The timing could not be better for Formula One and CBS as they try yet again to stimulate American racing fans' interest in the most popular form of motor racing elsewhere.
Had they tried in the last several years, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher's dominating in his red Ferrari might have done more to harm the effort than help. Unless you were a die-hard Ferrari lover, or understood Schumacher's technical artistry, there was little reason to watch.
This year, after three races, an exciting new Renault team has forged ahead with three wins and Ferrari has foundered. Schumacher is tied for 13th among drivers with only two points, and Ferrari is sixth, behind Renault, Toyota, McLaren-Mercedes, Williams BMW and Red Bull Racing, in the constructor's race.
Italian Giancarlo Fisichella won the season opener in Melbourne for Renault and Spaniard Fernando Alonso won the next two, in Malaysia and Bahrain, for the French manufacturer. Alonso leads the drivers with 26 points.
Next up, Sunday, is the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. It will be the first of four F1 races to be shown on CBS (10 a.m. PDT, Channel 2) this year.
"For sure, we cannot let up; we know the 2005 car for Ferrari is going to be very competitive," Fisichella said Wednesday in a telephone call from Rome. "In the last race, Schumacher was very fast before he had a problem. Ferrari has done a lot of testing, so for sure on Sunday, they want to win again. But we, Fernando and myself, we are confident we can win again."
Schumacher was running second behind Alonso at Bahrain when his hydraulic system failed after 12 laps. It was the first time out for the 2005 model as Ferrari elected to start the year with last year's car, a winner in 15 of 18 races.
"Our gap to Renault is much smaller than widely believed and we will make a leap forward at the San Marino Grand Prix," Ferrari team manager Jean Todt said in a team release. "We were very fast in Bahrain and will be even stronger in Imola. Hopefully, strong enough for victory."
For "Fisi," as the 32-year-old Fisichella is known in Europe, Imola is like his home track.
"My Grand Prix knowledge is very good for Imola," he said. "I won my first race there in Formula Three and I scored my first Grand Prix points there in 1997 with Jordan. It is a course where you need a comfortable chassis and plenty of power to negotiate the slow and the quick corners. You also need to be good over the curbs, especially in the chicanes where you must maintain traction."
The curbs of Imola are legendary among Formula One drivers. The racing line runs through and over the higher-than-normal curbs, which can lead to over-revving the engine when the rear wheels leave the ground, or, if a wrong line is taken, can send a car into the gravel trap or the barriers.
The Imola circuit has 17 turns in its three miles through the wooded hills of northern Italy, about 20 miles from Bologna.
Fisichella's decision to leave the Sauber team after last year to join Renault has paid off for the Rome native. He won his second F1 race in Australia and last Sunday got what might be even more memorable -- a chance to drive his Renault F1 car through the streets of Rome on a 1.2-kilometer circuit around the Circus Maximus, site of the great Roman chariot races 2,000 years ago.
"It was fantastic for me, to drive my R25 Formula One car in Rome, in front of my friends, my family, my children and all the people who came to see me," he said. "It was raining, but there were 25,000 people who showed up to see the Roadshow. It was one of Renault's series of city demonstrations throughout Europe. For sure, it was a great day for me."
Other F1 races to be carried on CBS include Spain, May 8; Canada, June 12, and Germany, July 24.
"There is a Formula One race now in Indianapolis for fans in the USA, but obviously, what is needed to capture the interest is an American driver and I think it is not far away," Fisichella said. "The young driver, Scott Speed, is showing quite well in the GP2 races, which are held the same weekend as the Formula One. That way they are the ones being seen by the most important people in F1.
"Speed is one of the best in GP2 and he is racing against Nelson Piquet Jr., Nico Rosberg, Keke's son, and Mathias Lauda, Niki's son. I think it will not be long before we see the young American in a Grand Prix car."
Nelson Piquet Sr., Keke Rosberg and Niki Lauda all won Formula One championships.
Speed, 22, is from Manteca, Calif., and last year won the Formula Renault Eurocup championship.
Robby Flock, after winning his 50th U.S. Auto Club midget feature last week at Bakersfield Speedway, will start working toward his second 50 on Saturday when the western regional series visits Ventura Raceway. Besides the 30-lap midget feature, there will races for Ford Focus dirt midgets and VRA 360 sprint cars.