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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

U.S. Grand Prix Returning This Fall

March 10, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Formula One opens its 2000 season this weekend in Australia with a renewed interest in the United States because of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's place on the schedule Sept. 24. Tony George has committed close to $100 million to hosting the first U.S. Grand Prix since 1991.

Interest deteriorated in recent years with no American drivers or teams involved. There still are none, but the effort being made by George to satisfy F1 czar Bernie Eccelstone has caused at least a ripple of excitement.

George not only built a 13-turn, 2.53-mile track inside the confines of the Speedway's 2.5-mile rectangular oval, he also built 36 garages with 12 upstairs suites exclusively for F1; a new pagoda tower; and a 400-seat press building that will have 40 television booths for mostly foreign use.

The season is expected to develop into a battle between McLaren's Mika Hakkinen, champion the last two seasons, and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, who won in 1994 and 1995. Schumacher was injured last season and Hakkinen won a tense battle with Eddie Irvine, Schumacher's teammate.

Irvine has switched to the Jaguar team managed by Jackie Stewart, and Rubens Barrichello will be driving the other Ferrari this year.

The only F1 driver familiar with Indianapolis is Jacques Villeneuve, the French-Canadian who won the Indy 500 in 1995 and the Formula One championship in 1997 in a Williams-Renault. He now drives for the Honda-powered British American Racing team.

Qualifying for this weekend's season opener at Melbourne will be shown live today at 6 p.m. on Speedvision, with the race at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

In Europe, the preseason spotlight has not been on Hakkinen and Schumacher as much as on Jenson Button, a 20-year-old rookie from England.

Button, whose biggest claim to fame is finishing third last year in British F3, has replaced two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi on Frank Williams' BMW team.

"It's an amazing feeling, being part of the BMW Williams F1 team," Button told British writers after being tabbed by Williams.

He had better be good, and in a hurry. Williams has a reputation as Formula One's toughest taskmaster. He fired Damon Hill after Hill had won the F1 championship in 1996. He gave up on Zanardi and his estimated $6-million contract after only one season. And he has Juan Montoya farmed out to Chip Ganassi's CART team for a couple of years but presumably will bring him back to his F1 team.

"There were some problems at the beginning of the relationship that drove both parties apart," Zanardi said of his Williams experience. "At one point, the whole thing broke down and we lost confidence in each other."

Zanardi failed to score any points in 16 races and completed only six.

"The whole Zanardi business is still a bit of a mystery to us," said Williams, whose teams have won seven F1 championships. "There are many theories about what went wrong, but I don't know why coming back to F1 didn't work for him, and I don't want to say what I think. In the first four or five races, Alex certainly had some mechanical difficulties, but very few after that. I spoke to him just a week ago, and there was no rancor.

"I would have to say that Alex was blindingly good with sponsors and with the people on the team, but the bottom line was that the results weren't there."

Although several CART teams have sought Zanardi's services, the Italian veteran says he has not made any decisions for 2000.

WINSTON CUP

Bill Elliott, who has driven Fords his entire 24-year career, will switch to Dodge next year. An announcement is expected today on Elliott joining Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, Ray Evernham's new Dodge team in Winston Cup in 2001. Elliott will continue to race his Ford this season. He has won 40 Winston Cup races.

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Parity is the lifeblood of NASCAR so it should come as no surprise that Chevrolets will get aerodynamic help in their battle with Fords and Pontiacs, beginning with Sunday's Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Ever since five Fords swept the Daytona 500, Chevrolet owners and drivers have lobbied for a rule change. They got it after Dale Earnhardt's eighth-place finish Sunday in Las Vegas was Chevrolet's best.

The new rule will permit a two-inch extension of the Monte Carlo's front air dam, an opening below the bumper that funnels air beneath the car.

It is the latest in the continuing banter between manufacturers. Only a couple of years ago, the new Ford Taurus was having difficulty competing with the Chevies and cries of anguish came from Ford owners.

For this season, Chevrolet brought out a new Monte Carlo, Ford made some alterations and Pontiac stood pat with last year's model. Fords have won two races, Pontiac the other.

One driver the new rule might help is Gordon. The three-time champion has not had a top-five finish in his last eight starts, his longest such streak since becoming a Chevrolet Winston Cup driver.

INDIANAPOLIS 500

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