Sauber signs Mexican driver; any impact on USGP?

The Sauber Formula 1 team has announced the signing of Mexican driver Esteban Gutierrez as its test driver for 2011.

The 19-year-old is coming off winning the 2010 GP3 championship. So he’s got some chops, as Peter Sauber is quick to say:

“Esteban is extremely mature for his age, and it has been a great pleasure to have him with us a great deal of the time this year as an affiliated driver. The team was rooting for him during his intelligent fighting performances in the GP3 Series. We are confident he will continue to develop strongly. With his modest manner and keen desire to learn, he has also made himself very popular among the team.”

What’s interesting — and credit to the sports staff at the Austin American-Statesman for grabbing a map and measuring the miles — is how Gutierrez could be the closest thing to a “hometown favorite” at the 2012 USGP. As the Statesman notes:

Gutierrez was born in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, in a state that shares a border with Texas. If the 19-year-old earns an F1 race seat in a year or two, expect hordes of fans from south of the border to come to Austin to cheer him on.

How close are we talking about? Monterrey is about 400 miles from Austin mostly via Interstate 35, about the same distance from here to Oklahoma City.

Without an American driver in F1 — and with none waiting in the wings — Gutierrez could be the closest thing Texas and the United States have to a hometown hero.

Kudos to them for finding a local angle to this relatively minor bit of F1 news.

Now, we all know there is a big, big “if” there: Gutierrez may never see the starting line of a Formula 1 race. But I think it raises, again, a real issue for the promoters of the Formula 1 race in Austin. Lacking an American driver, there is going to be an extra high set of hurdles in rousing fan interest.

Just off the top of my head, I’d say right now race organizers probably would be best off trying to leverage everything possible out of Ferrari. The U.S. is a big market for Maranello, and as much as it is the leading badge for F1’s worldwide audience, that goes double or triple in the U.S. Williams and McLaren might as well as be Australian rules football squads. Renault is still Le Car. And sure Mercedes is a brand here, but it is more of the “solidly well made luxury sedan” variety (in my opinion, any way).

A year ago, BMW and Toyota might have pushed a few fans buttons. But, well, we know where that ends.

There could be plenty of reason for Lotus to put some extra money and outreach into promoting the race, except the ties between the team and the car company are loose, at best.

So that really brings us back to Ferrari.

Back to our new Sauber tester. Even if Gutierrez was on the grid, I’m not sure that a Mexican-born driver would have broad appeal in the U.S. For the Spanish-speaking market, I think it could be big, and certainly there is a big Spanish-speaking audience in Texas. But it wouldn’t be the same as an American born driver behind the wheel.

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