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Friday, November 23, 2012

The fan's view: Keeping it weird


From the moment you set foot in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, you see messages to "Keep Austin Weird," the adopted slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance.

One might say there are few things weirder than this city's decision to welcome the circus into town.



F1 returned to the United States for the first time in five years last weekend, and it went far better than anyone could have predicted. The track was awesome, the racing was tight, the championship battle stayed alive for the finale in Brazil and the U.S fan was treated to something special.

I, like many, shook my head with disbelief when it was announced that the sport would be returning to U.S. in of all places, Austin. As I watched developments in Texas over the last couple of years, my emotions ran the gamut -- hope, anger, fear. However, my first experience in Austin was, simply put, brilliant.

Preparing for the trip was something of a nuisance, as flights changed several times. Fans were also, quite honestly, raked over the coals for hotel pricing, one of the few things that may prevent me from returning regularly. Certainly a contrast to the sport's years at Indy. Nevertheless, moving around the city of Austin was a breeze, even during the Friday rush, and the city offers plenty to see and do, no matter where your interests lie.

One genuinely felt welcome in Austin, that the city was excited to host this event on the world stage. Where at Indianapolis F1 was just one of several events the race track hosted, and certainly not the "big one," this was Austin's premier motor racing event, and it showed as it opened its doors to the F1 crowd. Journalists likened the atmosphere to locales like Montreal and Adelaide, which is a huge compliment.

The track was beautiful. This Hermann Tilke credited-project, with huge assists by Tavo Hellmund and 1993 Motorcycle World Champion Kevin Schwantz, provided elevation, decent sight lines, wide entries for overtaking, and earned plaudits from journalists, drivers, teams and fans alike.

While the facilities are top-notch, there are a few lessons hopefully track officials take this inaugural event:
  • Requiring fans sit in assigned seats for practice and quali robs them of the opportunity to see the track from multiple views, and perhaps decide to upgrade their package for the next race.
  • A pit walk for the general fan, not just the well heeled, would be a highlight.
  • Make sure there is enough food and beverage for all days. F1 fans show up for practice and qualification.
  • More than four small stands of track-related memorabilia on a 3+ mile course would prevent 2-3 hour waits in line for sold out items.

But honestly, as annoying as some of these items were, they certainly did not detract from the overall spectacle of the race. After a decade of being shoehorned into the oval at Indy (and don't get me wrong, the majesty of Indy is unequaled on these shores), F1, back on a proper track, and not a street course or parking lot, was awe-inspiring.



Moreover, F1 delivered on all of its promise. The racing was some of the best it has been all year, with Lewis Hamilton overtaking Sebastian Vettel on the track for the lead. There was a little bit of intrigue with Ferrari deciding to break the seal on Felipe Massa's gearbox, but not so much as to spoil the party, and thanks to a number of changes implemented over the last couple of years, the title was not decided a month before coming to Austin. This race counted, and with titles on the line, the U.S. fan benefited.

Roughly 65K fans on Friday, 85K Saturday and 117K Sunday are numbers most tracks only dream about. The challenge now is to repeat something close in year two, when the newness has worn off. Don't forget Indy had 200k+ in its first year, and never matched that.

So, the trick is to keep expectations within reason. Yes, the U.S. has many sports offerings, and F1 is clearly a niche. However, even a niche portion of the U.S. sports fan base is a huge number, and I'd lay good money that niche is far better educated about the sport than the average fan.

And interest is growing. New Jersey may have been postponed, but Bernie Ecclestone will be hard pressed to give up on his dream of a race featuring the New York City skyline, so you better put your bet on that happening. And we are beginning to hear rumblings about a return to Long Beach.

Three races in the U.S., I can dream, can't I?

If the sport is to be successful again in the U.S., it got about the best kick start it could hope for in a place most in the F1 community likely never thought they'd visit in their lifetimes.

Weird, huh?

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Monday, August 20, 2012

The view from afar: At the break

With a little more than a week to go in Formula 1's now traditional summer break, it is a good time to check in on what has been one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.

