Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, April 9, 1999

On Different Tracks, Two Motor Sports Race Each Other for World Attention

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - On Friday on different sides of the world, two competing motor racing organizations will be revving their engines.

In Sao Paulo, Formula One will be holding its practice sessions for the Brazilian Grand Prix on the bumpy, twisty Interlagos road course.

Near Tokyo, the Champ Car series -- formerly IndyCar -- will be running the time trials for its race on the smooth and wide Motegi oval track, near Tokyo. The Twin Ring Motegi also has a Formula One compatible road course, and spectators in the grandstand can see both tracks, so the two races could be run simultaneously there. The two groups probably won't be holding a face-to-face showdown soon, but they are increasingly competing with each other.

Formula One is a European-based high-tech, strategy heavy thoroughbred. It considers itself the world's ultimate open-wheel discipline. But Champ Cars, run by Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, is a free-for all bang-'em-up American Indy-style series. And it's catching up.

CART is traditionally American and is based in Troy, Michigan. It has no races in Europe, but its 20 race season stretches over four continents. Formula One has no races in the United States. Eleven of its 16 races are in Europe, but 4 of the others are in the same countries as the CART races -- Japan, Brazil, Australia and Canada.

CART hopes soon to have a European race at a new oval track in England or in Germany.

While Formula One talks about a stock market flotation, CART went public in March 1998. While Formula One talks about expanding to 20 races per season, CART has steadily built its schedule.

Though the two approaches to racing, and the underlying attitudes of the two organizations, are growing closer, they nevertheless remain distinct.

Formula One bills itself a ''world championship.'' Its intercontinental races are merely an expansion. Last year, before CART's inaugural race in Japan, Michael Andretti, a U.S. driver, said CART was ''exporting'' an American sport to Japan the way Japan exports cars to the United States.

CART races -- run on ovals, road courses, and city street circuits -- are centered around the periodic, but unpredictable, yellow caution flags and safety cars that suspend the racing while the track is cleared after accidents. The cars regroup, and many stop for tire changes and refueling. This shakes up the race order, allowing for frequent lead changes. At the Michigan 500 last year, nine drivers traded the lead 62 times.

In Formula One, team directors generally decide on the tire and pit-stop strategy before the start. Races are often led from start to finish by the same driver.

Where CART's cars are mostly off-the-shelf machines with identical, or nearly identical chassis, in Formula One, each team must design and build its own car, while complying with complex technical regulations. Victory usually goes to the best combination of car and driver, or to the team with the most advanced technology.

''Formula One is obviously very prestigious,'' said Jimmy Vasser, an American CART driver who won the title in 1996. But he said that for a driver, ''while it's the top of the ladder it's certainly not the most competitive series. It's a bit less competitive than IndyCar and NASCAR.''

Formula One, aware of such criticism, has increasingly resorted to the use of the safety car. More stable technical regulations for this season have allowed the smaller teams to catch up technologically, bringing the competition closer.

Until recently, CART was where retired Formula One drivers went to spin out their careers, as Nigel Mansell did when he followed a Formula One drivers title with a CART title. Jacques Villeneuve reversed the sequence, and now many younger drivers have started to see CART as a stepping stone to Formula One. This year, Alessandro Zanardi returned to Formula One after back-to-back titles in CART.

The Brazilian Tony Kanaan, last year's CART rookie of the year, said he went to the United States after foundering in Italian Formula 3.

''I couldn't go to Formula One because they wanted a lot of money,'' he said, referring to the sport's practice of asking rookie drivers to bring a sponsor's budget to the team. ''I saw a very good opportunity in IndyCar, and now I am at the top of the categories in North America and I can still go to Formula One from there.''

CART teams also ask for money, however, and, according to Ricardo Rosset, a Brazilian driver who brought $5 million worth of sponsorship to the Tyrrell Formula One team last year, ''sometimes it's more expensive to drive in IndyCar than to drive in Formula One.''

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