recoup from gate receipts alone. But a race that forms part of a broader plan to regenerate one of the more backward parts of South Korea as an automotive and technological hub makes a certain amount of sense. And for once, I found myself thinking that the idea that a Grand Prix can help promote an area as a tourist resort might not be an entirely false one. The pre-race 'local colour' segments about Bahrain, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi have never left me wanting to visit those places, but I couldn't help thinking that, while the circuit might look like a giant building site, the surrounding countryside looked pretty stunning.

Equally, I do concede that there is a strong case for F1, and motorsport more generally, breaking new ground, going to countries where the sport has not yet established itself. South Korea is now a prosperous, fast developing country, and there is no reason why, in the medium term, the sport couldn't take off there. Certainly there appeared to be a good deal more interest than in Turkey. After all, there was a time when Japan had no home-grown motor racing culture to speak of, and that's hardly something which could be said of the place today. And South Korea, unlike Turkey or Bahrain, has a significant motor industry - Hyundai have already dipped their toe in the WRC, and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually they made the leap into F1. So a qualified thumbs-up to the Yeongam circuit and the South Korean Grand Prix, I think. Provided we get to keep Spa, Monza and Silverstone.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Looking Back

I realised the other weekend that it had been exactly a quarter of a century since I went to my first Grand Prix. I've written before on the impression that that trip left on my 7 year old self and on the particular significance of that race - the day on which Alain Prost secured the first of his four world titles, and on which Nigel Mansell finally broke his duck and won his first Grand Prix. The realisation that it has been 25 years since I was sat on the banking at Pilgrim's Drop got me thinking about how the sport has changed in the intervening years.

I find it a little hard to comprehend that 1985 is now as distant as 1960 was when I went through the gates at Brands Hatch. Back in 1960, Formula 1 cars were cigar-shaped space-frame devices with less than 300 BHP on tap. Front engined designs were fast being made obsolete by the success of the Cooper and Lotus mid-engined chassis, but had not yet disappeared from the F1 grid and the cars still ran on skinny grooved tyres, much as they had done since the early days of the sport at the beginning of the century.

By 1985, Formula 1 cars were carbon-fibre monocoques with big, fat slick tyres and front and rear wings, bodywork plastered with sponsors' logos - and on a causal inspection, they really don't look so radically different from the cars which lined up on the grid at Suzuka last weekend. A bit stubby and simple, but the same basic shape.

In one way, the cars were considerably ahead of the modern F1 car. The 1.5 litre turbocharged engines provided by Honda and BMW were, in single-lap qualifying trim, capable of generating well north of 1000 BHP - a figure which today's rev-limited 2.4 litre normally aspirated V8s don't even come close to (although it must be said that an engine technician of 1985 would have found the idea of an 18,000rpm rev limit a touch unnecessary, given that nobody was pushing their engines beyond about 12,000rpm at the most, back then).

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the changes over the last 25 years have been immense. The really game-changing technical innovations - active suspension, traction control, continuously variable transmission - have all been and gone, falling foul of the regulators desire to keep costs, and lap times, under control (the last of these - continuously variable transmission, never raced, though Williams did head a significant way down to road towards developing a race-ready system before it was banned). Only the replacement of stick-operated manual gearboxes with the steering-wheel mounted paddle-change semi-automatic boxes, debuted by Ferrari in 1989, have remained.

Instead, the over-arching story of the last quarter of a century of race car development has been one of ruthless optimisation of a basic concept that, by 1985, had just about been settled upon. And to get an idea of just how successful this has been, look at the pole times at Monaco - the only circuit in use in 1985 which is still in use today, substantially unaltered (though the walls have gotten a touch further away). In 1985, Ayrton Senna stuck his Lotus Renault on pole with a 1.20.450. Earlier this year, Mark Webber claimed the top spot for Red Bull (also Renault powered, as it happens) with a 1.13.826. Nearly 7 seconds faster. And remember, that this leap forward has come in spite of restrictions on wing size, the imposition of control tyres, rev-limited engines that must last 2-3 complete Grands Prix and a slightly raised minimum weight limit. A senior engineer interviewed for Motorsport Magazine a couple of years back reckoned that, with today's knowledge, a car built to 1985 rules would be limited mainly by the ability of its driver to remain conscious through the quicker corners given the G-loadings that it would be possible to generate. The FIA's ever more restrictive rulebook has been, at least in part, a necessary response to the advances of designers and engineers, ensuring a degree of sanity is retained.

