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(Guest Post) USA and F1: The Paths Back

January 22, 2011

The third ever VivaF1 blog swap is currently slithering its way around the internet almost as quickly as rumours of USF1’s demise (nearly twelve months ago.) It is something of an appropriate comparison, as today I am hosting Alianora La Canta from the wonderful La Canta Magnifico Blog who brings to us a post looking at the future of Formula 1 in the US; not only in terms of the Grand Prix itself, but also its potential stars.
I will be posting on Gavin Brown’s Making Up The Numbers later this weekend…

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Mario Andretti was the last American World Champion in 1978.

The USA and Formula 1 have had a turbulent relationship for the past three decades.

Back in the days when the US Grand Prix was held every year at Watkins Glen, a steady trickle of drivers from the States tried their hand in F1 (one, Mario Andretti, even won the world title in 1978). Promoters will willing to take a risk on F1, meaning that sometimes the USA had more than one race per season. Occasionally the USA would even field teams, though they were rarely successful. That said, teams have always been the most difficult bit of F1 other than governance itself.

In the intervening years, the relationship has weakened considerably. It is not particularly the territory of this blog entry to explain that weakening since many others have already written well on the subject. What I’d like to write about is the beginnings of the relationship’s recovery and how that recovery might be encouraged. It would be a good thing for F1 to have more developed countries have a greater stake in matters, alongside the usual suspects continuing to support F1 and the emerging markets gradually getting their oar in.

The FIA Young Driver Academy
With excellent timing, I opened my Twitter account after typing the first paragraph to find Will Buxton reporting that two American drivers are short-listed for the FIA Academy. Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden are no slouches and will surely benefit from getting more thorough groundings on advanced techniques in European racing.
Due to the 5 places being allocated to regions and the other 5 to whoever is the best in the 3-day selection event in Austria, at least one of the two is guaranteed entry. One region is the Americas but only Alexander and Josef from that region made it to the finalist list. It’s even possible both might get in if they perform well enough. Even if they don’t make it onto the Academy’s first enrolment roll, the short-listing could help them be more attractive to sponsors.

The FIA Academy, to explain to those who haven’t heard much about it, aims to improve promising young drivers’ job prospects in motorsport. While much of the curriculum (e.g. physiology, driving skills, sponsorship) will be directly useful to the aspiring racers, other parts (e.g. logistics and planning) would also be indirectly helpful – nobody will ever attribute a win or championship to “my ace packing skillz”* but being organised can save a lot of worry, stress and niggling behind-the-scenes mistakes. Mistakes that can’t be seen from simply watching someone race have doomed quite a few careers in the past.

Rossi had a good 2010 and wants to go better in 2011. © alexanderrossi.com

The main teachers at the Academy, Alex Wurz and Robert Reid, are very much used to European styles of racing and that is likely to be reflected in how the curriculum is taught – and therefore in the precise nature of the skills picked up by the students. I think this will be particularly telling in such subjects as sponsorship – the way to attract a European sponsor is different to methods of attracting American sponsorship.
The USA has many large companies who would probably be happy to sponsor a driver once the floodgates to success have been opened by a contemporary compatriot. However, the icebreakers hoping to prove that not every American suffers from Michael Andretti’s culture shock (might have settled with time, but F1 doesn’t do “with time”) or Scott Speed’s brashness (great in America or teams like Williams, less great at Toro Rosso) will probably need funding from outside the States to complete the transition to F1. Large corporate entities are frequently cautious when it comes to marketing. That’s where learning the European way of getting sponsors should help.

Selling it…
Speaking of marketing, a new American team would certainly signal to the world that America has money to spare again. F1 teams are frightfully expensive, resource restrictions or no. Sponsorship is difficult for everyone except, it seems, Ferrari and Virgin. Even so, USF1 managed to get a sponsor who promised enough money (around $50m) to start a reasonably frugal team last year. Yes, it failed to launch. Yes, that’s an understatement. However, the episode demonstrated several positive things that may have been forgotten in the recriminations:

  • The USA is perfectly capable of funding a team if a team’s funding request is sufficiently convincing. Before USF1 failed, it may even have been easier there than elsewhere. While lots of companies were seriously damaged by the recession, some stayed buoyant and have enough spare cash to take moderate marketing risks where sufficient gain in international revenue may result.
  • The USA confirmed it has plenty of talent either already in situ or willing to move there. The former is not exactly a newsflash for those familiar with the strength of Stateside single-seater racing (as this very blog shows quite clearly) but the latter was surprising. Most teams in F1 are based in the UK and Italy. Even Sauber is somewhat limited in who it can attract because it is based in Switzerland – hardly in commuting distance for people from the UK, or even much of Italy, except for the few that use planes as commuting tools (i.e. drivers and team bosses). Yet USF1 attracted quite a few people to move across the Pond.
  • The things that stood in the way of USF1’s entry were poor management. That skill is possessed by many people in America and the number of successful racing teams in the States proves that a fair number of those also have specialist experience. USF1 simply had the misfortune of being led by the wrong people during the critical start-up phase.

