USF1: A Big Opportunity Lost for Formula One?
With the news of the last few nights that the USF1 Formula One team, led by Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson, looks doomed, I thought that I would round up all the ramifications of the team's expected failure to make the grid this season.
First, the whole USF1 concept gathered a lot of European skepticism ever since Windsor announced the team on Feb. 24, 2009, because they could all see the difficulties that the team has had over the last couple of months.
Foolishly perhaps, I wanted to see the team make the grid. Therefore, I have followed its progress (or lack there of) throughout the offseason just as much as I've followed the progress of the other new teams who have also suffered problems.
Campos Meta, run by Adrian Campos, has also had their problems. But according to creditable sources, they have been rescued by a new investor that is rumored to have secured the team's place for the new season. This new investor, ironically, is rumored to be Chad Hurley: the founder of YouTube. Hurley is one of the main investors in USF1 with the millionaire annoyed at the team's lack of progress looking to move onto the struggling Spanish team.
The main criticism of USF1 was always the fact that being based in America would hurt them in the long run. Why? Because they would be away from F1's European heartland, and would be behind other teams in car development.
I think that’s a valid argument. But at the same time, after the initial announcement in February when the team was launched, they had a few more months even before they were announced as one of the new teams.
That being said, both Windsor and Ken Anderson have lots of connections in the world of Motorsport. And knowing that the team was going to be based in America, when they were announced as one of the new teams, they still had plenty of time to pull things together.
One of the main problems was the fact that the team was called "USF1," which implied that the team would be fully American despite the fact that Windsor, of course, is British. Although the team said it wouldn't favor American drivers, with the team having '"US" in the title it would (and has) make the team look slightly weaker if they didn't have an American driver in their lineup or at least an established name in the sport.
Of course, a driver’s nationality is not the most important thing to an F1 team. However, it's good for national pride if you have a driver from the same nationality as the team.
Perhaps looking back, the team should not have called it "USF1." It could still have maintained its "American" background, but not as boldly as it did. Looking around the Internet over the last couple of weeks, there are not too many American/North American drivers with an FIA Super Licences.
Every driver needs a Super license in order to race in the sport, although in recent years when push comes to shove (eg. Kimi Raikonnen in 2001) a driver does not necessarily need one to compete.
In fact today, Lotus Racing's test driver, Fairuz Fauzy, qualified for his FIA Super license by completing a required amount of laps driving the team’s 2010 car at Jerez. With that in mind, it shows that had the team gotten its car finished on time, it could have turned up for the tests. Also, the team's driver(s) could have completed sufficient laps to earn that license.
The signing of Jose Maria Lopez brought a few snickers from the media. Lopez had been racing in Argentina for the last couple of years at Touring Car Level after being released from the Renault Drivers Development scheme in 2006.
Lopez is not necessarily a bad driver, but with USF1 even at the time of Lopez's appointment looking shaky in terms of making the grid in Bahrain, perhaps the team should have appointed an older wiser driver. It would have given the team some credibility with the media and fans.
With drivers like Jacques Villeneuve, Giancarlo Fisichella, and Christian Klien all on the market, the team perhaps should have taken a risk and gone out for one of them. Having someone of that caliber would have been good for the development of the car, which is so important for a new and small team.
But it would have also made things easier in attracting sponsors to invest in the team. With a credible driver leading the team, it would have attracted more national and local media exposure.
Villeneuve would have been the team's dream driver, and with his popularity in the States, Europe, and in F1, he would have brought immediate income to the team. Also, with an established driver on board, it would have made it easier to sign a second driver for the team.
Of course, the team never had the money to sign an established driver and it had to go for the "pay driver" in Lopez, who was backed by the Argentinian government and other minor sponsors. Had the team planned the project better, it would never have gone for someone of Lopez's quality and would have ensured that their driver choice would have been focused more on quality than "money" quantity. That's not to say the team didn't try that, though.
The team also promised that its car was going to be designed and built with innovation in mind and that it would be different than the other teams'. It was claimed that they would be bringing in concepts that had been used on Indy/Champ Cars and that they would be using these within the rules.
Formula One is a sport that showcases itself as the most technically advanced sport in the world. In terms of the sport, it is always interesting to see different ways of building a team car, and not only potentially be interesting for the sport, but for the automobile industry which has strong relationships within the sport.
In terms of the American market, which for years Bernie Ecclestone has never been able to master: It’s a big blow, as American companies might not want to get involved. The news also means that any future bid by an American-owned F1 project will just be laughed at and won’t gather any support worthy of selection as a future F1 team. It’s a shame for the American public who have been treated badly, as have the workers at the factory in Charlotte, N.C.
Windsor promised that the team would look to have a great relationship with the fans and as well as the team having a Web site, they have also stepped into social media like Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter.
Videos of the development of the car and interviews were put on YouTube whilst photos and short messages were put on Facebook and Twitter to help gather the team some support. Even with that, very little has been heard on those networks in the last couple of weeks when it looks from the outside that the team does not care about the supporters, who are losing interest in the team. That, of course, does not look good for prospective investors in the team, who may see little real need for the team to exist.
With Formula One looking to move away from its historical European base, this was a great opportunity missed for the sport to increase its profile in the 21st century. There could have been countless big American-based multinational companies looking to get involved in the sport and of course with USF1 involved the chances of a US Grand Prix would also have greatly improved.
The sport has never really recovered after the disaster that was the 2005 Grand Prix at Indianapolis, Ind. In that Grand Prix, Michelin had tire issues and only six cars raced in front of a nearly sold-out crowd.
There are more than a few American drivers waiting in the wings for a chance in the sport like JR Hildebrand, Jon Summerton, and Alexander Rossi. Rossi is clearly a future star and is doing well in the GP2 Asia series.
Ex-Torro Rosso driver Scott Speed should not be forgotten either. He is experienced and now, as a mature driver, could have been tempted back in the future.
Following in the footsteps of Villenueve is the young Canadian Robert Wickens who is racing in the FIA F2 Championship. He is an option for the sport in the near future as well.
However, perhaps all the blame shouldn't rest on Windsor and Anderson's shoulders. The selection process that the FIA used in selecting the new teams should also come into question, as with Campos and USF1 struggling it appears that other candidates such as Lola, Prodrive, and Epilson Euskadi should have been accepted.
Another problem that all the new teams had to deal with was the fact that the actual regulations for the 2010 season were not finalized until the FOTA/FOM argument was settled over the summer. This definitely did not help USF1 or Campos and certainly set them back. There were also issues with Cosworth engines not being delivered on time.
Overall, it looks like it is going to be a sad and complicated end to the USF1 project that looked slightly flawed at the start. It is a real shame for the American public who I am sure would have taken great pride in seeing a car designed and built in the United States representing them on the world scale.
If the team does fold, it's a shame for the sport, which will as a result suffer in the short and long-term in the States. Fans unfamiliar with the sport will lose interest, and sponsors will not be willing to get involved.
It's also a huge blow to the FIA, who will have missed out on a huge opportunity as well, which will embarrass them greatly. Regardless of USF1, I hope that an American driver does get involved in the sport.
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