Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, July 15, 2000

Questions About Need for Friday at the Races

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
SPIELBERG, Austria - With its picturesque setting in Austria's scenic Styrian Alps, the A1 Ring, a hilly, slippery track with alternating long straightaways and tight corners, did the trick.

What started out looking like yet another one of Formula One's uneventful Friday practice sessions, turned into a lively and unpredictable festival of skidding about as teams and drivers scrambled to learn the track and set the fastest times.

It also provided more entertainment than usual for the spectators who watched the buildup for the main event on Sunday -- the Austrian Grand Prix.

''A1 Ring is a circuit where no one can test, so all teams are in the same boat,'' said Jos Verstappen, a driver at the Arrows team, who put his finger on the main problem these days with the entertainment value of a Friday at the races.

A Grand Prix weekend runs from Friday to Sunday, starting with the two one-hour free practice sessions Friday, then the one-hour qualifying Saturday and the culminating race on Sunday.

While the grueling qualifying session -- a race against the clock -- and the Sunday race have the built-in entertainment value of the competition, Formula One has never known quite what to do with Fridays. Until the late 1990s the session counted toward a qualifying place on the grid. But that often destroyed the interest of the Saturday session when, if it rained, the cars would stay in the garage, as drivers could never do a faster time in the wet than they did on a dry track on the Friday. So Friday became a free practice. But these days, because teams are allowed to test the previous week at the same track as the next race, it is the Friday session that is sacrificed as many teams stay off the track for more than half the session. They already have a good idea of what their race setup will be, and because each team has only a limited number of tires over the weekend, they try to preserve the tires by not running.

That leaves the spectators and the television audience sitting looking at an empty track as they did this year in Spain and Britain. When it happened again at the French Grand Prix two weeks ago Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's commercial promoter, was reported to have said, ''I'm fed up with this situation; the fans must be respected. We will ban private testing immediately.''

The International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, will have to do it; not Ecclestone alone.

But until then, the right ingredients may lie in the recipe for Austria. The A1 Ring, in the green hills between Vienna and Graz, is not an official Formula One test track, so the teams did not test here last week.

The session Friday morning under cool and cloudy skies started off looking like a typical one as the top teams sat it out and let the little teams like Minardi have the track to themselves. But when Mika Hakkinen did go out in his McLaren, the world champion and winner of this race in 1998, found he could not even get the car around the track for a single lap before it stopped with a broken fuel pump. He ended up riding back to the pits on a motor scooter, his session finished.

Suddenly this session came to life when at the halfway point everyone started going out on the track together in what became an unpredictable succession of one driver after another setting the fastest lap. And not just the usual big players.

So almost all the teams were out on the track from beginning to end in the afternoon session in what became a festival of cars slipping off the track as drivers tried to improve their times on a track that is both slippery and unfamiliar.

In the end it was David Coulthard who set the fastest lap of the day around the 4.326 kilometer (2.688 mile) track in one minute 12.464 seconds for an average speed of 214.914 kph. Hakkinen was second fastest, while Michael Schumacher was fourth fastest.

''The track is a bit slippery, and they have changed the curbs since last year,'' Schumacher said. ''I am sure qualifying will be very close indeed.''

In a track with many surprises, the surprise Friday was the third-fastest driver, Mika Salo in a Sauber. Last year Coulthard ran his teammate, Hakkinen, off the track at the first corner at the start of the race. That helped Eddie Irvine to win the race in his first effort as Ferrari's leading driver after Schumacher had been knocked out with a broken leg at the previous race.

On Friday, Irvine of Jaguar was the second-slowest driver, but he had a good excuse. He had been complaining of abdominal pains since arriving at the circuit, and withdrew from Sunday's race on medical advice. Brazilian Luciano Burti, who is Jaguar's official test driver, will take Irvine's place.

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