NASCAR team owner and manufacturing tycoon Gene Haas is set to enter Formula One next year.
His team, Haas Formula, will be based in Kannapolis, North Carolina, making it the only F1 constructor outside Europe.
Ferrari and Toro Rosso are in Italy, Sauber in Switzerland, and the remaining eight teams have their homes in a small region of England colloquially known as "Motorsport Valley."
The overwhelming majority of the teams' suppliers are in the same area and all the drivers have European homes.
The sport is so heavily Euro-centric that no team with a base elsewhere has entered F1 for at least 30 years. Therefore, it came as little surprise that many eyebrows were raised when Haas made his announcement.
Among those who think an American base is a bad idea is former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya, who has also raced in CART and NASCAR.
Speaking at an IndyCar event, Montoya dismissed the idea that Haas could succeed in the world's premier class with a base so far away from the sport's traditional heartland. He said, via Autosport:
If he wants to build [the team] here in the States I think it's completely mad. You can't even call it mad because it makes no sense.
You are not going to get people from England to move to Charlotte.
Montoya makes a highly valid point. For any business to succeed, it needs that most basic of assets—staff.
In an ideal world, a company would have a captive workforce of brilliant people. All of them would be great at their jobs and there would be no alternative employment prospects for them.
With nowhere else to go, they would be forced to remain at the business. As an added bonus for the company, they would be very weak from a pay-bargaining point of view.
An old-fashioned company town worked in this way.
Haas will not have that, primarily because the United States doesn't have an F1 industry. The staff aren't there—they're in Europe, and the skills required for F1 are highly specialised and not readily learnt anywhere outside an F1 team.
One could easily suppose that once he has the staff, as the only American F1 team, they'll be "captive." But they won't, because once learned, the skills are very easily transferrable to other, less specialised industries.
Where a captive workforce doesn't exist, the next-best thing is a very fluid local labour market. This requires a large pool of employable people with all the necessary skills, some without work and some working for competitors in the same field.
If you need quality staff, they're always there. Silicon Valley in California is an excellent example.
Again, Haas won't have this. The fluid labour market he's looking for will be around 4,000 miles away in Motorsport Valley.
Before his team has even turned a wheel, Haas will have a significant handicap. In order to bring in the necessary skilled employees to get the team rolling, he'll have to convince them to uproot their lives in Europe and move to the US.
To illustrate quite how difficult this will be, we need only look at current F1 team Caterham. According to a press statement, they were struggling to attract the personnel they wanted because their old headquarters, in Norfolk, was 100 miles outside Motorsport Valley.
It's safe to assume a small number might love the idea of relocating to the States but most would turn down the idea without a second thought. The ones left would be those who would move but only with the right financial incentive.
To get them, Haas would have to offer them a lot more money than they could get at one of the other teams. In a sport which is already monumentally expensive, that's a huge problem.
Gene Haas' F1 application pic.twitter.com/809H3BhGt1— NASCAR Wonka (@NASCAR_Wonka) January 16, 2014
Once the team is up and running with a quality workforce, inexperienced workers can more easily be trained up to deal with some of the turnover.
And it will be easier still in North Carolina than it would be elsewhere in the US, because the state does have a motorsport industry. Not F1 but a good base to build on.
But there'll still be a need for experienced workers—meaning attracting staff will always be difficult.
If the issue of finding staff was the only problem a US-based team faced, things wouldn't be so bad. But on top of that, his team will be five timezones removed from the rest of the sport.
This introduces a new obstacle to overcome—jet lag. With races spread across the globe, team personnel must constantly adjust their body clocks to cope.
Going forward through timezones is easier to adjust to than going backward. The general rule of thumb, supported by Harvard neuroscientist Steven Lockley in this article for USA Today, is that for each timezone you cross, it takes the body one day to fully adjust.
But most team members don't have the luxury of being able to wait a few days.
Former F1 doctor Gary Hartstein explains how they deal with it:
If on the other hand [opposed to going west] the trip is towards the east (Malaysia, China, Singapore, Korea, etc), we basically do the opposite. We go to bed (and wake up) an hour earlier each day, starting four or five days before departure. Blue light exposure is de rigueur as soon as we get up, and we need to avoid light starting at about 6 PM destination time. Same rule for the flight—if it’s during destination night, try to sleep; if during destination day, keep the lights on, use your blue light, and stay awake.
Eleven of the 19 races on the 2014 calendar are within three timezones of the UK, where most teams are based. In addition, the Singapore and Abu Dhabi night races run to a European schedule and adjustment isn't needed.
By contrast, only three races are within three timezones of where the Haas team will be based. The rest will require adjustments of no less than five hours and five will require shifts of eight hours or more.
We must also consider the inconvenience of travelling to distant locations so frequently will be greater, and the cost of doing so far higher.
But even if putting aside the problems of staffing, timezones and logistics, another issue has become apparent. There's a very real chance Haas is badly underestimating the challenges he's going to face.
At a press conference last week, per Sky Sports F1, Haas said:
Things have changed a lot since the last Americans have been involved in [F1]. I think you get the impression that sometimes people think that the European way of racing is so much more advanced than the Americans. But we're the most advanced country on the planet.
I can't imagine why we can't do this. I don't see any reasons why we can't. It's just basically racing. Parts are more expensive, the coffee is a lot more expensive, certainly, but I think we can bring a more rational way to do this.
We'll figure it out. The car will eventually evolve into our own car, and quite frankly, I think we can beat the Europeans at their own game.
There are two ways to read that sort of statement. The first is to assume that Haas knows he sounds like he has absolutely zero grasp of what F1 is about, and that he's taking the patriotic route to try to pull in American sponsors.
In doing so, he's hoping said sponsors will be attracted by his trip into the facepalm-worthy world of American exceptionalism.
The other is that what he said is what he genuinely believes. And that would be far worse.
F1 is more advanced than the top American series. No one with even a basic understanding of F1, Indycar and NASCAR would dream of disagreeing. Even NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon said as much, when speaking to Formula1.com:
If they want to see the most technically advanced car that exists, and a car that can accelerate and brake and go through the corners faster than anything that is humanly possible in your mind, then go and see a F1 race.
Our cars are really the exact opposite. We are limited on all of our technology to keep the costs down (and) to keep the competition closer.
He was speaking in 2004, but if anything, the gap has widened since then.
Regarding the rest of what Haas said, if there was a more "rational" way to run an F1 team, someone would have done it by now. It could even be taken as insulting to the existing teams for Haas to suggest he can simply arrive, spend a few years learning the ropes and suddenly do everything better than they can.
Ferrari have been in the business over 60 years. McLaren have been around since the 1960s, Williams since the 1970s and Sauber have existed on a relative shoestring budget for over 20 years. The people in charge of those teams have been some of the finest minds in motoring history.
If they can't do it cheaper, smarter or more logically, no one can.
It would be great for F1 if Haas Formula succeeds. The US is the world's biggest marketplace and having a competitive team from there would do wonders for the sport's profile.
And most fans, myself included, want to see Haas do well too. But the number of challenges the team will face are many, and it seems far more likely that Haas will join the long list of constructors who have tried and failed to make an impact on the grandest stage of all.
Hopefully he'll prove me wrong.
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