Op-Ed: USF1…a dream not worth saving

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More rumors swirl today regarding USF1 and it’s Titus Andronicus-like gore and tragedy. It seems that team owner Ken Anderson is appealing to the FIA’s grace and seeking some dispensation for missing a handful of races in order to get his shop in line and investors on board. It also appears that investor Chad Hurley has lost patience and is removing his cash from the operation. Some media outlets have Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson at odds with each other with Windsor leaving the team ( we’ll let you be the judge of that story).

Some have suggested that USF1’s only tangible asset at this point is a grid slot for the 2010 season and they may be keen to sell it to the Serbian businessman-turned-F1 team Zoran Stefanovic. Stefanovic has acquired the assets of Toyota F1 and is poised, by all appearances, to stand in the gap should USF1 fail to materialize. Stefan GP, or as we like to call them “Step-In GP”, is ready and willing but lack an official entry.

Convenient to suggest that Hurley may do a deal with Step-In GP for the FIA entry but to be honest, why would that asset be valuable when Stefanovic can simply wait and see what happens? THe FIA and commercial rights boss Bernie Ecclestone may not like the idea of granting teams entry just days before a race but they will do what they need to in order to protect their series. If they can convince Stefanovic to buy this entry from Hurley in order for him to recoup some of his lost investment dollars, so be it but I wouldn’t place a high value on that if I were Stefanovic.

Let us be honest with ourselves here. There is no reason to prolong this charade at this point. The Italian press is already calling USF1 a “bluff” and the world already views this an epic fail. Many US F1 fans were excited with the words that Peter Windsor used to describe the new team 10 months ago and were romanticizing about the Dan Gurney era or Phil Hill. Draping those memories with the American flag and resigning ourselves to the notion that a Charlotte North Carolina-based operation could work. In short, we suspended our disbelief in favor of a faith in Windsor and words.

I recommend the FIA and Formula One Management do nothing to try to prop up this team or prolong its existence.

It is a lost cause at this point and the sheer embarrassment is just off-the-hook ridiculous. F1B wanted the team to succeed but saw early on that there was something wonky about how it was being ran, the lack of PR efforts and outreach, the multiple emails and calls left unreturned etc. Something was amiss. Like many of you, we kept hoping for the best and tried to remain patient.

In the end, what is gained by allowing an extension? What outcome would be positive by propping up the team to get a chassis on the grid that is put together on the rush and assembled with no tests or resources to even put petrol in the car? This is a stillborn operation and it needs time to ferret out what it can and cannot do. In business, and management should have known this, it is often more important to define what you won’t do rather than what you will. What the team obviously cannot do at this point is race!

Let’s be honest folks, this is the pinnacle of motor sports not a weekend karting series. To be cobbling together parts and pieces to get a car on the grid could be damned dangerous. If former FIA president Max Mosley felt that this is what F1 needed from the privateer base, I fear he was very wrong. I’m not that comfortable with Campos Meta as it only has three weeks to get a car on the grid. The saving grace is that they are using a near fully-developed Dallara chassis and that has me feeling a little better about the prospect.

No one is more sensitive to the national pride of the USF1 project than I am but even that was tenuous at best as the team was not fielding American drivers under the auspices of a complicated Super License application process and that no American drivers had the qualifications to apply for one. Which prompted the question, does Jose Maria Lopez have one? The pride of a nation attached to an all-American team seemed noble by anyone’s measure but not realistic in a depressed economy and mounting expenses that I am assuming the owners did not anticipate.

Did Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor set out to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? Of course not. Were they intent on misleading Americans and the F1 community at large? Not a chance. Were they under funded, overreaching and ill-prepared in a depressed economy with limited time? I think, yes. For this reason the FIA should allow a more mature and financially viable team like Step-In GP in the series to protect the racing and name of F1. Their obligation is to the world of F1 fans and not just to US fans who’d like to see a team flying the stars and stripes. The FIA must complete the due diligence of Step-In GP and be honest and accountable to the other teams in the series as to provide a healthy competitor who is safe and seasoned at some level so as to not pose a risk on the track.

USF1 should regroup and lick their wounds. I suspect given a years time they may well have a better understanding of what they are facing financially and make another go at it. If I am honest, the only real challenge, in F1 terms, that could come from the US would be an existing, well-ran team like Penske or Ganassi. These teams have the operations and capacity to field a car and get to the grid in competitive style. If the cost-cutting in F1 continues, these teams may be well seated to represent a real American presence in F1 and have a damn good possibility of being competitive instead of the obvious also-ran status of USF1 should they be lucky enough to get to the grid in three weeks time.

Even if we could save USF1 now, who thinks they would be safe, competitive and financially viable enough to make all the races and carry the expense of the year without a nominal ROI? F1 privateer teams all have the dubious task of attempting to build and run a business with other peoples money and anyone who has been down that road, like me, can tell you that it is a difficult proposition. USF1 only warrants our dogged determination in saving if we feel it is a viable competitor and by that I mean within the realm of competitive…not race winning. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

As Americans, are we so starved for a US team that we would prolong this debacle just to get a car on the grid and watch it run around for a few laps 4-6 seconds off the pace? OR should we re-double our efforts behind something more akin to a real American operation? I vote the latter because we shouldn’t let our passion for F1 and American involvement cloud our better judgment.

With all deference to Windsor and Anderson, what I do believe this episode has taught us is that while many suggest this proves the US is not a place for F1…I argue the opposite. We have shown a passion and willingness to get behind a US operation even to the point of suspending our disbelief in the face of obvious and glowing errors and misnomers.

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