The really big story of the last quarter of a century of F1 car design has been the phenomenal improvements made in the understanding of how to generate aerodynamic downforce. While an F1 car of 2010 might have the same basic shape as its 1985 predecessor, it is a much more intricately sculpted machine - its form dictated by the cumulative knowledge generated by hundreds of thousands of man hours of some of the most talented aerodynamicists in the world. The increased use of first wind-tunnels, and later, computer simulations of wind tunnels, to refine the flow of the air over the car, making that airflow press the car down onto the ground, has led cornering speeds to spiral far beyond that ever seen during the 'ground effect' era of the early 1980s. And the sheer number of people involved in the design of a car has mushroomed since the days when a car could meaningfully be said to be the work of a single designer - something which was, just about, sort of, still the case in the mid 1980s.

There was a time, after all, when taking Eau Rouge flat in qualifying was a mark of supreme confidence. Now, in a good car, it's flat in the rain, and in the dry, it's barely more than a kink in the road. Other technological advances - not least the evolution of data logging and telemetry equipment to give teams far more objective information about what the car is actually doing on the circuit than could ever be provided by the subjective impressions of even the most technically astute racing driver, have all helped to drive this incremental improvement forward at a truly impressive rate.

But what of the next 25 years? Assuming I'm still around to see them, what will Grand Prix cars look like by the time I near my 7th decade? Perhaps the story will be the same - an onward march of small, iterative improvements to a basic design which had been settled while I was still in primary school. Maybe... But there are reasons to think that might not be the case. For one thing, how plausible is it that the racing car of 2035 will still be running on fossil fuels? And if it is not, what kinds of technological breakthrough might we see in engine technology over the next decade and a half. It could be an interesting ride...

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Radio on the Television

The quality of television coverage of Formula 1 in Britain took a quantum leap when the BBC took over the reins from ITV at the beginning of 2009. The end of mid-race ad-breaks has been a relief. I've never forgotten ITV's decision to cut to commercials in the dying laps of the San Marino Grand Prix in 2005 while Alonso and Schumacher were fighting for all their worth for victory and am glad I no longer need to keep a radio by the telly while watching the race.

More than that, though, the BBC have really taken advantage of digital-age technologies in a way that ITV never did. We've been treated to the option of watching the whole race from a succession of in-car cameras, a choice of commentary teams - if you're not keen on Legard and Brundle, there's Croft and Davidson, though sadly, not yet the possibility of listening to Brundle and Croft - and their latest innovation (a website only feature, I think, though I don't own a television and watch everything on IPlayer, so I don't know), the real time 'car tracker' enabling you to see where everyone is on the circuit at any given point in time. OK, they've not got everything right - I could happily live without the forced banter between Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard - but on the whole I've been very impressed by the job they've done. And Lee McKenzie's much easier on the eye than Jim Rosenthal.

I was initially rather sceptical of the merit of another innovation the BBC have brought to race weekend coverage - the webcasting of free practice sessions. Now, I don't know what kind of an audience these shows get - until last weekend, even I hadn't bothered tuning in and I probably sit close to the sad obsessive fan end of the spectrum than most, but it did strike me as something which, to use the marketers' lingo, would have a 'niche audience'. After all, it's not as if drivers are competing for anything during free practice. It really is just 'watching cars go round in circles', which even I can't summon up much enthusiasm for.

Actually, though, the format worked quite well. And mainly because what is happening on track is only a minor part of the show. It is essentially an hour and a half long radio discussion programme on the subject of F1,with some passing comment on who appears to be going quickly, all in the knowledge that Friday practice times never mean very much anyway. And all with moving pictures thrown in (though it's also broadcast on 5live radio, where it probably doesn't lose much).

