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Thursday race preview - all to play for at Indy 25 Sep 2003

The Stars & Stripes on the Indy grid.
United States Grand Prix, Rd16, Indianapolis, USA., 29 September 2002

Welcome to the beginning of our weekend's coverage of the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 15th and penultimate round of the 2003 FIA Formula One World Championship and arguably the most crucial race thus far.

The battle for the drivers' world championship could barely be closer. Michael Schumacher slightly increased his lead with his 69th Grand Prix success at Monza, and has 82 points to Juan Pablo Montoya's 79, while Kimi Raikkonen has 75. A number of scenarios is possible, so suffice it to say that if Schumacher amasses a 10-point lead prior to Suzuka it will be all over even if Montoya were to win in Suzuka without Schumacher finishing, because in that situation Schumacher would have won six races to Montoya's three.

The battle in the Constructors' Championship is equally tight. Williams still holds the lead with 141 points, but first and third places in Italy boosted Ferrari to 137. McLaren has an outside chance with 120 and a maximum of 36 points available to each team over the two remaining races. Further back BAR and Jaguar are still fighting for the crucially important fifth place, the position which marks the best of the rest behind the top four. Toyota could still snatch it, while Jordan and Sauber have outside (albeit dwindling) chances too.

On the driver front Ralf Schumacher is adamant that he will be back at the wheel, and said this week: "I am sure that |I will be 100 percent fit. I am doing everything I can to achieve that. Indy is the home of US motor racing, so it is really something special to race there."

However, Ralph Firman's place at Jordan is still in doubt after he had to pull out of testing at Silverstone last week because he was still troubled by an inner ear balance problem after his hefty shunt in Hungary in August. Zsolt Baumgartner will be on standby. The team is also due to let newly crowned F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim test its third car on Friday morning.

Jenson Button said in an interview with the Speedway last week that he is fully fit to race, following a heavy accident in testing in the fourth corner at Jerez de la Frontera in Spain.

All of the major teams have been hard at it testing in the week since Monza, and tyre performance will be critical. Michelin's runners are adamant that they will once again enjoy the advantage they had prior to Monza and the controversial front tyre measurement argument, and certainly it could be very harmful to Ferrari's aspirations if not only Renault was to move back ahead of it on performance to join Williams and McLaren, but if Jaguar and Toyota posed a threat too. Bridgestone, however, believes that it has made up ground and that Ferrari's performance at Monza, where tyre and chassis performance is the least important that it is all season, was not a flash in the pan.

The Speedway, sometimes known as the Brickyard because it was once paved with bricks (and still retains that famous line of them across the start/finish line) has two main characteristics that make it a medium to low downforce circuit. First there is the very quick banked final corner, which is actually Turn One of the famed two and a half mile oval track used for the Indianapolis 500, used in the opposite direction. In combination with the pit straight this presents the longest high-speed run in Formula One. Then there is the tight infield section. In an ideal world you want very low downforce for the straight and plenty of it to generate grip in the infield, but of course the two are mutually exclusive. A compromise is thus necessary, and what you choose has a critical effect on the car's performance over the course of the lap. Thanks to the new regulations where you have to race in the trim in which you qualified, that will be even more important this year. Because of the length of the straight most will go for low downforce; even with high grip it is always very difficult to make up any places that you lose on top speed down the straight once you get to the twisting part of the circuit. This means that in qualifying everyone will be even more on the edge than they were at Monza.

The tight right, left, right first corner demands very good stability under braking if the drivers are to have a chance of overtaking there, and since you can take a number of lines there that will be where much of the action takes place. The engines will also take a lot of hammer, so reliability may not be quite as good among the main runners as it has been so far this season.

The race will start at 1pm local time (7pm BST, 8pm CET) and will run over 73 laps of the 4.912 km circuit.

See also: The championship permutations at Indianapolis