Could F-1 Reclaim Long Beach Streets?

Graham Rahal on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., during Friday's Verizon IndyCar Series practice. (IndyCar Photo)
Graham Rahal on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., during Friday's Verizon IndyCar Series practice. (IndyCar Photo)
Graham Rahal on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., during Friday’s Verizon IndyCar Series practice. (IndyCar Photo)

LONG BEACH, Calif. – It’s one of the highlights of the Verizon IndyCar Series Schedule – the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – and as it prepares to celebrate its 40th running this weekend it remains a true gem on the IndyCar calendar.

Grand Prix Ass’n of Long Beach President Jim Michaelian has successfully promoted this event turning it into a Southern California happening – where the sun, fun and glamour of this area are combined with the high speeds and star drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

But Grand Prix founder Chris Pook wants it back and he wants to return the Formula One World Championship to the streets of Long Beach. The City Council recently granted Michaelian’s organization a three-year extension so IndyCar is assured of being the main attraction through 2018. But after that, the event will be put up for bid and Pook believes he can lure Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One World Championship back to this venue, where it competed from 1976-83 before it became a CART race in 1984.

Not so fast, says some of IndyCar’s top executives and drivers.

“Anyone remember New Jersey?” Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti said on Friday, referring to F1’s long-rumored Grand Prix against the skyline of Manhattan that has yet to become a reality. “They were supposed to go to New Jersey, too.”

It remains to be seen if Formula One tries to pull a power play for Long Beach.

“It looks like Formula One wants to be anywhere they can in the United States and they have had some difficulties in doing that,” said Mark Miles, the CEO of Hulman & Company – the owners of IndyCar. “We are interested in what happens there. Long Beach is important to us and IndyCar has been great for Long Beach. The local newspaper ran an editorial the other day saying if something sounds too good to be true it is. The notion a Formula One race will work in a North American community without governmental subsidy seems a bit far-fetched to us.

“I think at the end of the day if that community’s perspective is they don’t want to use taxpayer money to underwrite a race that model won’t work. IndyCar on the other hand has been a successful even that has never coast the taxpayers a nickel. We are very confident when folks lift the hood and look at it comfortably they will appreciate what they have and IndyCar will be at Long Beach for many years to come.”

And some of IndyCar’s top drivers are hopeful of the same including former winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won here in 2010.

“It’s an IndyCar race and that’s what it needs to be,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is where the glory days were and we are heading back to that. On Friday, the crowds were so big we couldn’t make our way through the paddock. That’s like it was in the glory days.”

One of his Andretti Autosport teammates also believes the costs of bringing Formula One back to Long Beach would make it economically unfeasible.

“The amount of money it would take to get this track Bernie-approved would further bankrupt,” James Hinchcliffe said. “I think we are going to be here a while. I would be sad if we lost this race.”

While that is a storyline that may play itself out over the next few years the focus for the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers this weekend is to win the second biggest race on the schedule and join the legendary names that have won here in the past.

“This is on my wish list for sure,” said Marco Andretti. “This is a big race for me – probably second on Indianapolis for me to win. My Dad and I were talking about how cool it would be to have three generations of Andrettis to win at this track. But my record at Long Beach is not that good. We will try to get the job done this year.”

Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt-Petersen Motorsports was the fastest driver in Friday’s two combined practice sessions with a fast time of 1:09.148 (102.457 mph) around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit in a Dallara/Honda.

“The track is – as usual – one of the funnest to drive on,” Pagenaud said. “Everything is fine, the sun is shining and it’s pretty nice so far. The car’s been wonderful; I think the team has done a great job over the winter at helping the car on the curbs and on the bumps. I feel pretty confident this weekend; we’ve got a pretty good package.

“Obviously with different series running there will be different rubber on the track, especially from the [IMSA] series. You have to adapt to that. That rubber, the Continental rubber, we don’t know how it’s going to behave with our Firestone tires, so you always have to adjust. I think obviously as the track rubbers up, the softness of the car needs to go up or needs to go down, and that’s what we’ll have to adjust for the red Firestone tires that are going to give us more grip. It’s quite exciting, I’m actually really excited about tomorrow already.”

Another practice session will be held Saturday morning with IndyCar Knockout Qualifying featuring the Firestone Fast Six determining the winner of the Verizon P1 Award Saturday afternoon.

Fellow Frenchman and three-time Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach winner Sebastien Bourdais was second at 1:09.1608 (102.440 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet followed by rookie driver Jack Hawksworth at 1:09.440 (102.026 mph) in a Dallara/Honda.

Defending Long Beach winner Takuma Sato was fourth at 1:09.452 (102.009 mph) in a Dallara/Honda with 2008 winner and Will Power – who won the season-opener at St. Petersburg – rounding out the top five at 1:09.498 (101.943 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Verizon Team Penske.