And so Maurice Hamilton treated us to his reminiscences about the infamous 1990 championship decider which was settled at the first corner when Senna torpedoed Prost's Ferrari (a move which his countryman Felipe Massa appeared to try to re-enact at the beginning of this year's race). This was interspersed with discussion of Red Bull's front wing - the five different versions they trialled on Webber's car during the race last year and Christian Horner's growing frustration with those accusing his team of cheating, and questions from viewers about how Spoon corner got its name. Answer: It looks like a spoon. Which prompted one of the commentary team to suggest that the series of bends leading up the hill should really be called the 'knuckledusters'. Either is preferable to 'turn 14'.

Karun Chandhok, who is often part of the commentary team since being dropped from HRT, texted in to complain about how early he had to get up to watch free practice and Maurice Hamilton shared his memories of Peter Warr, who had died during the week. The former Lotus team manager had actually won the first Japanese Grand Prix - a sportscar race in 1962 - driving a Lotus sportscar but it was the famous shot of him celebrating his young charge Ayrton Senna's first GP win in torrential rain at Portugal in 1985 that stuck in Hamilton's mind.

The more relaxed format of free practice also gives the crew a chance to speak to people behind the scenes, and so we were treated to a reasonably long interview with Virgin's John Booth on both their experience of the 2010 season and their hopes for next year and Lotus' Mike Gascoygne also dropped by for a chat.

Truth be told, I don't have the time to listen to this regularly - even I can't spare four hours every second weekend to listen to Crofty and Davidson shooting the breeze while drivers make system checks, get a feel for the relative merits of prime and option tyres and all the rest. And in all honesty, both Joe Saward's Sidepodcast-hosted An Aside With Joe and the excellent Motorsport Monthly Podcast are more interesting to listen to. But I'll probably tune in to get an early glimpse of what the new Korean GP track is like, providing that race actually happens.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Strange Death of American Single-Seater Racing

Remember when America used to produce single-seater drivers of real standing? AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, et cetera.... Drivers from a time when the Indy Car Series was, if not quite on the same level as the F1 World Championship in terms of its global significance, then at least within touching distance.

Then came the infamous IRL/Champ Car split of the mid-1990s, with Tony George's Indy Racing League laying claim to the blue riband Indy 500 and the Champ Car Series taking all the big name drivers, teams and most of the other individual races of any significance. Then years on from the split, both series were on their knees and it was clear that some kind of reunification was the only way that either would survive. The way things turned out, the slightly more virile Indy Racing League effectively swallowed up the remains of the Champ Car World Series (notable assets, Newman Haas Lanigan Racing, KV Racing, the Long Beach Grand Prix and, er, that was about it). Reunification occurred more or less by default, the weaker of the two series reaching the point where it was no longer really a going concern.

Two years on, its hard to tell whether the creation of the Indy Car Series from the ashes of the IRL and the Champ Car World Series marks the rebirth of American Single-Seater racing or merely another staging post on its inevitably decline into insignificance. It doesn't appear to penetrate the popular consciousness of the American public to anything like the extent it once did. It is telling, I suspect, that the two drivers in the field who have 'name recognition' among the wider public are Danica Patrick - famous chiefly for not quite becoming the first woman to win the Indy 500, and Helio Castroneves, who is known to TV viewers as the winner of 'Dancing With The Stars'. Last weekend, a close fought battle for the series title between reigning champion Dario Franchitti and Penske's man of the moment Will Power was settled in the Scot's favour. The battle between road-course specialist Power and jack-of-all-trades Franchitti was an intriguing one, and the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves all figured at various points.

However, it's hard to ignore the fact that the races have been taking place on one continent - North America - while the leading drivers are coming from every corner of the world except the US. There's Kanaan, Meira and, Matos, Viso and Castroneves from South America, Wheldon, Lloyd, Wilson, Conway and champion Franchitti from the UK, Dixon, Power and Briscoe from the Antipodes, Mutoh and Sato from Japan and a small sprinkling of continental Europeans in Baguette and Di Silvestro. In Tagliani and Tracy, there are even a couple of decently quick Canadians.

