VARSHA COMMENTS ON USGP; PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE
WHAT WILL HAPPEN AT INDY THIS YEAR?
Bob Varsha, the voice of Formula One on SPEED, recently revealed his thoughts on what happened during last year's United States Grand Prix. Varsha and the SPEED crew were in attendance as one of the most controversial races in the sport's immense history unraveled before them.
Varsha has spent many years covering Formula One, and has a unique perspective on what led to only six cars starting last year's race. Here is what he had to say:
SPEED: At what point during last year's SPEED broadcast did you realize something was amiss?
Bob Varsha: Peter Windsor has very good sources in pit lane and had warned us there were some rumblings, and there was a problem. He said there were meetings going on and there was a complicated issue at hand -- and all sides had dug in. I think in broad strokes, it was just a very unfortunate thing. I think several things contributed to the eventual decision not to race.
Frankly, the Formula One circuit was very worried about the litigious nature of American society and what might happen if something had flown into the grandstands and spectators had gotten hurt. Also, the fact Michelin couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with the tire. In retrospect, the real irony of the situation and as history has shown us, they probably could have raced.
I personally think it had to do with something within the setup of the Toyotas. Also, Ralf Schumacher crashed so heavily in turn one of the oval. Had it been a simple spin with a flat tire, like Ricardo Zonta experienced, I don't think there ever would have been an issue. Later on, we saw Williams have a similar problem with the Michelin tires in Turkey. As a matter of fact, Ferrari experienced trouble in Spain as well, and they were on Bridgestone. Setup is so critical to tire performance.
SPEED: What were your emotions like once you realized only six cars were actually going to start the race?
Bob Varsha: It was a huge disappointment and a shock to everyone. I remember going on air and saying, 'Right now, as we go on the air, we don't know, as we speak to you, if we're going to have a race at all.' Our hopes rose when we saw all the cars rolling out to take the reconnaissance lap, but when that was complete and it was time to go to grid for the lights, all the Michelin cars pulled off and we had that six-car fiasco. It was so surreal. It was almost something you wouldn't want to miss because the odds of it happening were so minute. But, maybe that was just the way I comforted myself after the fact.
It was pretty clear, at about the time cars were rolling around, the Michelin guys were coming back in. We hoped against hope, and we heard David Coulthard on his radio saying, 'I want to race. Let's go. Let's not do this.' Obviously, they had a plan and they all followed it. And I can't really fault them because there was plenty of blame to go around. The drivers obviously wanted to race, so had it been left up to them, I think they would have raced. To be honest, with the exception of Toyota, I think we would have had a safe race. That is ironic and 20-20 hindsight, but that's my opinion.
SPEED: We're you fearful a larger problem was going to develop with the fans?
Bob Varsha: No, I don't think so. Obviously, some people were terribly angry and threw things on the track, which no one should ever do. While some others demonstrated their disappointment with signs, gestures and booing -- which they were entitled to do. We all understand how the fans felt. Certainly, those of us in the booth and everyone at SPEED were terribly disappointed. But, by in large, the vast majority of people behaved themselves. Now, what remains to be seen is what the lasting damage from this might be -- if any.
SPEED: What impact did that race have on Formula One's image in the United States?
Bob Varsha: It had a huge impact. It's the ultimate test of whether or not there's such a thing as bad publicity in the United States. It was a terrible setback for Formula One. I personally feel the Formula One fan base in America is a lot larger than most experts estimate. The problem, of course, for Formula One in America is there are so many other things to see and do. I really think Formula One needs to come to terms with that concept. This is not one of their other ports of call from around the world, where the local government is willing to attack the idea of a Formula One race with an open checkbook, and building a state-of-the-art circuit just for them. Tracks in America are built by entrepreneurs, who need to show a profit for their activities.
So, no one is going to give the candy store away to Formula One just for the honor of having a race in this country. Formula One has to come here, be aggressive in their marketing and cooperative in their publicity -- like talking to the press at every level - leading up to the race. They have to be willing to put on a show, greet fans and compete with NASCAR, Champ Car, IRL, NHRA, ALMS, Grand Am and the other forms of motorsport in America. Not to mention baseball, basketball, hockey and all the other things going on.
I think when Formula One comes to terms with that idea, and is willing to help Indianapolis Motor Speedway in their marketing efforts; it would be a lot better. They are facing an uphill fight. I get the sense, and I spoke with a reporter from Europe recently about this, there is going to be a certain amount of humility in Formula One's approach to this year's U.S. Grand Prix. There will be more cooperation. At least there is a spirit of, 'hey, let's make this up and give them (the American fan) a good show this year.' I'll be anxious to see what all happens when we convene in Indy later this week.
SPEED: Do you think Michelin (and the FIA for that matter) have done enough to smooth things over for this year's race?
Bob Varsha: Personally, I think Michelin was somewhat of an innocent party in all of this. They really have gone the extra mile to put that aside and, at least, make a gesture to the American fans. They want the American fan to know this is something they feel very badly about by giving all of those refunds and offering all of these tickets. Now, my thinking after last year's race was that Michelin, Bridgestone and whoever else they could get together, including Bernie Ecclestone, ought to buy out the house and throw the doors open for the 2006 edition of the race. Let everybody come for free. But obviously, that hasn't happened. I think Michelin has done a good job at making it up to the American race fan though.
SPEED: What do you expect for this year's United States Grand Prix?
Bob Varsha: Last year's incident generated its own buzz, so everyone looks to this year's race to see whether or not something similar is going to happen. I think there's a lot of curiosity about this year's race and whether or not the Speedway will keep the U.S. Grand Prix in the future.
SPEED: What role will SPEED (and yourself) play in providing insights to this year's USGP?
Bob Varsha: Well, I'm certainly going to do everything I can, and everything SPEED asks me to do, in terms of making the race exciting and interesting for all of the fans. We're going to do a long series of interviews with Formula One personalities at the fan plaza on Thursday, and it's going to be cut into a lengthy program that will air on Saturday night before the race.
Many of the SPEED on-air personalities will also be attending Grand Prix Tours 'Kiss and Make Up Party' for the fans. GPT has been a long-time supporter of Formula One coverage on SPEED, so we're always excited to attend events hosted by them. There will certainly be lot of programming as well. Virtually every time a wheel turns out on the race track, SPEED will be there to cover it LIVE. I look forward to seeing fans around town, in restaurants and all around the Speedway grounds.
Many more questions will be answered June 30 at 11 a.m., ET, when LIVE SPEED coverage begins with the first practice session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. LIVE coverage of the seventh United States Grand Prix on SPEED starts July 2 at 12:30 pm, ET. On July 1, SPEED will host a two-hour United States Grand Prix Pre-Race Special at 8 p.m., ET.
SPEED, celebrating its 10th Anniversary in 2006, is the nation's first and foremost cable network dedicated to motor sports and the passion for everything automotive. From racing to restoration, motorcycles to movies, SPEED delivers quality programming from the track to the garage. Now available in more than 71 million homes in North America, SPEED is among the fastest growing sports cable networks in the country and an industry leader in interactive TV, video on demand, mobile initiatives and broadband services.