US F1 can succeed - that was the firm impression I came away with after visiting the team's shop in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 6.Things have changed since then and now the team is struggling. But less than two months ago the situation looked much more positive.
For the record, US F1's executive vice president Peter Windsor is a friend of mine. I've known Peter for more than 20 years, and I've known US F1 founder Ken Anderson since he was technical director for the Ligier F1 team in 1989. Therefore I am more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt but I visited US F1's headquarters determined to take an objective view based on 25 years of covering F1.
I spoke to Anderson and asked him why a F1 team based in the US would work when every other F1 team is located in Europe. "It is working and it will work because the United States is the best country in the world for actually getting things done," he said." In terms of machinery, software, hardware, most of the bits on any F1 car are actually either directly from the US or are a trickle down from the American aerospace industry.
"People in Europe don't realise how easy it is to get things done in the US, from building things to the whole infrastructure of machine shops and composite shops. The other thing that very few people realise is how big an industry racing is in Charlotte. It is a US$6 billion dollar industry. Even though NASCAR is perceived to be fairly low tech, the technology it takes to make a fairly basic tube frame car go fast is every bit as demanding as F1.
"Quite a lot of the same companies that service F1 are here. McLaren Electronics is based here. From shocks to electronics to carbon, it is here. So it is easy for us. Whereas most of your F1 teams in England, have vendors that they outsource things to. We have vendors that we outsource things to as well."
When I toured the factory every department was busy in a quiet, unhurried and professional manner. The first monocoque was completed and the second was well on its way. What was amazing was that the building had been an empty shell [on July 31, 2009] less than five months earlier. Anderson and Windsor held off pushing the go button until the new Concorde Agreement was signed, and that had been delayed by months because of the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) war with the FIA.
"Last year became a very difficult one politically and economically," Windsor said. "There was the world recession, and F1 kind of imploded, and we didn't really have any sort of solid championship for 2010 onwards until August. That's when we signed the Concorde Agreement."
The day after US F1 signed, and so finally knew which championship it would be racing in, the team ordered millions of dollars of machinery and equipment. In a period of just five months it went from an empty building to a state-of-the-art facility. And anything they do not have can be obtained by the vast number of suppliers in the Charlotte area and elsewhere in the USA. On one particular set of components, which every F1 team uses, US F1 paid 80% less than the other teams by going straight to the source in America.
Finding qualified personnel wasn't a problem either. Ex-F1 people who had gone to work in NASCAR, plus engineers and others from NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars and F1, all applied to work for us. "The talent pool in the US is huge on many different levels," Anderson said. "There a lot of talent such as machinists and composite people. The composite industry in the US is huge."
From what I saw and heard, I had absolutely no doubt that the team could produce a F1 car, and that the first chassis would be ready for testing by early to mid-February. But, while the team can build a car, the challenge it now has to surmount are the logistics of racing it.
What I didn't know at the time was that money and time were running out. While the building of the car was progressing, I did not know how far behind schedule it was on everything else when it came to the logistics, equipment and operations of actually going racing.
US F1 signed Jose Maria Lopez as a pay driver. I hear he was supposed to bring US$8 million to the team. The first installment of US$2 million was due on January 1, but so far he has only contributed US$900,000. That's vital funding missing that the team could have used in recent weeks to complete the car. Apparently other sponsor deals have not worked out either.
Anderson and Windsor have been planning an F1 team for years. I heard about the project a long time ago but agreed to keep it confidential until the official announcement a year ago. The target launch date was always 2010, so it's just bad luck that the team is trying to get started in the midst of a worldwide recession. Established NASCAR and IndyCar teams are downsizing and struggling to make ends meet, and it's no different for a new F1 team.
If US F1 does flounder, and I still believe that the team can succeed if major changes are made, it will be embarrassing for the US racing industry as a whole because the perception will be that you can't build an F1 car in this country. The reality is you can build F1 cars here as long as you have the money.
If the team does flounder it won't affect the enthusiasm of the hardcore F1 fans in the USA. They have stuck with the sport through thick and thin. They are the ones who came back to Indianapolis for the 2006 United States Grand Prix after the debacle in 2005 when only six cars started the race, not because the Michelin tyres couldn't cope with the banking, but because all the F1 factions were playing power games and refused to find a solution to the situation.
Many grand prix are televised in the early hours of Sunday morning here. Yet whether the race is shown at 5 am or 5 pm, the core audience numbers remain the same. These fans will continue to support F1 with or without a team from America.
If US F1 does not make it on to the grid it won't really have an immediate negative effect on F1's growth in this country. The team is too new and too small and is still flying under the radar screen of the general racing public's awareness. Losing the United Stated Grand Prix was far more damaging. The real pity if US F1 does not survive would be in the long run when the team would raise F1's profile in this country by having an American driver.
Although I have tried to get an update on what has been happening in recent weeks - I have telephoned and emailed Anderson, Windsor and others at the team - but they have not responded.
I think that the team needs to hire a top notch F1 sponsor-hunter and marketing guru who knows the F1 business from the inside out. While US F1 is strong in the engineering/design department, it also needs to hire some experienced people who know the F1 scene thoroughly, from the operations side to the politics to the phone numbers of important people. The team needs experienced people who know how to operate a team once the car leaves the factory.
Can US F1 succeed? Obviously it needs to find money fast, and it needs a well thought-out restructure on the personnel front. It needs time. It needs to regain the optimism I saw back in early January. It needs to survive. Getting an entry into the F1 world is a rare thing, and US F1 has to make the most of the opportunity it has.