7 February 2019

The day of the ostrich. Fascinating F1 Facts: 70

The ostrich is not a very exciting beast. They are large flightless birds, useful only for being transformed into feather dusters. They are ungainly but they can rather fast, reaching speeds of up to 40 mph. Contrary to popular belief they do not bury their heads in the sand if frightened. Instead they run. They are sufficiently strong to be able to carry a man on their back and this led to the development of ostrich racing in Africa. In 1989 the City of Chandler, which is basically a suburb of Phoenix, came up with the suitably daft idea of having an Ostrich Festival, a good excuse to have some fun and watch a few ostrich races. It grew very quickly and by 1991 was attracting 70,000 people. Today the total is over 100,000.

The people in Formula 1 thought nothing of competing with an ostrich festival... It was a bad mistake.

It was a story which had began five years earlier when a local businessman called Guy Gonyea suggested to the city's mayor, Terry Goddard, that it would be great idea for Phoenix to host an F1 race, in order to liven up the city's image of being a retirement home and to attract tourists from all over the world. They then conducted a feasibility study and talked a number of important organizations to get behind the idea, and then did a deal for a race. Initially, it was not going to be possible to host the United States GP in Arizona because Detroit had a contract until 1991, but in the autumn of 1988 Detroit fell out with the Formula One group over track improvements and decided to switch to Indycars, which were cheaper and less demanding.

As a result Phoenix jumped into the gap and agree a five year contract. The Detroit date was not a great one for Phoenix. In early June, Phoenix is hot - very hot - but that was the available date and the City grabbed the opportunity. The whole thing was thrown together rather quickly but in June the F1 circus arrived in town. It was insanely hot. The only really good news for the F1 media was that the press room was located in an old morgue and so it was nice and cool, until one ventured outside…

Ironically, the race sponsor was the Italian fashion brand Iceberg…

Little did the F1 titanic know that it was heading for a collision, not with an iceberg, but rather with ostriches.

The track ran through the streets of the downtown area and the road closures required to get everything ready meant that F1 was unpopular even before the circus arrived in town. The circuit was built from concrete barriers and unless one was in a grandstand, one couldn't see much. The problem was that if one was in a grandstand, one was roasted by the sun.  Only six of the 26 cars finished the race, with Alain Prost winning for McLaren-Honda after his team-mate Ayrton Senna retired. Third place went to local hero Eddie Cheever.

It was clear that the race had to change dates and so nine months later the F1 teams were back in Arizona again, with the race rescheduled as the season-opener in March. The weather was much better but the F1 circus arrived to newspaper headlines that urged the city to "Move the Grand Prix!" away from the downtown area.

The qualifying was most bizarre as Pirelli had come up with some good qualifying tyres and so while it was no surprise to see Gerhard Berger's McLaren on pole with Goodyear tyres, the presence of the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini alongside him was a bit of an earthquake. Andrea de Cesaris was third in his Scuderia Italia Dallara, with Jean Alesi third in the exciting new high-nosed Tyrrell. Both were on Pirellis, while Ayrton Senna could do no better than fifth, with Alain Prost (Ferrari) seventh, only just ahead of the Osella driven by Olivier Grouillard. It was topsy-turvy stuff. The race proved to be rather different with Senna battling the upstart Alesi but eventually getting ahead to win.

In an effort to make things more exciting in 1991 the track was changed. Senna won again, but this time the F1s were outgunned by the ostriches… The GP attracted just 31,000 spectators. The ostriches pulled in 70,000. Bernie Ecclestone didn't much care as long as the money was coming in and he was planning for another race in 1992 but then suddenly in the autumn of 1991, he changed his tune. It was confirmed that there would be a South African GP in 1992. Ecclestone agreed to pay a cancellation fee to Phoenix - and that was that.

F1 did not return to the United States until 2000.

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