A Truly Foreign Concept: Formula One in Texas

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WHEN the first Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France was held in 1906, the course was some 64 miles of poorly surfaced public roads near the city of Le Mans, and the event was scheduled for six laps on each of two days, about 769 miles in all. The winner, whose total time was 12 hours and 12 minutes, finished 32 minutes in front of the runner-up, with an average speed close to 63 miles an hour.

The action will unfold at a much faster pace on Sunday, when the Formula One circuit returns to the United States for the first time in five years. The race, the 19th of 20 in the 2012 season -- and possibly the decisive one in awarding the driver's championship -- is scheduled for 56 laps of a new 3.4-mile purpose-built road course near Austin, Tex., where the surface is likely to be as smooth as your kitchen table.

The regulations limit the event to a maximum of 190 miles or two hours, whichever comes first, and if the winner is as much as 32 seconds ahead at the finish, it will be a surprise. That he will average better than 100 m.p.h. will surprise no one.

Despite its huge global audience, Formula One has struggled to establish a presence in the United States, and the Texas race, along with a potential race in New Jersey scheduled for 2014, may provide the settings for greater acceptance. There are large audiences in America tracking the Indianapolis-type open-wheel cars and the Nascar stockers, after all, though the similarities of Formula One and IndyCar may be confusing to casual fans of motor sports.

The 1906 event was organized at the behest of the French auto industry, Europe's largest in that era, to provide a showplace for its products. It was therefore one of the first opportunities for an automaker to employ the sales-promotion strategy of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

The Austin race has a similar agenda. The sponsors seeking victories they can advertise are not only automakers, but they represent a variety of interests. Red Bull, the energy drink company that sponsored the recent world record parachute jump, owns the team that the German driver Sebastian Vettel, who won the championship in 2010 and 2011, races for. The factory-entered Ferrari of Fernando Alonso -- also a two-time champion -- has Santander, the Spanish bank, writ large on its flanks. Vettel and Alonso are the only two drivers with a mathematical chance of winning this year's title.

Points are awarded to the first 10 finishers in each race, on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis, and Vettel is in the lead at present, 255-245. The constructors' championship, which counts points earned by both team cars (each of the 12 teams fields two), has Red Bull with a virtual lock on the title, 422 to 340 for Ferrari.

The seeming anomaly of a drink manufacturer's cars beating established makes like Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz (Mercedes has had a remarkably unsuccessful season) is a result of its willingness to spend the money, to having Vettel as the lead driver and to employing Adrian Newey, the 53-year-old Englishman widely regarded as the world's best racecar designer. What Newey and others working under the constraints of the championship rules have created are 37-inch high, roughly 1,250-pound vehicles that are the world's fastest on the road courses -- some racing facilities, others temporary street circuits -- used for Formula One races.

The current technical regulations for the series fill 77 pages and can be found at fia.com. Here are some of the basics: Minimum weight with a driver but without fuel, is 1,409 pounds (640 kilograms). Cars are weighed with the driver, and ballast is added to meet the minimum.

Formula One races are run without fuel stops, so cars carry 50 to 60 gallons, depending on their consumption and the nature of the circuit. Teams calculate the fuel in kilograms rather than gallons. Most teams figure an unnecessary 10 kilograms -- about 22 pounds -- of fuel will cost 0.35 seconds per lap.

Engines must be 90-degree V-8s of 2.4 liters, about the same as in many compact sedans, with four valves per cylinder. Although exact figures are closely held secrets, reliable estimates put horsepower in the 750 to 775 range. Cosworth, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Renault are suppliers, with each racecar limited to eight engines for the season.

Formula One racecars are also equipped with a Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS, a form of a hybrid system that can be used for an additional spurt of 50 to 60 horsepower for a few seconds and can be used for passing on certain sections of the course. Top speed is in the neighborhood of 210 miles an hour, with the gearing being changed to suit each circuit.

Formula One machinery is far more sophisticated than the cars currently in use by IndyCar, the leading open-wheel series in the United States. IndyCar entrants all use the same chassis, made by Dallara in Italy, and have a choice of engines from the official suppliers: Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus. The V-6s are specially made for racing, as are the big 5.9-liter V-8s used in Nascar.

While the cars in Nascar's top-level Sprint Cup series are painted to look like showroom models, there is really nothing stock about them. Sprint Cup cars have a tube-frame chassis, and the leading drivers switch among as many as 15 of them during the 36-race season.

The battle between Vettel and Alonso will be drawing much of the attention in Austin and the Formula One season finale in Brazil on Nov. 25, but they have not been the fastest in recent events. That distinction has gone to Lewis Hamilton, the 27-year-old Englishman who drives for McLaren-Mercedes who has been sidelined by mechanical failures while in the lead of several races.

There are six current and former world champions in the 24-car field. In addition to Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton, they are Jenson Button of Britain, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Michael Schumacher, the 43-year-old German who dominated the sport for a decade, winning seven championships before he retired for the first time.

Schumacher's comeback, now in its second and final year, has been less than successful. Burdened by an unreliable Mercedes, he is in 15th place in the standings, just ahead of a bunch of barely known drivers who are sometimes referred to as mobile chicanes for the faster drivers. Schumacher is retiring again at season's end.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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