Clearly, the big story has to be the shakeup on the grid. Podiums with new faces and a flock of new winners. Nico Rosberg and Pastor Maldonado. Sauber and Lotus threatening to take the top spot. McLaren and Red Bull struggling. Quite a few things have contributed. New aero rules and tires, in particular.

While some complain that the excitement is manufactured, specifically the tire situation, the argument is a bit hollow when considering we are dealing with what are supposed to be the chosen few, the best drivers and operations in the world.

Indeed, few seem to have gotten it so wrong at the start of the season than Ferrari, yet Fernando Alonso has consistently taken what he could get, and Ferrari has continued to develop the car, and have been so rewarded by leading the driver's championship.

On the constructor's side, the rules have done a bit to help reign in Red Bull, and we have watched Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber face some difficulties, yet who comfortably leads the table? The cream (and the cash) always rises to the top.

Certainly, some teams have been able to exploit the situation, getting it right in a perfect storm to snatch a victory that it might not have taken otherwise, but there are many arguments to the contrary.

Williams, for example. The team benefitted from "getting it right," no doubt, but it figured it out when others didn't. Maldonado drove a superb race (as we are discovering, no small feat). And when you consider the number of points Maldonado has let slip away this year, Williams would certainly be in a much different (perhaps deserving?) position and feel less of this criticism.

And if it were so darned easy to exploit the situation, wouldn't Lotus have a win by now? Wouldn't Sauber? No, I'll admit the odds fell in Williams' favor that day, but so did good racecraft. And Rosberg's win was no different.

Are the tires difficult? Sure. The window is small, and oddly does not reward the smooth driving style of a Jenson Button, but rather a driver who can get them quickly up to temperature. But again, shouldn't it be difficult? And, more or less, aren't we talking about drivers on a relatively even playing field at the front?

Would I prefer it were a little different? Yes. But, as I have stated before, this all was put into place by requiring teams to change tires during a race. How is this any different than requiring a team to fit less suitable rubber on the car in the middle of a race? The rules are the rules. Figure it out and get on with it. That's why you get the big bucks.

And the best seem to have done just that. Red Bull has gone about its business securing the Constructor's and Ferrari, handicapped by Felipe Massa's woes, will be pushing Alonso for the Driver's title. It'll be hard work, as Webber and Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen are breathing down his neck. As for the teams -- McLaren, and to a lesser extent Lotus, are going to have to hope they can find some kind of development to press their fading challenge. Mercedes? Better luck next year.

And, don't worry. The big boys may have started wrapping their brains around how to get the most out of this season's rules, but Sauber, Williams and Force India have a lot at stake and will be pushing hard to get any scraps left on the table. All ingredients for excitement as the season enters its home stretch.

The magic of Spa and Monza, the majesty of Singapore, and F1's return to the U.S. will be the stage. Bring it on!

Favorite moments so far: Nico in China, Williams in Spain. Webber taking it to Vettel and Fernando Alonso against all odds.

What I'd like to see: Big points for Bruno Senna, a Lotus win, and points for Caterham. All setting up for a brilliant F1 debut in Austin.

Who will be champion? Driver's: Alonso. Constructor's: Red Bull.


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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Formula 1 Blog – BBC Top Gear London Grand Prix: the video! «

This has less chance of happening than a snowball fight in a very warm place, but what the heck, it's good theater. Enjoy!

Formula 1 Blog – BBC Top Gear London Grand Prix: the video! «

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Codemasters F1 2012 Circuit of the Americas HD EXCLUSIVE

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unpredictable? Maybe, maybe not

Much has been made of the 2012 season's unpredictability. And six winners in six races certainly is not what we have come to expect in F1 in recent years.

No, F1 is about one team dominating, winning every race and sewing up the championship sometime before the summer break. Or maybe it is about two teams slugging it out, one dominant but unreliable, the other stealing points when available.

But six drivers taking the top step in six races? A wide open constructors battle? No, that's not F1.

Personally, as someone who has been watching since the Schumacher/Benneton era, I have mixed feelings about it all, but I cannot deny that when Sunday comes predicting the winner before the lights go out is not the 90 percent certainty it used to be. A poor quali can mess up someone's weekend, but a driver CAN win from sixth, and that brings with it a certain excitement that has been lacking in recent times.

