Formula One Champion Lewis Hamilton and McLaren's Ron Dennis Make Stop In Fairfax

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No sport is immune from the global economic crisis -- not even the champagne-drenched circuit of Formula One.

But in the face of unprecedented belt-tightening in the world's most sophisticated form of auto racing, Ron Dennis, chairman and chief executive of the world champion McLaren team, said yesterday that he was bullish about F1's return to North America.

"There shouldn't be anybody who feels we are turning our backs on North America," said Dennis, referring to the recent decision to drop the venerable Canadian Grand Prix, the last F1 race in North America, from the schedule in 2009.

"We are really trying hard to find the model that works," Dennis added, characterizing North America as "a phenomenal market" for the manufacturers that support F1. "We just haven't found a solution yet. That's not to say we're going to give up on it. We definitely expect to be back in North America within the next three years."

Dennis and his star driver, Lewis Hamilton, who, at 23, became the youngest F1 champion on the last lap of the season's final race, were in Fairfax yesterday to meet with executives and employees at ExxonMobil, one of the team's sponsors.

After recapping his season for a select audience, Hamilton, wearing a McLaren racing jacket, affixed a No. "1" decal to a scaled-down replica of his Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. The British driver's real racecar will be re-numbered in kind at the start of the 2009 season to signify that he is the reigning champion.

Afterward, Hamilton and Dennis met with a small group of reporters and fielded questions about the economic challenges facing F1.

Earlier this month, Honda, which spent nearly $300 million annually to compete in F1, announced it was leaving the sport because of the worldwide slowdown.

Last week, F1 leaders met in Monte Carlo to enact sweeping cost-cutting measures that are projected to pare teams' expenses by 30 percent next season -- in part, by banning testing outside of race weekends. In 2010, more cost-effective engines will be introduced, saving teams even more.

Hamilton said the new rules wouldn't make it any easier to repeat as champion. But he said his team was working hard to compensate and that he had already started his offseason training in advance of the March start to his 2009 campaign.

While Dennis spoke about the strategic importance of F1's return to North America, Hamilton talked as a fan and driver, recalling how much he loved watching the Montreal Grand Prix on television as a child and how thrilled he was to win there last season, likening the course to the famed circuits of Spa, Monte Carlo and Silverstone for its eccentricities and challenges.

"I think it's a very special one for us to keep," Hamilton said. "I hope we can get it back at some stage. I would love to race there and compete there again."

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