The Real Story Of 2014: Miss America + Mr F1

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2014 will be a season like no other in F1 and I am not just talking about the raft of changes that have completely turned the sport upside down in regards to our former champions Red Bull and our former back marker Williams Martini Racing, both of whom appear to be headed to the opposite end of the grid from where they ended last season.

I’m also not (yet) talking about the fact that we have a season with new parity between many of the teams, as they all search for the perfect balance amongst fuel economy and engine power, the driver’s ability to adapt, and reliability. No less than four teams will have a real chance at the Constructor and Driver championships. But that’s not what this post is about.

I’m not even talking about “Fire and Ice” as it is now being called, the pairing of FA and KR, although this in its own right deserves plenty of copy and more than likely yours truly will be posting about this teammate rivalry throughout the year. Yes I’m a glutton for punishment via the comments section. ;-)

Yet there is still something else exciting happening in 2014 and it warrants our attention. It would appear that a team with America as its country of origin has shown not just casual interest in joining F1, but has already taken a high level meeting with the FIA.

The effort is being lead by Gene Haas who most NASCAR fans will already be familiar with. Haas and his team are not the only ones vying for the 12th spot of the grid vacated by HRT a couple of years ago. Collen Kolles, who some of you will remember from the team that was Jordan which became Midland, then Spyker, and finally Force India (he left in 2009) has made a formal bid as well.

Back to Haas. As reported by AUTOSPORT, the NASCAR team owner has put himself forward as a prospective new F1 Entrant after the FIA elected to open up the field to newcomers from the start of next year.

Speaking at the weekend (this article appeared on AUTOSPORT’s online site dated March 3rd, 2014), Haas said that talks with the FIA had progressed well and although a final decision on the team selection has been delayed, he does not think it will take much longer for the situation to be sorted.

“They [the FIA] said they were going to have a decision by [last] Friday,” said Haas. “They notified us on Friday that, no, they were just one part of that decision-making process, that the decision making process would come later”.

So Mr. Haas sounds quite confident that the outcome will be favorable. Taking his cue, for the moment let us assume Haas is the front-runner and the bid goes to him.

As a Formula 1 fan that happens to reside in Los Angeles, California and happens to be an American, I am nothing less than elated at this news. I generally don’t get too wrapped up in my hometown sports teams. I’m not an LA Lakers fan, not that interested in the LA Dodgers, but if they win, great. I thought it was cool when the LA Kings won the championship last year, but hadn’t followed them till they reached the play-offs. Yet upon hearing the possibility that there could be an American F1 team, my heart beat a little faster and truthfully I can’t wait to shamelessly support the team with the stars and stripes somehow worked into the livery.

Let’s look at what this could mean for America. In terms of interest in the sport this would be a complete game changer. Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing James Allen. It was for a series of posts I started last year under the heading “F1 and America.”

Although the conversation was an overall examination of the relationship between F1 and the motorsports fan base here in the States, one key goal of my interview was to get Mr. Allen’s thoughts on what it would take to spark a real interest in F1 for American audiences. Here’s what he said:

AF1: F1 has already had a tenure at Indianapolis Speedway and Long Beach, then a long absence from the U.S., and now the sport seems very excited to return to America with a 10 year contract in Austin and now a GP in Mexico (subject to the FIA’s approval) and possibly Long Beach (rumors only). Do you think F1 will be more successful here than it was before, and why?

James Allen: Yes and no. It is more difficult for F1 to cross over into the mainstream now in the U.S. than it ever was, as the TV sports market is saturated and well developed and F1 hasn’t been part of that unlike the NBA, NASCAR etc. However, the advent of the Internet and social media tools means that existing fans in the U.S. can have access to the same real time information, news and data about the sport as the most plugged in fan in the U.K. or Europe and can feed their passion for the sport and share it with friends, possibly bringing new fans to the sport. Also NBC is a stronger rallying point than Speed Channel, so there is scope for strong niche growth, but at this stage niche growth is all it is likely to be, unless you get a U.S. racer who wins races and championships.

AF1: In your opinion what can F1 do to help its image in the U.S.?
JA: Talk up the hybrid technology, the glamour, the style etc. But the only thing that will make a real difference is an American driver of Vettel, Alonso or Hamilton’s caliber.

Now let’s extrapolate just a bit and replace the word “driver” with the word “team”, and it is safe to say we arrive at the same place. Of course the logical end would be to place an American F1 driver in an American F1 team and, as they say in Vegas, double down! This surely would cause pandemonium here in the States but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Staying with just an American F1 team for the moment, what this means is America would now have a vested interest in this pinnacle of motor sport. Americans like to go all out, so it won’t be good enough for us just to be aware of the fact that we have a team in F1 with all those other teams from Europe that travel to all those exotic places to go racing. No, we will need to know who the competition is and how likely it is that we can beat them. We will take a crash course on the rules and regulations. We will start using words like chassis and livery and when we talk hybrid we will have more to discuss than the silly looking Prius. In a nutshell we Americans will find the need to become experts at F1. Well maybe not experts, but you get the idea.

America does have a fine history in F1 by the way, and we will need to trot that out as well. Dan Gurney, a great team owner and driver, comes to mind, as does Roger Penske, now quite famous for his Indy car and sports car efforts. If Roger Penske does an interview about F1, all American racing fans will listen. America has had a few drivers in F1 as well; Mario Andretti (a world champion) is a household name in the States. There’s also Phil Hill (another world champion), Mark Donohue, Danny Sullivan, Eddie Cheever and most recently Scott Speed. And don’t forget American Alexander Rossi is currently a reserve driver for Caterham and is a real possibility to be promoted to full-time driver if the circumstances are right in the next few years.