A New Grand… and a New Team?
There’s been an interest in forming an American F1 team since, but so far it’s come to nothing. Now, the main thing stopping a team from being formed is probably lack of confidence. Not just a lack of confidence in the economy, but a lack of confidence in people who talk big and under-deliver. It would take someone with a proven track record of starting up a company to convince the big companies to invest now.
Perhaps Sarah Fisher, recently retired from IndyCar driving, could make such an attempt in a few years’ time when her team is comfortably doing the complete IndyCar season. She has the type of personality that could convince a sponsor that her team was different from last year’s over-promisers and has taken enough hard knocks in team ownership to convince people that her team could tackle hurdles. In the meantime, there are a number of more established team bosses, in several series, who could seize the initiative if they could see their way clear to expand in uncertain times.

Josef Newgarden had a tough first year in GP3. © http://www.gp3series.com

If such a team did get established in F1, it would help make the progressions of American racers more straightforward. Scott Speed, as mentioned earlier, found his attitude to be his main stumbling block upon reaching F1. As also mentioned, had he been driving for a different team, things could have been so different. An American team would understand the differences of coming from the American culture, particularly the American racing culture, and be better prepared to help drivers through the transition.
Not every brash driver is lucky enough to get a Williams seat, nor does every determined driver get to be in a team where determination is rewarded. Both of those traits tend to help more in North America than Europe. A team understanding of such things is more likely to get the best from American racers, to the benefit of team, drivers and the USA’s standing at the pinnacle of single-seater motor racing.

Of course, one thing that could help American companies to have more confidence is the new F1 race at Austin. Frankly, if Korea can get its race running, Austin should be more than ready by the time F1 rolls in. Of course, Austin’s inclusion on the F1 calender will only help if F1 manages to avoid such bungles as marred its acceptance with the American people during its time at Indianapolis (the 10-year contract with Bernie should ensure the continuity problems of the 1980s are averted, finances permitting).

*Should any driver reading this entry attempt to attribute a win or championship to organisation, then I sincerely hope they paid attention to their “communication and media” module first and come out with a proper sentence, rather than dump teenspeak and internet-speak onto an unsuspecting broadcast audience…

From → F1, Features

8 Comments
  1. Thank you for offering to post my entry 🙂 . Any errors in it are, of course, mine.

  2. Vfacundo permalink

    Discussion about F1 in Austin on Facebook, Friends of Formula 1 Austin Texas, join us!

  3. What a lovely detailed post Alia and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’d heard of the young driver but had no idea what they did. It does sound a worthwhile scheme to be involved in and with teachers like Wurz delivering the contact, that’s experience that money can’t buy.

    I’d love to see an American team racing in F1, if the sport is to be truly a World Championship then it should be represented by more nations, let’s hope that Austin acts as the inspiration to Americans with vision to get involved.

  4. Leigh O'Gorman permalink

    Cheers for posting Alia.
    Some very nice stuff. What I will be interested to see is how the drivers from this academy go against the young drivers from the Red Bull, Renault, Mercedes academy in years to come.

  5. saltire and Leigh, thank you for the compliments :blush:

    More countries involved in F1 is definitely better. In the USA’s case the lack of presence is glaring owing to it having a strong domestic racing scene.

    I too look forward to how well the FIA protegés do against the “commercial chosen”. It may be a few years before there are definite results though because the scheme will take a while to find exactly the best ways to attain its goals.

  6. Steven Roy permalink

    Nice post Alia.

    I am curious about the FIA academy. I wonder what they are really going to achieve and what structures they have in place to ensure drivers progress.

    I really can’t see an American team in F1 in the next 5 years. It would be nice to see Penske, Ganassi or Andretti putting a team together because they have real credibility

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      I don’t know about Penske ever coming back, unless it was a Tim Cindric / Jay Penske led operation. With regards to Roger, he’s done it once and was a race winner, why would he do it again?
      Beyond small associations with Frank Williams at the end of the 90’s / beginning of the 00’s, Chip Ganassi has never seemed that pushed about F1 and it’s very unlikely that Andretti has anywhere near enough resources to put together an entry.

  7. I can see the FIA Academy achieving quite a bit because their students will pick up a lot of the theoretical stuff that I’m not convinced the drivers on sponsor/team-led driving development schemes receive. Progression is likely to be the sticking point, since the aim seems to be breadth as much as depth. Special deals are likely for the “winners” but the sponsor reactions will make or break this.

    I reckon there will be a US team in F1 in around five years, but it’ll probably be a team whose name we do not recognis yet – perhaps a team composed of the discards of other established American teams or a rich American owner who wants to try something different and hires in similarly-minded people to help. I’m not really expecting the big players in the US to take action to join F1 as themselves.

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