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F1 on Television in America

All Headline News has an article detailing an agreement that Speed Channel and Fox Sports will share broadcasting of F1 races starting from 2009. Fox gets the United States, Canadian, British and French Grands Prix, while Speed retains the rights to televise the rest, most of them live. Both channels will feature the broadcast team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Peter Windsor.

Kolles

Colin Kolles, Managing Director of the Spyker MF1 team

So it seems there is still confidence in the future of F1 in America, amongst TV executives, at least. There are several blithe assumptions included in the agreement, however, the main one being that the races doled out to Fox will still be in existence two years from now.

With Bernie Ecclestone broaching the subject of the British and French GPs alternating year by year, I wouldn’t care to put money on both races being available for broadcast in 2009. A lot can happen in F1 in that time and some races will have to disappear to make way for new ones like the Indian Grand Prix. Then there is Indianapolis. It’s assured for 2007 but beyond that, who knows?

The point is that F1 has become a sport in which nothing can be guaranteed for more than a year, sometimes even less. Circuits come and go, seemingly at Bernie’s whim, and the FIA re-define the rules as they go along. I don’t envy the TV execs who had to sign up for a contract that looks as far ahead as 2009.

Inside F1, the rumbles regarding customer cars continue. Leading the charge against Super Aguri’s and Toro Rosso’s plans for next year is Colin Kolles of the Spyker team. Of course, Aguri and Rosso deny that their cars will be bought in from their respective parent teams but the suspicion remains even so.

Now would be a good time for the FIA to step in and define clearly what consitutes a bought-in chassis and what defines an independently-built one. From the excuses, explanations and accusations floating around, it seems that the line between one and the other is very vague. And it would be best to have the whole business sorted out before the new season starts, rather than have the usual mid-season bans and dramas.

For once, this is a situation where the FIA should settle the argument before it gets steam up.

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French Grand Prix Qualifying

With the two Ferraris taking the front row of the grid at Magny-Cours, it looks as though Bridgestone’s sudden leap in performance at Indy was not purely the result of Michelin’s going conservative for that race. The Toyotas’ fourth and sixth grid slots confirm this.

Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher

If Bridgestone really do have an edge now, Alonso will have to make sure that he finishes every race for the rest of the season. He did a good job today, hounding the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher and swapping places with it in his efforts to secure pole, but it wasn’t enough even to contain Felipé Massa. We should have a good race on Sunday.

The final qualifying session also vindicated the FIA’s decision to reduce the time allowed from 20 minutes to 15. From the moment Alonso shot ahead of Michael at the start, things remained hectic and exciting.

Away from the battle for pole, other interesting things were happening too. Pedro de la Rosa kept a cool head and qualified his McLaren eighth, only two slots behind his team leader, Raikkonen. And David Coulthard showed that there is life in the old soldiers yet, making it into the final ten in the Red Bull.

The big disappointment was the lack of performance from the BMW Saubers; after being fastest in the morning session, Villeneuve was out after Q1 and Heidfeld followed soon after. Jacques explained that they had gambled by using the soft tires and it hadn’t worked out – he and Heidfeld now face a long race from poor grid positions and on rapidly-degenerating tires.

Some are suggesting that the other cars will soon sprout vertical wings like the BMW’s but, on this showing, there isn’t much (if any) advantage to be gained from them. I suppose there may be some truth in the claim that they make the BMW a little more stable under braking – which says to me that BMW thought they had a problem in that area. Not everyone else does.

Finally, Scott Speed managed to haul the Toro Rosso into Q2, beating his highly-rated teammate, Vitantonio Liuzzi, in the process. Understandably however, that was as far as he could go and he ended up in 15th place on the grid.

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The Canadian Grand Prix

Predictably enough, Fernando Alonso won the Canadian Grand Prix in style, making it look easy in spite of the bunching of the field after a late pace car intervention. He seems unstoppable this season.

