F1 & America- The Peter Windsor Interview

The relationship between America and Formula 1 is something that I have been consumed by of late. After all, I am American and commonly post under the moniker AmerF1can (pronounced AmericanF1). Last year I made a commitment to try and understand the relationship between my geographic place in the world and the sport that I love, F1, and found out, yes, it’s complicated…

It all came about due to the movie Rush, the personal drama that Ron Howard directed about the 1976 season in which Niki Lauda and James Hunt become bitter rivals, then fierce competitors and finally friends who respected each other. No need to say anymore.

At first I was just going to concentrate on what impact this movie by a world-renowned director and storyteller could have on American audiences and if Formula 1 would see increased American interest in the sport. However, I realized that was only the beginning of the story, or journey, speaking metaphorically. I tried to interview the director himself but his people decided Road & Track was a better use of Howard’s time.

So I did what all good journo’s do (by the way I am not a journo, just a guy who loves F1 and had to be more involved and since I would not be piloting F1 machinery anytime soon, making calls on the pit wall, or pushing the car back in the garage, blogging would have to do, aren’t all of you so lucky?). Back to the point, I found some experts and asked them questions to see if I could better understand why F1 has had such a rough time here in the States – at least since I have been a serious fan.

I’m happy to present an interview with Peter Windsor, whose resume is long and impressive; stints at Ferrari as a manager of their UK facility and at Williams as team manager winning both the constructor’s and driver’s titles. Due to his experience in an effort to bring an American team to F1 a few years back, Windsor just might be the most qualified to provide insight not only to America’s overall relationship with F1, but also on the subject of the most recent news that the FIA has granted Gene Haas (of NASCAR fame) an opportunity to line up on the Formula 1 grid, most likely in 2016.

To say F1 and America have had an on-again off-again relationship would be misleading. I think love / hate is a bit more accurate truth be known and this was the launching point for my interview with Mr. Windsor.

Formula1blog.com: There was a time when the US was quite involved with F1 on many fronts, drivers, teams, owners, not to mention designers and who can forget F1’s love affair with the Ford power plant in all of its iterations and the long running partnership with Cosworth. What happened to this interest and why did F1 and America go their separate ways?

Peter Windsor: Dan Gurney’s brilliant F1 team suddenly lost its Goodyear financial support at the end of 1967. Goodyear at the time wanted Dan to concentrate on Indy and other races. I think F1’s attitude to racing in the States since then has not helped. Long Beach was brilliant…and we suddenly left that race because they had the audacity also to stage an Indycar event. Detroit was also fabulous. Then, at Indy in 2005, F1 let its internal squabble (Bridgestone political muscle against Michelin’s technology) ruin the USGP for the fans. That was insane. On top of that, neither the F1 industry nor the F1 teams have shown any interest in giving a quick US driver a proper chance. Both Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon would have made the switch had they been given a proper opportunity (one full year of testing followed by a three-year commitment to racing) – and I think Kyle Busch would have done the same. I’m still amazed that a team like BMW didn’t sign Danica Patrick in a No2 car at some point. 

Ok, right off the bat I have learned several things about F1 that I previously did not know. I was only a year old in 1967 but I am familiar with Dan Gurney and his team and the famous car he built and won in, the Eagle. And of course I can completely understand Goodyear wanted to sell more tires not in Europe necessarily but in the U.S. hence the pressure to focus only on American racing. Yes, I remember the tire debacle in 2005, but what I did not know was the last part of Windsor’s answer. That a real opportunity existed for both Stewart and Gordon to make the switch to F1. Assuming that both or either driver and for that matter Danica Patrick possessed the skill-set to compete in F1, this looks to me like an important missed opportunity for F1 and America.

F1B: F1 has already had tenure at Indianapolis Speedway and Long Beach. There have been several other venues as well over the years then a long absence from the U.S. F1 is making an impressive return to America with a 10 year contract in Austin and now a possible race in New Jersey (although there has been little movement on that front for the last 6 months or so) and possibly Long Beach after the newly signed contract expires with Indycar. Are three races enough to successfully grow the U.S. audience? Why or why not?