Granted, this unpredictability with the tires IS all a little Mickey Mouse. There is no doubt that Williams had a superior strategy in Pastor Maldonado's win, but it was based on some silly rules. But really, isn't this where the sport has been headed in recent years anyway?

Why get annoyed now? Forcing teams to switch to a compound that less suited the car's setup and the track was Mickey Mouse. Allowing DRS anywhere on the track on Saturday, but only in designated zones on Sunday was Mickey Mouse. Speccing the Formula so tightly was Mickey Mouse.

Obviously, drivers are going to complain if things don't suit them, they are self-centered by design and are bound to complain. But F1 is about teams exploiting the rules to their best advantage, and really, have we seen anything else this year? It is all well and good to blame the rules, but is that really what is at the root of Red Bull's challenging start? Yes, Ferrari was well off the pace in the beginning of the season, but a good driver seems to be able to make use of the car, doesn't he?

Isn't the F1 fan getting the same old sport he always did, with perhaps a few less parades around the old circuits?

Granted, I'd prefer to go back to refueling. Smaller fuel cells had a pretty decent safety argument. I'd ditch this multiple compounds baloney. I'd either ban DRS outright or allow its use anywhere. I'd let the teams innovate within the spirit of the rules, rather than just declare everything illegal all the time. And I wouldn't jerk the rules around mid-season. I'd work on the tracks to make it easier to pass. I'd eliminate some of the chicanes. There are a host of things I'd do if I were in charge of the sport.

But I'm not going to complain about this season. It has been fun. One guy isn't winning all the time. And you know what? Take a look at the tables:

Drivers:

  1. Alonso - 76
  2. Vettel - 73
  3. Webber - 73
  4. Hamilton - 63


Constructors:

  1. Red Bull - 146
  2. McLaren - 108
  3. Ferrari - 86
  4. Lotus - 86


Looks like the same old F1 to me.


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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Now, THIS is what F1's all about

There's something magical about the first F1 race in Europe. Sure, the season is a couple of months old, but when the sport returns to its spiritual home, you know the campaign is well and truly started.

That feeling was no more evident than this season, coming after a three week break. Following the political football that was Bahrain, and the first in-season test in some time. It has been a wild year to date, with winners aplenty and a wide-open title race.

So what could possibly happen at a circuit somewhat known for delivering less than exciting races? Surely this is when things will settle out and a true frontrunner will emerge.

Well, think again.

Pastor Maldonado delivers Williams its first victory since 2004.

And we're not talking a Mickey Mouse, chalk it up to rain or other strange conditions win. We're talking a true win. Strong qualifying, good racing, well managed.

It's been quite a while since we thought of Williams as a race winning team, and even longer since it was a championship winning one. In between, McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, Brawn and Red Bull have laid their claims, but short of the Scuderia, I think one would be hard-pressed to come up with a team that stirs the passion of Williams.

It's been difficult to see the team slide into hard times. The tension and expectations of the BMW/Ralf/JPM years. Toyota engines. Out in the Cosworth wilderness. All the while knowing the team were still doing innovative things, it just didn't have the total package or sponsorship. Sure there was Nico Hulkenburg's pole, but that was more "right place, right time" type of thing. The last thing we wanted to see was Sir Frank's team heading the way of Tyrrell.



Changes along the way have seen Patrick Head stepping further away. Sam Michael's departure. But when the team turned up in Australia, something was changed. On the heels of perhaps its worst ever campaign, there was something different this year. The team was reunited with Renault power. Williams had a car with a chance of delivering points. Did it have the drivers to pull it off?

Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna... there is no doubt they bring cash. Maldonado has Hugo Chavez's oil money. Senna has, well, his name. Frank Williams was going with pay drivers. But... Senna has shown flashes of something. He's not his uncle, but neither is he a cab driver. And Maldonado... yes, he brings a lot of money, but he did win the GP2 championship. Interesting how so many forget to mention that.

And deliver points they have. Were more sometimes available? Yes. Maldonado should have had those points in Australia. But Senna placed sixth in Malaysia, and both cars finished in the points in China.