Alonso in Canada

Alonso leads the rest

The win was also the 100th for Michelin in F1 and the Michelin men were out in force to celebrate as a result. Plus, the race was held on the centenary of the first ever Grand Prix, the French, held at Le Mans in 1906. It is a strange coincidence that Renault won that race too and the winning car was shod with Michelin tires.

But the similarities go even further. Second in Canada was Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari, while the same position in the French race was occupied by a FIAT, the company that now owns Ferrari. It would be easy to assume from this that nothing ever changes in F1, especially when you remember that the likely champion this year will be going from Renault to McLaren at the end of the season, just as did Alain Prost at the end of his most successful year with Renault.

Yet we know that, in between these strange coincidences, GP racing and F1 has been subject to incredible changes and upheavals. For many long years there were no French constructors involved and many other tire companies have come and gone. We have seen the races become the virtual preserve of German manufacturer teams and other times when the small private teams from Britain dominated. Circuits have become shorter with huge run off areas and the race through city streets is almost extinct. It has been a turbulent 100 years.

The one constant has been that the fastest drivers of the times have competed using cars at the leading edge of technology. The cars of earlier times may look primitive and dangerous to us now but, in their day, they were the most advanced machines on the road. And every driver has known that, to reach the top, he must compete in GP races. Other forms of motor sport may have more passing, excitement, thrills and spills, but F1 remains the pinnacle, the finest expression of both driving skills and engineering.

So Renault’s feat in winning the first Grand Prix and its centenary is almost miraculous. Countless manufacturers and constructors have come and gone in those intervening 100 years yet Renault are still here and winning races. They deserve every accolade they will have from their achievement.

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Gilles

The Canadian Grand Prix begins today with free practice. Now we can stop speculating over the speed of Schumacher’s Ferrari and whether Alonso can improve on Renault’s poor finishing record at the Montreal circuit – all will be revealed in these three days of practice, qualifying and the race. To me, it seems a good moment to remember the man after whom the Canadian circuit is named: Jacques’ father, Gilles Villeneuve.

It is fitting that the circuit should be named after Gilles for he was reputed to be the fastest driver of his time. But there was so much more to him. He was endlessly competitive and determined yet philosophical when dogged by bad luck. The fans loved him because he was a wild card, always driving at the limit of his machinery and getting in amongst the established stars. And there were times when he would continue even after his car had lost a wheel.

Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles admits defeat at last

There was a moment in 1979 that epitomizes all that was Gilles. The French Grand Prix that year was held on the Dijon circuit and the Renault team put out a massive effort to win their home race. As it turned out, the one fly in their ointment was the irrepressible Gilles.

From the start, he jumped into the lead and held it for most of the race. He was having to force his Ferrari beyond its limits, however, and the tires began to go off towards the end of the race. Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the lead Renault passed him and stayed in the lead to the end. But then René Arnoux in the second Renault caught up and a battle ensued that many think made this race the best ever in F1.

There is a video of the last three laps of the race at this address. I would urge you to have a look because it shows how good F1 can be at its best. The page mistakenly states that Villeneuve and Arnoux were fighting for the lead; in point of fact, their squabble is over second place but both drivers give their utmost. At the finish line they were separated by a mere two-tenths of a second.

Yes, they banged wheels, risking putting themselves out altogether. But, as both said afterwards, they trusted each other not to do anything too foolish. They were racing and enjoying it to the hilt; it almost does not matter who crossed the line first (it was Gilles). And Ren̩ was gracious in defeat Рhe pronounced himself honored to have been a part of such a high point in F1 history.

This is why we loved Gilles: he raced because he loved the sport and there was no cold calculation or careful balancing of the odds in his character. When he won, it was because he drove faster than anyone else; when he lost, it was because even he could not wring enough speed from a car that was not the fastest. He reminds us of an earlier age when the driver was more important than the technology of his machinery, when politics was unheard of and everyone competed just because they wanted to race. Long may he be remembered.

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