PW:  I think the US could easily sustain three races – if they were financially viable. Sadly, I don’t think that sort of viability makes sense in F1 because our economy is geared towards governments of countries writing-off the losses of race promotion via a tourist budget. In the States I don’t believe there will ever be that sort of government underwriting which means that promoters have to take the hit. Personally, I think the States is important enough to F1 for the economy to make exceptions. We’ve seen a glimmer of light in this regard with the new Canadian GP contract (if it’s ratified).

This to me is bittersweet, yes, it could happen, but probably not. However, reading between the lines it would appear the U.S. is poised to have another GP. This is not a new concept, in the early eighties there were three grand prix on U.S. soil: Long Beach, a race in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace and also one in Detroit. The only question is, when will it happen? Hopefully with a true American Team on the grid it will be sooner than later. If Austin found a way to make the race profitable, or subsidized it in a way that made sense for Austin (or Texas as a whole) then other municipalities can do it as well.

 F1B: Whenever the issue of America is covered by the F1 media, it is stated how important this market is to F1, it’s teams, the manufacturers and the business of F1. Is this really the case and if so, why has F1 not been able to solve the American riddle?

PW: There’s nothing more important in F1 than races that pay huge money to the teams and to the F1 associate companies. Abu Dhabi is a case in point. So long as a race is profitable, it will always take precedence over races that are “important”. China is no less significant to F1 but there’s no promotional infrastructure in China that makes sense to potential investors. As it happens, the Shanghai government continues to pay for the race, regardless of the lack of a Chinese driver, team or even a roving media corps. The US riddle – so far as the F1 teams and economy are concerned – will only be solved with US state governments offer similar contributions. And that isn’t going to happen, in my opinion, as I said before.

Not really what an American Formula 1 fan wants to hear now is it?

F1B: Continuing with F1’s desire to get back to the States in a more meaningful/comprehensive way, can you share with us what the feeling is like among the drivers and teams to race here in the States? For example, drivers often describe the experience in venues such as Melbourne as very positive. What do you hear about the Austin experience and how does this affect F1’s future in the States?

PW: The teams and the key people love it – but they don’t love it enough to do intense weeks of pre-race promotions or to invest money in US drivers. They don’t have a budget for that and they all hope that someone else will do it. To my mind, the leading F1 drivers should all do promotional tours of the US well before the race in Austin and F1 should collectively spend a serious amount of money promoting the race on US TV, billboards, chat shows and special events. The returns, if they did that, would be exponential – but the F1 philosophy is always to assume that someone else will spend the money. 

Mr. Windsor I am putting your name on the short list for America’s Special Officer and Liaison to F1 Affairs. Just having a little fun. This really is the point, right? F1 does absolutely no support work in the lead up to the GP in Austin, nationally speaking, or for that matter the Canadian GP in North America.

However, I have recently noticed an advert or two for F1 while watching sports other than F1 on NBCSN, but one might expect that due to fact they are carrying the F1 races this season.

In regards to the promotion that Windsor speaks of you only have to look at NASCAR to see what he means. The entire weekend is geared to the fans and the fan experience. In my opinion the access fans have to NASCAR drivers is one of the main reasons this American form of racing is so successful. My guess is that it was a conscious effort on the part of the organizers a long time ago. F1 should take a page from NASCAR’S playbook on this one.

 F1B: You seem to have embraced social media effectively, your Racer’s Edge segments come to mind which I just viewed on Google+ and of course your website which brings current F1 reports as well as stories on F1’s rich history to the audience. I particularly like the series on Jim Clark’s 1963 Season. Has F1, and by that I mean the sport as a whole, really made use of social media to encourage more F1 participation in the States? If they have not, why? And if they have, can you see any evidence that it is working? (Because I do not!)

PW: I think F1 makes so much money from network TV rights that it’s still adjusting to how it can “make money” from the internet. In my view the returns from the Internet are potentially vast – but are not necessarily direct (in the sense that Google will pay $Bn1 directly to F1). It is taking – and will continue to take – a long time for that ideology to change. At present, F1 believes it is “doing the internet” but in reality it’s only doing it on a pay-per-view, geo-restricted way. It will also be interesting to see how F1 responds to the growth of the WEC.  If you can watch Porsche and Audi on-boards f-o-c on those key websites, why can’t you watch F1 on-boards on the team websites? And so on.