I still can’t quite figure out how America and F1 fell out. Europe lost interest in us and us in them I guess and ever since there has been almost zero involvement. But if we get some skin in the game things will be different. It might take a bit of a ramp-up, but consider that for two years in a row the US Grand Prix has been a sell-out in Austin, Texas, the heartland of America I might add. The land of Chevy, Ford, and a car with a Hemi under the hood. Texans and many others came out to see drivers and cars with which they are not too familiar. I think we’re seeing that Americans are going to be interested in this sport in the current era.

What about the other half of this love affair, what does American involvement mean to Formula 1? You know I like the numbers, well American viewers have been increasing for F1 lately, from a low of 1.7 million we are now up to 11.4 million Americans viewing F1. How high could we go if these and many more Americans had their own team to support and a newfound appreciation with Formula1? Hopefully we will find out.

James Allen touched upon the size of the American market in my interview with him as well:

AF1: 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?

JA: Yes, it is the world’s number one market place still and that means that the sponsors, manufacturers etc. want to activate in that market. It’s so niche, but being able to invite guests to races, show them what your are doing in F1 and use that as an opener to try to do some business with them is fundamental to F1 sponsorship. Mercedes want to sell more cars in the U.S.; it’s Ferrari’s top market etc.

I have heard countless team principals echo the same sentiment, that F1 needs America, but honestly it seems to me F1 has done just fine without us. The sport has grown continuously and is now valued at a record 7 billion dollars according to the Financial Times. During this tremendous growth how much did America figure into the equation? Not all that much. A short stint at the Indy 500 while Tony George was in charge is the only overlap for F1 and America, which included the debacle in 2005 that saw only six cars race that Sunday, not America’s finest hour for sure.

However, who am I to argue with billionaires? Perhaps this is the only relatively untapped F1 market left that has the potential to move Bernie Eccelstone from his lowly 354th position on the Forbes list of billionaires up into the top 250 at least. A guy’s gotta have goals. There is no question Mr. Eccelstone and the majority stakeholders who have created such a money hungry monster would like nothing more than to conquer this land of milk and honey, I mean, these United States. Ha ha.

Currently we have a GP in Austin, but a race is possible in New Jersey and now there are rumors F1 could return to the streets of Long Beach. Just think of the opportunity ($$$$$) that would present itself to F1 as a whole if there were not only three Grand Prix on the calendar, but an American F1 team was competing in these as well?

Just a few words on the FIA. An American team would do F1’s governing body no harm as well. To finally have a team from one of the largest countries in the world involved in what is always looked upon by fans worldwide as the ultimate discipline in motor sports, would this not be a nice feather in the cap of Jean Todt, and for that matter the Federation?

Finally, lets get to the sobering part, the part right after the elation. The part of me that says, are we really ready to field a pair of cars, the most complex and sophisticated racing cars built today, in a series that travels all over the world for the better part of a year? All from scratch? Would it not be easier to buy into an existing team, similar to what so many that have come before have done? I could be wrong, I’d like to hear what you think.

Look at what happened to Red Bull racing in the last month. This is a world class racing operation which has eight championships, has been in the sport for a decade, unlimited resources, possibly the planet’s best designer, aero or otherwise, and they just showed the world that sometimes this is not enough.

Need I remind everyone what happened the last time there was an American effort to line up in Melbourne back in 2010? There is no need to dissect what happened, whose fault it was or why the team USF1 did not materialize, at the end of the day I and many other Americans were broken-hearted. Suffice to say, just racing in F1 is a massive undertaking with an existing team. To build an F1 team from the ground up and start racing with it, you’re either crazy, foolish, or very very brave; let’s hope it’s that last one. America’s history has no shortage of heroes, that’s for sure.

I could probably spend an entire post on Mr. Haas but a quick overview reveals a successful if somewhat short partnership with Tony Stewart as co-owners of a NASCAR team that bears their names. This pairing produced a come-from-behind championship in 2011 as Stewart claimed his third title with a remarkable five wins out of the last ten races, one of those being the season-ending win at Homestead-Miami beating Carl Edwards, the runner-up, in the process. So it would appear Mr. Haas knows how to win, is used to the pressure and by the way NASCAR’s calendar is no joke, so it is not as though he’s a stranger to the grind of running a race organization. I still have my reservations.

But let’s just say it does happen, let’s say we (and by that I mean the good ol’ US of A) build an F1 car, get to the first race of the year and qualify within the 107% rule. Will this American team be a back marker, a mid-fielder or a top team? What are your thoughts? As for my thoughts, we can forget the top team category, and I don’t think finishing in the top ten is a realistic goal either. Sadly, and as much as I don’t want it to be the case, the odds are team America will be a back marker.

You only need to look at Caterham, Marussia, the now defunct HRT, until recently Toro Rosso, throw in Red Bull and Lotus for the start of the season at least, to realize just how hard it is to actually go motor racing in F1. My only hope is for the major players involved to comprehensively take into account what is required to put together an effort not just to get to that first race in Melbourne, but to compete at the highest level of motorsport AND be a genuine contender for podiums and race wins. That in the end has to be the goal of any American effort in F1. Because here is the other thing about Americans: they do not like to lose.

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