Please welcome Jimmy Weeks – our second guest writer of 2010…
Of the four new teams entering Formula One next year you can’t help but feel USF1 to be the most intriguing. Why? Because unlike the other 3 teams who’ll join the F1 fun in Bahrain, USF1 aren’t based in Europe. As their name suggests they’re based in the United States of America; Charlotte, North Carolina, to be precise. NASCAR country.
More than just a race team, USF1 is a showcase of American technology and expertise. It’s a challenge to the perceived wisdom that you can only run a grand prix team from Europe, that to do otherwise is to meet with certain failure. When they launched they said they’d be all American, from the drivers right through the workshop to the guys who bolt the cars together. Team principal Peter Windsor has always painted it like this. Like any good salesman he knows his product needs a unique selling point.
Basing it in America, using American technology, components and drivers would set them apart, and make them a natural favourite for any American motorsport fan tired of watching stock cars running in circles and considering giving F1 a go, rare as that is.
They announced their arrival as early as last February, before we knew we were getting a bumper twenty-six car grid for 2010, and so have had plenty of time to prepare for their grand prix debut. But in recent months rumours have surfaced that USF1 wouldn’t make the season opener in Bahrain; rumours given credibility when Bernie Ecclestone suggested that they were ‘a doubt’ back in September and again in December. As recently as last Sunday press reports were suggesting the team wished to differ it’s entry until the European season gets underway in Spain.
The media suspicion arose from the fact that the team had been silent for months; it seemed to follow that no news meant no progress. But, in late December things had started to happen. The website went live, photos and videos of the factory were posted. In January it was announced that the car would hit the track for the first time in February (on good ol’ American soil, naturally) and Windsor said that the team are ‘very close’ to announcing their drivers. USF1 looks to be happening. The information blackout was, said Windsor, intentional. As he put it ‘you don’t invite all your neighbors and family around to your new house until you’ve at least got the living room almost done’. The team was keeping quiet whilst building in preparation for their debut year. So now they’ve nearly got their house in shape, how are things looking?
Personnel-wise they’ve got some promising people at the top. Windsor has team management experience with Williams, but perhaps more importantly for us fans, can be outspoken and forthright in his views. This is something F1 team principals seem to lack these days, especially following the departure of Flavio Briatore. Remember Paul Stoddart’s vocal stance on cost cutting during his time as Minardi team owner? Eddie Jordan’s sometimes rambling, opinionated interview replies? Formula One misses this sort of honest talk, with today’s team principals adhering more to the Ron Dennis model of toe-the-line corporate speak, a style that doesn’t really lend itself to the average F1 fan. Windsor’s fellow team principal Ken Anderson was a less than successful technical director at the Ligier and Onyx F1 teams during 1989 and 1990 respectively, but has had more success in Indycars, where he has overseen four Indy 500 winning drivers and the design of the car the won the 1997 race. Detractors of U.S racing may scoff that this is nothing compared to succeeding in F1, but the 500 is a tough race to win, and Anderson’s success there suggests he’s better than he was able to show during his time in F1. The team also pulled off something of a coup by enlisting the investment and expertise of YouTube founder Chad Hurley. Hurley may well prove a valuable partner, both financially and commercially. His connections will no doubt make him a useful asset when sponsor hunting, and his knowledge of marketing through social media sites could help the team gain the exposure and fans it needs if it is to succeed in its homeland. With USF1 Twitter and YouTube pages launched in January this already seems to be underway.
[youtube width=”580″ height=”400″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVYZDsc6XWo
Of course for all the marketing know-how and right people in the right places an F1 team isn’t going to succeed without good drivers, especially a new team entering the testing ban world of F1 2010. Experience is the order of the day, something Lotus (Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen) and Virgin (Timo Glock) no doubt took in to account when choosing their drivers. USF1 have again been quiet on this front, though they’re widely expected to run José María López, a success in his native Argentine touring car series but never a star in his time in GP2, who will pay eight million dollars for his seat. The final pairing, says Windsor, will be announced soon, but with few experienced drivers left on the market the team look like they may be lacking in this area.
And of course likely driver López is not American. Nor, we can be almost certain, will his teammate be. USF1’s initial promise of having two Americans soon became a promise to run one alongside an experienced foreign racer. At this stage they have one inexperienced foreigner set to race for them in 2010 with a young American more likely to take the largely meaningless third driver role. This could pose a problem. As well as lessening the American feel of the team, and thus appeal to the U.S market, the lack of an experienced racer will make it tougher for the team to work their way through problems. Sébastien Bourdais would be a good if not great answer to this, having some F1 experience and a high profile amongst US race fans, though his name hasn’t been mentioned in connection with the team and his brief foray with F1 was hardly spectacular to say the least.
So how will USF1 stack up? Right now it’s difficult to say, what with the car yet to even turn a wheel. What we can assume is that they, along with the other three new teams, will occupy the final eight positions on the grid, at least in the early part of the season. A successful 2010 for one of these four will be to emerge as the top new boys and perhaps challenge the tail end of the established teams as the year progresses. Currently USF1 aren’t favourites to do this. Lotus, with their strong driver pairing, Mike Gascoyne-led tech team and Malaysian millions are considered most likely to win the ‘rookie championship’. Next up Virgin, with Manor Motorsport/Nick Wirth know-how, the backing of Richard Branson and a promising driver pairing should be second best. The common view is that USF1 will compete with Campos for the last two rows of the grid. That is if the Spanish team, with Bruno Senna driving a car built by Italian constructor Dallara, make it to Bahrain; there have been plenty of rumors that Campos wont get there either.
Of course there’s a lot of guesswork going on here, just as there is in the many press reports proclaiming USF1’s early demise. None of us will be able to judge until the cars begin testing, and even then we won’t really know anything until first practice at the Sakir circuit on March 12th. Will USF1 get that far? If they don’t Peter Windsor is going to look an almighty fool, having so strongly talked up his teams chance of being there for race one. They’ve been granted extra testing days, which should help iron out any major bugs in the car, and the association with the young, smart and business savvy Chad Hurley has the potential to take them to a new level in F1 marketing terms. But, all the YouTube videos and Twitter updates in the world wont rescue a team with a dog of a car and a less than brilliant driver. We’ve just got to wait and see with the car, but driver-wise things look less than impressive. Year one looks like being a struggle for USF1, but they deserve credit for being alternative and should be given a chance to prove themselves before we start heaping criticism on them.