That would be very cool if I could watch the race from Fernando Alonso’s car camera but could also switch to Hamilton’s camera and then back to the regular feed. I daresay I would pay plenty for that feature.

F1B: Does F1 need to have an American driver to succeed here in the States? Is an American driver a realistic option with such a small number of American drivers involved in F1 currently? In your opinion, why aren’t there more American drivers or American teams?

PW: As I say, it will take a major commitment from a team or teams. Caterham are doing that with Alexander Rossi right now. He’s got a very reasonably priced GP2 drive in a top team plus F1 testing, etc. It’s up to him to maximize this. No American has had such a chance since Scott Speed. The problem with attracting a leading NASCAR or Indycar driver is that they are not going to want to race GP2 – and nor are they going to want to drive three FP1s and do a bunch of simulator work. The logical way is to do a full season of testing, to run all the Friday mornings (as did Vettel and Kubica, for example) and to hit the ground running. F1 isn’t set up for that but I think it needs to change in this regard.

I have to say this makes perfect sense to me. I’m baffled that none of the F1 teams are prepared to proceed in the manner Windsor has outlined. I have been watching Formula 1 for a very long time and in a serious way for the last ten years. I have seen plenty of drivers come and go; some arguably did not deserve to be in F1 at all. With that said there surely are more American drivers than the aforementioned Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi that can compete at Formula 1’s level and there must be a better way to afford them an opportunity to have a real chance at it.

 F1B: Americans love cars and Americans love technology and are often at the forefront of it with Apple, Blackberry, Facebook, Instagram, Tesla, and many other high-tech companies that are successful here. What is the missing link that Americans are not already super-fans of the most high-tech kind of driving there is?

PW: If F1 spent some time and money selling its brand in the U.S. I think you’d see 15-20m viewers there per F1 race.  They’d love it. As it is, it doesn’t sit on the horizon even of the NASCAR or Indycar fan because it’s so low profile. Simple as that. 

F1B: Moving on to a hot topic of late, the America NASCAR co-team owner Gene Haas has been given the green light by F1’s governing body, the FIA, to compete in F1 with his own team. How will that change America’s perspective in regards to F1? Will this be a game changer for F1 in the US?

PW: Assuming Gene can generate the $300m start-up money he needs to ensure some level of success, yes, I think it’ll be a game-changer. The key here is not getting the green light. It’s generating the money and then attracting the right sort of people.

This has to be Haas’ main focus as we all know what happened to HRT and the current state of Marussia (formally known as Virgin) and Caterham underscore this point in regards to resources. In the three or so years Marussia and Caterham have been competing, I think it is safe to say neither one has made any meaningful progress.  And it is not only the money to purchase the computers, CFD and CAD machines, not to mention the state-of-the-art latest trick stuff that a team needs to just show up at a race but it is also the personnel. To acquire top-notch people and über-smart engineers and designers you need the money to attract them and keep them.

F1B: The viewership in the US has been measured at 12 million recently, up from 1.7 million a few years back. Does this surprise you? Is it enough of a base for F1 to build on and succeed quickly? Hypothetically, would the combination of a successful Austin venue, more U.S. races, and an American team guarantee an F1 breakthrough here in the States? What else might be required?

PW: I’m surprised at the number you quote. An F1 ratings expert recently told me that some F1 races in the US currently have little more than 1m viewers on NBC. Perhaps you mean 12m per year – in which case the number is smaller than the Speed TV days of the Michael-dominated Ferrari years. In my view, as I keep saying, F1 will only take off in the US if networks run F1 background shows – chat shows and so forth – mid-week, in prime time, on free-to-air TV. The fans need to get to know the F1 stars. Need to love them or hate them. Develop some passion. Ferrari versus Red Bull versus Mercedes. Build it up. Not on race weekends, when only the die-hards watch. On Wednesdays at 8:00pm on national TV.

