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Brickyard next for Hamilton

The rookie star will try to pad his lead in Formula One's championship standings at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

June 15, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — The Lewis Hamilton show, otherwise known as the Formula One series, arrives for its only U.S. stop this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

American fans at Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix will get their first look at Hamilton, the 22-year-old English rookie and Formula One's first black driver, who easily won the Canadian Grand Prix last Sunday for his inaugural victory.

Hamilton also has finished no worse than third in the first six races of the year, and leads the series' championship standings by eight points over his McLaren Mercedes teammate Fernando Alonso, the reigning champion.

All of which is unprecedented for a rookie in Formula One, widely considered to have the most technologically advanced race cars in the world.

As he did in Canada, Hamilton comes to Indianapolis without ever having driven the track. The 2.6-mile, 13-turn layout here uses the speedway's long front straightway before snaking through an infield course built specifically for Formula One.

"It still hasn't really sunk in that I have won my first race," Hamilton said. "I hope we are as competitive [as Canada] but until we get out on the circuit on Friday we can't really predict how it is going to go."

Teams start practicing today and qualifying is Saturday. Race day on Sunday is forecast to be partly cloudy and hot, with temperatures in the 90s.

Michael Schumacher won the race in 2006 for the fourth consecutive year for Ferrari, but the seven-time world champion retired at the end of the season.

Even so, Ferrari has a strong record at Indy and its current drivers, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Felipe Massa of Brazil, are expected to provide some of Hamilton's toughest competition. Massa has won twice this year, at Bahrain and Spain.

So is Alonso, the Spaniard who won back-to-back titles with Renault in 2005-06 before moving to McLaren Mercedes this year. Alonso also has two wins this year, but he's still chasing his rookie teammate for the series lead. Alonso also told Spanish media this week that Hamilton's success has meant that McLaren is giving him more support.

"I doubt he expected me to do as well as I am, but I don't know that's why he's saying what he's saying," Hamilton told a U.S. Grand Prix news conference. "He's the two-time world champion, but he hasn't been really challenged by someone as close as me and as good a friend off the track, so it is a very difficult situation."

Alonso, 25, has a poor record at Indianapolis, which held its first Formula One race on the current layout in 2000.

"Indy is another of the tracks that I want to win at," he said. "It is so historic and is a very important circuit in this sport."

The U.S. Grand Prix also provides another homecoming for Scott Speed, the Manteca, Calif., native who last year became the series' first American driver in more than a decade. Speed continues to struggle with the Scuderia Toro Rosso team, and has yet to earn his first championship point. Formula One awards points on a sliding scale for drivers who finish eighth or better in a race.

The Indianapolis track, he said, is "definitely quite a bit different track than we normally drive," with its long straightway and "slow and slippery infield" turns. The best passing spot, he added, is at the end of that straightway before the cars make a sharp right-hand turn into the infield.

Whether Raikkonen can start turning around his season is another big question. After moving from McLaren Mercedes to take Schumacher's spot at Ferarri this year, Raikkonen was a clear favorite for the championship.

He underlined those expectations by winning the season-opening Australian Grand Prix but hasn't been able to finish first or second ever since.

"The last three races have not been what I expected," Raikkonen said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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