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Schumacher Has Formula Down Pat

Ferrari driver wins the U.S. Grand Prix for the fourth year in a row and pulls to within 19 points of overall leader Alonso, who finishes fifth.

July 03, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Formula One fulfilled its promise of staging a bona fide U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday after the debacle of last year's race. But the result was the same, thanks to a first-lap crash and Michael Schumacher's dominance.

After the wreck knocked out seven contenders -- including Californian Scott Speed in his rookie homecoming -- Ferraris dominated again, with seven-time world champion Schumacher winning his fourth consecutive U.S. Grand Prix and a record fifth overall.

His teammate Felipe Massa finished a career-high second, eight seconds behind, as only nine of the 22 cars completed the race's 73 laps on the 2.6-mile road-track circuit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a repeat of last year, when Schumacher and then-Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello overwhelmed a depleted field of six cars after the 14 others had pulled off the track before the race in a dispute over the safety of their Michelin tires.

This year, reigning Formula One champion Fernando Alonso -- who has never done well here -- finished fifth, 28.4 seconds behind Schumacher. That ended a four-race winning streak for Alonso, 24, who has won six of this year's 10 races for Team Renault.

The Spaniard's lead over Schumacher in the title chase shrunk to 19 points from 25, and Schumacher said, "It's not impossible at all" for him to catch Alonso with eight races left.

The win "is a big step to the championship," said Schumacher, 37, who started from the pole and raised his arms after crossing the finish line. "We can only hope to keep the edge we had this weekend."

It was his 87th Formula One victory, and he became the first driver to win five times at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The only other drivers to have won four times are A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears in the Indianapolis 500, and Jeff Gordon in NASCAR's Brickyard 400.

"It's special, fantastic," said the German-born Schumacher, who lives in Switzerland. "We definitely performed extremely well all weekend long. Everything was just spot-on."

Not so for Alonso.

"Fifth was the maximum I could do today," he said. "I was not competitive all weekend."

But he noted that he'd scored a combined 14 points in the U.S. and Canadian races this year, compared with zero last year, adding, "That's a big reason to stay positive."

His teammate Giancarlo Fisichella finished third, followed by Toyota's Jarno Trulli.

On a hot, muggy day, the race -- the last under the current contract with Formula One -- drew roughly 100,000 spectators, not as many as last year's race and well below a sellout at the historic Brickyard, which can seat more than 200,000. There were large areas of vacant seats along the front straightaway.

In addition, 20,000 of the tickets sold this year were purchased by Michelin, which then gave them away to help atone for the debacle in 2005.

Speedway officials, who do not disclose attendance figures, nonetheless said that they were pleased with the turnout after last year's botched race.

They're also hoping the race was successful enough to persuade Formula One to renew the track's contract. The speedway designed a multimillion-dollar road course and other facilities within its famed oval track specifically for Formula One.

But many in attendance never got to see their favorite drivers Sunday because of the opening-lap crash.

After launching from its standing start down Indy's long front straightaway, the field was moving through the first two turns -- a quick right and left -- when several cars tangled.

Speed, teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya of McLaren Mercedes and Mark Webber of the Williams team were among those collected. So was Nick Heidfeld of the BMW Sauber team, who rolled over several times but walked away uninjured.

The 23-year-old Speed, who drives for the Scuderia Toro Rosso team, took the disappointment in stride.

"Some guys got together, and we had nowhere to go," he said. "It's a shame. But racing is very much an emotional and mental sport, and you have to learn how to control it the best you can. What happened to me in Turn 1 is nothing I can control.

"I'm just sorry for all the home fans who turned up to see me race."

*

Frankie Muniz, star of the television show "Malcolm in the Middle," got his first taste of Indy this weekend, racing in the Formula BMW USA support series.

Muniz qualified 27th out of the 29 drivers for the series' two 15-lap heats; he finished 16th Saturday and 19th Sunday. The cars are downsized versions of the open-wheel cars used in Indy-style racing.

"It's awesome," said Muniz, 20. "I'm still learning a lot. Every one of these kids has been racing since they were 6, 7 years old, and I've been racing basically for four months."

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