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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Montoya, Rahal Perfect for F1 Hopes in the U.S.

March 02, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Nationalism is the driving force in Formula One's worldwide popularity, and a major reason the U.S. has lagged behind in interest, since there is no American driver nor team. When the season starts Sunday in Melbourne, Australia, however, interest will be heightened because of two newcomers.

Juan Pablo Montoya, winner of the Indianapolis 500 and the most dominating open-wheel racer in CART the last two seasons, will be making his F1 debut in the Australian Grand Prix. Although he is Colombian, he stirred the hearts of Americans with his driving in this country, where he dropped his middle name.

And Bobby Rahal, a former Indy 500 winner and a team owner in CART, has taken on the added task of trying to restore Jaguar's team to respectability against the McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari powerhouses.

No one expects Montoya, in one of the Williams-BMW cars, to seriously challenge defending champion Michael Schumacher or former champion Mika Hakkinen for the world championship, but it wouldn't surprise anyone who watched him win the 500 in Chip Ganassi's car to see the 25-year-old win a race or two.

"I am a better driver for going to the United States, but it is very difficult to expect to win in the first year because you have to wait and see how competitive the car is," Montoya said after six days of testing at South Africa's Kyalami track.

"If the car is good enough to win, then you should be able to win. If the car is not able to win, then you will never win. I'll be giving it 100% but if you really think about it, I'm brand new here, so I have to learn the tracks, learn the engine, the tires. So far, I would say that things are going quite well."

The Williams team may benefit from the return of tire maker Michelin to compete with Bridgestone, which supplies tires to McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari. Michelin, with 59 wins in 111 races, is back in F1 after an absence of 17 years.

Montoya actually is returning to Williams after a two-year loan to Ganassi. He won the international Formula 3000 title and worked as an F1 test driver for Williams in 1998.

Rumors that he and teammate Ralf Schumacher do not get along have been denied by Montoya.

"He's a good guy," he said. "I don't have any problems with him. He is quite a fast driver. It's going to be quite good because we can push each other quite a lot."

Schumacher, younger brother of the world champion, is starting his fifth season in F1, but has yet to win a Grand Prix.

Rahal, who took on the Jaguar challenge because of his loyalty to Ford, which owns Jaguar, acknowledges the road to respectability will be difficult.

"There are no shortcuts to success in Formula One," said Rahal, who drove in two F1 races in 1978. "The only route is by way of hard work, commitment, relentless focus and sheer application."

Former F1 champion Niki Lauda also has been added to the Jaguar team as head of Ford's motor racing division. Veteran Eddie Irvine and rookie Luciano Burti, a former test driver, will be in Jaguars.

Michael Schumacher won the last four races last year, including the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis. If he wins in Australia, his five in succession will equal Nigel Mansell's record. With eight more victories, Schumacher, 32, will have 52 and surpass Alain Prost as Formula One's all-time winner.

Traction control--the use of electronic devices to control wheelspin--will return to F1 for the first time since 1993, but not until the Spanish Grand Prix on April 29.

SPRINT CARS

Its $51,600 World of Outlaws winged sprint car show rained out twice last weekend, Perris Auto Speedway will return to its regular program Saturday night--non-winged Sprint Car Racing Assn. cars.

The Outlaws will be at Las Vegas tonight, Saturday night and Sunday night before heading East. Charlie Watson, Perris general manager, said the Outlaws may return for a rain date in August.

Andy Hillenberg won the Outlaws' season opener at Hanford last Friday night before rains doused Perris.

Richard Griffin has won the last three SCRA titles, but Cory Kruseman is making a serious challenge, having won the first two races. Kruseman, in fact, has won four of the last five races, dating back to the Jack Kindoll Classic at Perris last November.

The Ventura driver holds the SCRA points lead for the first time in his career, a 29-point margin over Troy Cline of Santa Clarita. Griffin, who finished second two weeks ago at Perris, trails in ninth place because of a violent flip while leading at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix in the season opener.

Winston Cup star Tony Stewart will drive Joe Gibbs' Pontiac during the day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then work as crewman-car owner of Danny Lasoski's sprint car at night.

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