But today? Well, obviously, that takes the cake. There are the teams you want to see do well in F1. Sauber, because Peter Sauber saved that team from extinction when BMW went home. And Williams, because of the history. These are the team owners who battle on in an ever changing, more corporate Formula 1. Underdogs. Flag wavers.

Frank Williams turned 70 last month. This is some kind of birthday present.


Photo: Malaysian GP: Bruno Senna (Williams) during the second practice session on Friday, 23 March 2012, Sepang International Circuit, Selangor, Malaysia by Morio


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Monday, April 9, 2012

On Bahrain: Just don't

Sometime in the next few days, we should hear something about the Bahrain Grand Prix. All signs seem to point to the race going off as scheduled, despite continued instability in the country that led to the cancellation of last year's race.

I think if you polled a majority of people in the world, they would say this is a bad idea, and the F1 media in particular have been voicing concerns about travelling to the country.

Nevertheless, it seems it is the prevailing thought of those who run the sport to go. F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone is on the record saying the race will happen.


"People say to me 'There's not going to be a race.' And I say 'Well how do you know?' And they tell me they saw or read something, but it's all nonsense. These people [the Bahrainis] were brave enough to start an event in that part of the world, and that's it. We'll be there as long as they want us. Whatever is necessary to do will be done, and which is probably not necessary anyway. We've never been concerned about security in the past. I don't understand why people should be concerned now." -- The Guardian


Of course, Bahraini officials want to paint a rosy picture, stressing it is all about sports and not politics.

However, as reports to the contrary come in daily, and strong shows of opposition to the government and the race, such as this hunger strike, come to light, the wisdom of the stance comes more into question.

No less chilling is the statement from The February 14th Youth Coalition that it would not be able to “ensure the safety” of Formula 1 participants.

Reports in The Guardian over the last few days find former F1 champion and current Sky broadcaster Damon Hill calling for a rethink. Joining him on an official front is Labour MP Richard Burden.

And today, an interview published by The Guardian finds an unnamed team boss breaking rank to voice concerns.



"I saw an interview with a human rights activist on BBC World, and he said that there would be demonstrations and that they would be peaceful. But that is the way all demonstrations start off. Other team principals are going through the same worries. I spent all last week making sure the insurances are right so I can reassure the teams. I've sent out an email to our legal department to make sure all our employees are covered for acts of terrorism and civil disorder while travelling to, during and coming back from the Bahrain GP. We have a lot of people. Our first and foremost priority has to be our employees. And their families. That's what concerns us most, even though we've not said anything about it. It seems to me that while there has been some political progress in Bahrain they're not quite ready. The best thing would be for the race to be postponed until later in the year, or even cancelled. But that is a decision that must be made by the FIA, FOM [Formula One Management] and the commercial rights holder. I never anticipated a decision being made until the week before China. I believe Jean Todt is in China, which is interesting."


Honestly? We're debating this? Hunger strikes? Insurance for acts of terrorism? No guarantee of safety?

Granted, the sport's track record is that it seldom seems to be politically aware. It hung on in South Africa long after it wasn't socially acceptable to do so, turned a blind eye to the government in Argentina and China isn't exactly a hotbed of human rights.

Moreover, I understand the argument that Formula 1 can be an ambassador for turning the page in Bahrain, but I don't see a lot of people interested in that right now, save a government trying to sweep things under the carpet. However, daily events seem to prove it won't be over that easily.

Yet F1 seems happy to be a pawn in this game. How many innocent people will be put at risk for what appears to be simple arrogance?

The FIA says it has the matter well in hand.


"We are in daily touch with the highest authorities, the main European embassies and of course the local promoters at BIC (Bahrain International Circuit) as wellas the international promoter."


Let's hope so. Let's hope wiser heads prevail before something really regrettable does happen.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grab your tin foil hat

The Malaysian Grand Prix offered up all the variables that make for a classic race. Weather, underdogs and heroic drives by Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez.

But despite the brilliance of Alonso's ability to muscle a poor car around the circuit and put himself at the top step of the podium, the focus for a vocal bunch out there is on a radio message Sauber sent to its young driver to be conservative.