Thank you for the clarification. Yes, I was referring to the total viewership per year not per race. I could not agree more. When Speed Channel was still around (all motorsport programming is now on Fox Sports 1) you could watch something every day concerning America’s oval formula, be it in the form of a recap, general news, a preview of an upcoming race, or specific programs highlighting many of the behind-the-scenes activity. On Sundays Dave Despain hosted a call-in show called Wind Tunnel mostly dedicated to NASCAR. This will change if I have anything to say about the matter. One must have lofty goals, after all!  ;-)

F1B: You know first hand what it means to run a team with positions at both Williams and Ferrari on your resume. What will it be like for Gene Haas now that they have secured a spot on the grid to run an F1 team? And to what degree will it matter if America does line up at the first race of the year but is only able to race at the back of the grid? Will this have a negative effect on America’s interest in F1 as a whole?

PW: It all depends upon how much money he can raise.

Some things never change irrespective of what the endeavor is. Money is always going to be a big part of the equation. It is never a guarantee that an excess amount of it will translate into success, just ask Toyota or look to the movie industry for a lesson in hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a particular film and when all is said and done, that film still flops. But it is also true that to compete in F1 you need money and lots of it. I hope Haas and company have that part sorted…

F1B: In your opinion what needs to be the long-term commitment in terms of a time frame for an American team to succeed? Why are Caterham and Marussia still in F1 when BMW made an exit after only four years, despite having some limited success? Will Americans understand that winning is very difficult to come by in F1, now more than ever before?

PW: The two teams you mentioned both came into F1 as a result of the FIA’s absurd and stillborn “budget cap” Formula 1 idea of 2009. Both teams believed they would be given more revs and downforce in return for running at a budget of £30m.  That didn’t happen, of course, so they’re struggling. If the genesis is out of kilter, organic growth is difficult (but not impossible).  

 F1B: Money is an important part of most winning organizations in any sport. Assuming Haas and his team put together the appropriate funds to build at the very least a reliable race car, what else will he need to be a true contender? Do Haas and company need an Adrian Newey to have any chance at success? Is it better to recruit new personnel or try and lure away proven designers, engineers and the rest of the personnel?

PW: Yes. In the same way that Ferrari need an Adrian Newey, Gene Haas will too. 

It will be fascinating to see what key people Gene Haas brings together and what kind of vision he presents to the world. By that I mean who Haas will be able to lure away from other teams and which unknowns he will hire. And on that note, is there new talent that will come aboard and see the design of a race car with a completely different set of spectacles? Adrian Newey has been doing this for some time now, ever since his first designs in F1 going all the way back to March/Layton House cars. Are there more diamond in the rough aero designers just waiting for a chance?

F1B: Lastly, any predictions on the championships this season? Will Red Bull recover, or is the smart money on Mercedes this year? Is Ferrari already too far behind? Williams seems to be further up the grid then they have been in awhile, will your old team win a race or two?

PW: I predicted Lewis to win the championship before the season started and I stand by that, although it’s obviously going to be very, very close.  I think Ferrari’s pace will be determined simply by how much control – or how little – they give the excellent James Allison.  At present he appears to be just a bystander.  Paddy Lowe has one of the best racing brains I know – and I’m a big fan of the way Sahara Force India go about their racing.  They are a case study of how to achieve much on a relatively limited budget. There are some very good people there – and good people are the most important component of all. 

OK, so there you have it. It is a lot to digest and Mr. Windsor brings out some interesting points, I could have asked a hundred more questions had we the time! Similar to our other experts, Mr. Windsor sees that American F1 does have the makings of something more than just a weekend in November where European and American cultures cross paths. He has outlined what F1 needs to do, and for that matter what America needs to do, in order for the sport to grow pass the niche that it occupies at present and move to a place of larger appeal. Relative to the other experts I interviewed Mr. Windsor brings a different and welcomed perspective to the questions I put forth and it is in the differences, sometimes small, that we start to understand the bigger picture.

I plan on interviewing many more F1 people, fans themselves, drivers (including drivers in other formulas) and hopefully a team principle or two (one can hope can’t they?) to fully understand this particular conundrum. With America still the largest economy in the world and with such an infrastructure already in place for the sports fan regardless of what that particular sport is, how do the interests of F1 and America tap into what has always been there? A love of the car and a love of racing at the highest level of Motorsport.

I would like to thank Peter Windsor, I can only imagine the demands on his time, so for allowing this blogger the chance to get a little closer to the answer that I and many American race fans seek concerning F1, I again say “Thank you!” and your insight was both interesting and compelling.

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