F1's U.S. Grand Prix on shaky ground at Indy

It ain't cheap to showcase the most expensive open-wheel series on the planet. The question Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George must ask himself: Is it worth it?

Updated: June 17, 2007, 3:04 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- This much we know: Michael Schumacher will not win the U.S. Grand Prix Sunday.

That alone is a big change for this event. The F1 superstar won five of the first seven U.S. Grand Prix races (actually six since he deliberately gave one away to his teammate, but who's counting).

Schumacher is off in retirement Shangri-La, enjoying his vast fortune and lovely family.

Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty ImagesMichael Schumacher won four straight U.S. Grand Prixs before retiring.
The enormous skills of the German racer were a joy to witness, but it was getting a little boring at the U.S. Grand Prix.

Instead of Schumacher dominance, we could see a historic moment if Lewis Hamilton takes the checkered flag.

The 22-year-old Brit, who starts on the pole, would become the first black driver to win here in almost a century of racing at the Brickyard.

He also could become the last F1 driver to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Whether the event returns to Indy is uncertain.

This is the final year of the contract -- a deal that some people thought would end early after the debacle of 2005. Only six cars started the race because of tire issues, a ridiculous political mess that never should have happened.

Fans were furious, many of whom said they never would return. But most of them did return.

Attendance for the U.S. Grand Prix has gone down since the inaugural F1 race at Indy in 2000 when more than 200,000 watched Schumacher's first U.S. victory.

Over 100,000 spectators are expected Sunday, and more than 75,000 showed up for qualifying Saturday. That's far more than Indy 500 Pole Day or Carb Day had in May.

Having 100,000 people in the stands doesn't look like much at a facility with 257,000 seats, but it's still one of the biggest crowds F1 has all season.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone isn't impressed. He has gone into full posturing rhetoric, his normal modus operandi when the time comes to renegotiate a contract.

Ecclestone said this week that F1 really doesn't need a U.S. race. India is waiting and so is South Korea, both of which have government backing to help absorb enormous sums of cash Ecclestone demands for the right to kiss his F1 ring.

F1 is all about money. Just ask any F1 team. Aguri Suzuki is team principal for Super Aguri, one of the lower tier F1 organizations. Suzuki also owns the car Kosuke Matsuura races in the IndyCar Series.

"Our budget for the Indy car is between $7 million and $8 million a year," Suzuki said. "Our budget for Formula One [two cars] is between $90 million and $100 million a year."

And that's a low-end budget in F1. Ferrari spends close to $500 million annually. Now you know why Ferraris are so expensive.

We kid, but playing in this league takes a huge pocketbook, along with playing along with Ecclestone's mind games.

Ecclestone has hinted he might take F1 to the streets of Las Vegas, one place that could afford his outrageous asking price.

The man who looks like a geriatric Harry Potter wants at least $10 million a year to stay at Indy. It's a cut-rate deal compared to some venues that pay over $25 million.

But IMS owner Tony George, who met with Ecclestone Friday, has to decide if it's worth it. IMS president Joie Chitwood said Saturday they are trying to find a way to work it out, but need to make a decision by July 12.

Since the U.S. Grand Prix moved to mid-June, IMS now has more than 750,000 seats available to sell over a two-month span. That includes the Indy 500 Memorial Day weekend and the Allstate 400 Nextel Cup race at the end of July.

No easy task, so it's remarkable most of those seats are filled.

George spent an estimated $50 million to build the road-course layout and revamp IMS to fit F1 standards. It was a great facelift for the old place, but the race itself has recorded two of the most embarrassing moments in F1 history.

The first came in 2002 when Schumacher decided to do Rubens Barrichello a big favor on the last lap. Schumacher slowed down to allow his Ferrari teammate to catch up and move next to him on the frontstretch.

They coasted to the finish line as Barrichello edged ahead to win the race. The Ferrari boys got a laugh out of it, but many fans didn't. Nothing like paying your money to watch a race where the outcome is staged.

Schumacher was paying Barrichello back for obeying team orders earlier that season. Barrichello allowed Schumacher to pass him for the lead and claim the victory in the Austrian Grand Prix. It led to team orders being banned (officially, at least) in F1.

But the truly dark moment for the U.S. Grand Prix came two years ago when the 14 drivers with Michelin tires elected not to race.

The Michelin teams felt the tires were unsafe at the high speeds heading through the turn to the frontstretch. They wanted an artificial chicane placed on the track with plastic cones, but F1 officials refused the request.

No one budged on either side, so only the six cars with Bridgestone tires took the green flag. Schumacher claimed the second most meaningless victory of his stellar career. At least the other five drivers didn't deliberately pull over for him.

Despite those controversial moments, F1 at Indy has been a good thing for the series, the speedway and thousands of U.S. fans. Stay tuned to see whether Ecclestone and George believe it's good enough to continue.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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