But the series is, despite the races in Motegi and Sao Paulo, overwhelmingly US-based, and you have to go down to 7th in the points table to find the highest placed American driver in the field, Ryan Hunter-Reay. He is one of just three American drivers who raced full time in the series last year, along with Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. And while all three of them have won races in their career, none of them strike me as really first rate racers. Andretti impressed me at first, but seems to be running his career in reverse, and has never matched the pace he showed in his debut year in the IRL in 2006. There is a reason why Penske and Ganassi, who have dominated the series over the last three years, have opted for foreign talent.

To be fair, another son of a famous father, Graham Rahal, who didn't exactly embarrass himself when paired with Sebastien Bourdais as an inexperienced teenager at Newman Haas back in 2007, found a berth for most of the season, albeit acting very much as a gun for hire, driving for no less than four teams over the course of the season. It would be interesting to see what he might be capable of given a regular drive in a truly competitive car, but I've not seen anything to suggest he's on quite the same level as Franchitti, Power, Dixon or Castroneves.

So where are all the American single-seater stars? After all, it's a big country with a population close to that of Western Europe and one with a significant motorsports culture. And it's not like they've all gone overseas to dominate Formula 1! The short answer is that they're all going round in circles in NASCAR stock cars. In an earlier era, before Bill France and sons saw an opportunity to take advantage of the IRL/Champ Car feud to turn NASCAR into the US' premier motorsport championship, I rather think the likes of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Jimmy Johnson and Matt Kenseth would be fighting out for victory in the Indy 500 rather than the Daytona 500.

As it is, when Scott Speed found himself booted out of Toro Rosso half way through 2007, it was to NASCAR, rather than the Indy Car Series, which his experience might have suggested he would have been better suited, that he went. And if even drivers who came up through the European junior ladder - and let's not forget, Speed finished 3rd in the inaugural GP2 championship and didn't exactly embarrass himself in F1 - elect to go stock car racing, it goes to show how little regard there is these days in the US for the Indy Car Series.

Don't forget, either, that the last really successful American single seater driver, three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish, upped sticks and went off to race in NASCAR at the end of 2007. Danica Patrick, probably the most well known American single seater racer, dipped her toe in NASCAR's waters this year, and probably only the fact that she looked frankly out of her depth is likely to keep her in the Indy Car Series for the time being.

Surely though, not every US-born driver is interested only in trading paint, going round in circles, driving 1960s-era technology NASCAR stockers? There must be drivers for whom the lure of what they call 'road racing' is too much to resist, who would far rather ply their trade at Laguna Seca, Road America or Watkins Glen than exclusively on identikit ovals? So where are they?

It's hard to be sure, but I can't help thinking that what is holding back budding American single-seater drivers is the sheer competitiveness of the European junior formulae. Where many of the best young drivers in the USA are pushed towards stock car racing from an early age because - simply - that's where the money is, the junior single seater formulae in the US are dominated to a significant extent by ex-pat Europeans who have cut their teeth in a vastly more competitive environment than is presented by the Star Mazda or Skip Barber formulae where the Americans will have learned their trade.

And its noticeable that, even at the very top of the American single seater ladder, the field is made up of drivers whose burning ambition was to become Formula 1 World Champion, but who for various reasons, found that path blocked. Perhaps because they didn't quite have what it took and Indycar racing was the next best thing, perhaps because they lacked the connections and sponsorship to make their way through the fiercely competitive upper ranks of the European junior series (where exactly do you find the £1m or so a season in a competitive team in GP2 costs?) After all, Will Power didn't exactly stand out in British Formula 3 when he raced there in 2004, and Dario Franchitti was easily beaten to the F3 title ten years earlier by Jan Magnussen. Likewise, drivers like Briscoe, Kanaan, Castroneves and Wheldon all looked good in their junior careers without appearing exceptional. And it is noticeable that the drivers in the field who did make it as far as Formula 1 - Takuma Sato and Justin Wilson, were not conspicuously successful when they got there. The end result is that the Indy Car Series is not the pinnacle of American motorsport so much as a dumping ground for people who didn't quite make it in Europe. Because Europe's second division of single seater racers is, these days, a good bit quicker than America's best.

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