Could Sauber have thrown the race for Ferrari?

No team polarizes the fan base like Ferrari. You either love or hate the Prancing Horse -- it is usually passionate. Doubtless, fans are going to come down on either side of the issue.

More importantly, however, it highlights the qualities of news sources involved in the sport.

For one thing, in the United States, we have a (somewhat) unique view of journalism. We expect objectivity. As a professional journalist (though not part of the F1 media circus), I have been lectured on objectivity by anyone I have ever worked for and in every course I took in college. Sure, there are folks on the right and left who claim bias, but it truly is an integral part of our education.

Not every country has the same standard, however. For example, there is a widely used agency in the F1 world, which translates and rewrites pretty much any story on the sport from any news source in the world. Sometimes there are nuggets of truth in there, but boy, you don't want to make it the gospel.

Additionally, the news world has become crowded by citizen journalists. Blogs and other sites, which may have been set up by experts or armchair quarterbacks. Take your pick -- some feel this is revolutionary, some feel it is dangerous. Reality is somewhere in between.

Journalists on the ground called foul on this conspiracy business. One went so far as to say it was fueled by the sofa crowd. Though he has apologized to readers who misread and took it personally (a sign of his own integrity), he has not backed off from his core argument, which is they are not there. They don't know the personalities of the players. They haven't put in the time.

The fact of the matter is, there are some very good F1 blogs out there. Many are run by folks in the paddock. They are based on years of knowledge and relationships with personalities in the sport. Some are run by knowledgeable and committed fans that are clear about where they are coming from, have done their homework, and rely on knowledgeable sources. And some are purely passionate, uninformed opinion. It is up to you, as the consumer, to choose your news wisely. Look at the backgrounds of the writers. Read their writings and judge.

Despite my background as a journalist, this is a blog of personal opinion. I am, first and foremost, a fan. My background influences my approach, and lord knows, has done little to boost my readership numbers. I read all the news I can get my hands on and follow certain journalists religiously, but my opinion should not be confused with authority.

I can't be in the paddock, much as I would love to fulfill that dream. So I base my opinions on the voices I value, and I link to those "people in the know below." I let them handle the hard news. Do they sometimes get it wrong? Sure. That's part of being a journalist, too. But they approach their work with integrity, and are open about any potential conflicts, or when they are simply voicing their (informed) opinion.

Being a member of the working press in F1 is an incredible sacrifice of time and effort. That doesn't make every working journalist an ace, but it does reveal hard work and dedication. And in many cases, a credibility that puts them above those of us on the sidelines.

So -- since it begs a response -- an opinion on said controversy...

This isn't the first time the word "conspiracy" has raised its head between Sauber and Ferrari, due in no small part to some claims going back to the late 90s and Sauber's status as a Ferrari engine customer. In fairness, Perez is a product of the Ferrari young drivers program, as well.

Still, a call from the pitwall to consolidate your position and not take stupid risks is not abnormal. Are you listening, Pastor Maldonado? We have heard such calls in the past from McLaren and Red Bull.

Sauber asking Perez to be careful of the position, its best in years and worth whole bunches of money to the team, would be par for the course. The last thing you want your young driver to do is decide in the final laps he can take a Fernando Alonso under those conditions and take himself (or both cars) out.

If Sauber could have won that race, there is no doubt the team would have taken it. To ask your driver to be smart is a no-brainer. Keep in mind the team didn't say "don't pass," it simply said "we need these points." Some will say that's code, but it just doesn't jive with what happened. Perez made a mistake and ran wide. If you want to lose a few seconds there are much safer ways to do it. Fuel concerns would be a good one. A lost gear is another.

As it was, Fernando Alonso pulled out a stunning win in a "difficult" car, and a young driver put a midfield outfit second on the podium, probably making his replacing Felipe Massa at the Scuderia sometime in the next 12 months a foregone conclusion. This wasn't DC or Rubinho pulling over for their teammates or that Mickey Mouse business Ferrari pulled at Indy a few years back. It's a shame two such beautiful drives, and a wonderful race, should be tainted by faux-controversy.


