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Alonso Tries to Reverse Trend

Despite his domination in Formula One, the Spaniard has struggled at Indianapolis.

July 02, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — When Fernando Alonso began the defense of his Formula One title this year, his goal was to win at the tracks where victory had eluded him: Monaco, Canada and Indianapolis.

The Spaniard then won in Monaco and in Canada last week, and he hopes to complete the hat trick today at the seventh U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Alonso, 24, has won six of the series' nine races, finished second in the others and is the favorite to win a second consecutive title as well. But Alonso has never finished the U.S. Grand Prix and, since 2003, has completed only nine official laps around the 2.6-mile, 13-turn course that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway built specifically for this event.

That's one reason why no one is counting out Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One champion who has won the U.S. Grand Prix four times.

Schumacher, 37, showed his Indy prowess again Saturday by winning the pole position for today's race with a qualifying speed of 132.398 mph. His Ferrari teammate, Felipe Massa, qualified second. Alonso will start fifth in his No. 1 Renault.

"It shows that when the package works we can be extremely strong," Schumacher said. "I very much look forward to putting myself in the books as a fifth-time winner tomorrow. But it's a long way to go until we can achieve that."

Californian Scott Speed, meanwhile, earned his best qualifying position so far in his rookie year and will start 13th. But he was more than 3 mph slower than Schumacher, at 128.833 mph.

To be sure, Alonso's winless stretch here includes last year's debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix, when he and 13 other drivers using Michelin tires pulled off the track before the race in a boycott over the tires' safety.

Schumacher, riding on Bridgestone tires, easily won over the depleted field, but the crowd was incensed. Formula One hopes today's race wins win back the untold number of American fans alienated by the fiasco.

"This year, it is very important for Formula One to have a normal race in Indy," said Alonso, who next year is moving from Renault to Team McLaren Mercedes.

Judging by the thousands who attended qualifying Saturday, it appeared Formula One had been largely forgiven. They cheered loudly, honked horns and waved flags of their favorite drivers' home countries, including Spain (Alonso), Germany (Schumacher) and Finland (Kimi Raikkonen).

Some also waved the U.S. and California flags for the 23-year-old Speed, a Manteca native who's the first American driver in Formula One in 13 years.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway also hopes for an exciting race without controversy. The track's current contract with the series ends this year, and it wants to enter negotiations for a new pact without additional baggage attached.

Tony George, the speedway's chief executive, and Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone met briefly Friday, and George said they agreed "to evaluate our future together" after the race.

Indy's Formula One course mostly winds through the infield of the famed oval track, but it also includes the track's front stretch -- one of the longest straightaways in Formula One at 3,037 feet.

The race is 73 laps, or 190.1 miles, and the cars race clockwise around the course, compared with the counterclockwise direction used in the Indianapolis 500.

The circuit "is one of the easiest on the calendar, if not the easiest," mainly because "there are no fast corners here," said Mark Webber, a driver with the Williams F1 Team. That also means passing is easier than on many of the series' tracks, he said.

Even so, "the usual suspects" are the favorites, he said. Besides Alonso and Schumacher, they include Raikkonen and Alonso's teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, the only driver to win this year besides Alonso and Schumacher.

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