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Thursday, March 22, 2012

On to Malaysia

Put one in the books, the 2012 F1 season is off and running.

Just a quick recap if you weren't paying attention: McLaren declared their presence with authority in Australia, locking up the front row, and firing a shot across Red Bull's bows. The troubles at Ferrari proved to be more than a myth, while Lotus, Mercedes, Force India, Sauber and, dare I say, Williams all came away from Albert Park with high hopes for the new season.

Some of the big storylines of the past week:




The weather looks to hold a few surprises for this weekend in Sepang, and it should be interesting to see what lies in store. It should also prove interesting to see who really is in the hunt for 2012 and who simply had a lucky race in Australia.

Can Red Bull answer back? Will Lewis Hamilton take the fight to Jenson Button, or is he, as some have questioned, already a beaten man? Can Fernando Alonso wring points out of the Ferrari? Can Felipe Massa do... something? Is this the beginning of a Williams resurgence?

Of note: Heikki Kovalainen will receive a grid penalty for passing under the safety car. And there will be one DRS zone this weekend.


Questions abound, and the action kicks off in just a few hours. Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You race or you do not

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A fan's view: Time to put up or shut up

Testing is over. Speculation is finished. In a little over a day F1 gets back to business in Melbourne. Will this be the year Caterham breaks into the midfield? Are Ferrari as off as it seems? Can anyone stop Red Bull?

The offseason was shorter than it has been in quite some time, but the beginning of the season comes not a moment too soon. 2012 has all the makings of something special. New rules. Champions galore. Vettel aiming for the hat trick. And for those of us on the neglected side of the pond, a US grand prix (please, please, please, please, please, don't screw this up).

So, heading into the first race of the season, here are five things I'm keeping an eye on:




  1. Can Ferrari be that bad? For a while, I was arguing the team was sandbagging, but enough pundits who have the benefit of being on the scene are saying this new car has its issues. Could the team have shot too high, overreacting to the conservative approach of the last few years? If so, we know Fernando Alonso can get more out of a car than the average driver, but is he good enough to keep the team in the title hunt until it can get things back into shape?


  2. How much of an edge does Red Bull have? Red Bull blew away the field most of last season. Have McLaren closed the gap? Is Mercedes ready to join the big boys? Can Lotus maintain a challenge over the course of a full season? Or are Red Bull's challengers in enough disarray to allow Vettel and Webber to run away with it again?


  3. Can Lewis rebound? Quite simply, Jenson Button was the man at McLaren last season. Lewis Hamilton suffered a terrible campaign, with mistakes and controversy following him all year. Has Hamilton put that behind him, and has the break recharged his batteries enough to take the challenge not only to Vettel, but Button, as well?


  4. Can Williams bounce back? Last year was perhaps the worst on record for Frank Williams' team. Can a return to Renault power, turnover in the hierarchy of the team and Bruno Senna help put Williams on the road to recovery? For the sake of the sport's romantics (self included), I hope so.


  5. Can Austin succeed where so many others have failed? Like many in the US, I met the news of a race in Austin with a certain amount of skepticism. But time proved the promoter was well connected to Bernie and looked to have pulled a coup in getting the state of Texas to help fund the race. Suddenly, last fall, it all looked revealed itself to be too good to be true as a power struggle erupted between the people with the money and the promoter. Now the promoter is out, Texas pulled its money, but somehow the race is on the schedule. Now another race is on, to build the circuit on time. It's a Hermann Tilke project, so it is the "right" guy for the job, and in many ways it looks to be one of his better designs. But eight months out, and no word on tickets for those of us who can't afford seat licenses. Most hotels are booked (at incredibly high rates). Fans are being asked to commit a lot of money in dire economic times on faith, and the good ol' boys have done little so far to inspire that kind of confidence. The prospect of two US races in 2013 is a salivating one, but as is often the case with anything involving F1 in the US, call me after the checkered flag drops and I'll let you know if it actually happened. Incredibly burned fingers crossed.


OK. Enough pontificating. Let's get this show on the road. As the great man would say, GO! GO! GO!

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Motorsport - Love For Life

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