USF1 – An American Perspective

For almost two years, I have been writing the Slipstream as a different perspective on the world of Formula One.  As an American F1 fan, I am surrounded by the sounds of other domestic racing series, and while I am a fan of those series, Formula One is my passion.  I would like to take the time to thank PitLaneF1 Magazine in featuring the Slipstream in their publication and I look forward to working with the entire staff and sharing my views with you, the reader.

Formula One and the United States have had a long and rich history together. Phil Hill and Mario Andretti are the only two world champions from the States, both winning their titles in tragic circumstances.  From the days where the Indy 500 counted towards the overall World Driver’s Championship, to the famous tracks of Watkins Glen and Long Beach, F1 has always had a place in the United States, until recently.  With the fallout of the 2005 US Grand Prix still lingering, the series left the United States after the 2007 race the future relationship between American fans and Formula One was cast in serious doubt.

In the fall of 2008, the world was rocked by the worst financial crisis in a generation.  This crisis impacted Formula One in declining ticket sales but it seemed that the shockwaves would only hit outlying factors of the sport. With Honda departing in December of 2008, and rumors of Toyota, Renault, and BMW walking away if they did not join the rumored break away series, you could not blame anybody for having a bleak out look for the future of Formula One.  The Honda F1 “dream” was over, and the series was entering the new design era with speculation that the entire F1 house of cards would fall in on itself by 2012.

Rumors of an American centered Formula One team started to propagate. Buzz and excitement flew across the motor sports world.  Questions of legitimacy were being asked in every F1 publication, doubts sank into even the most optimistic US Formula 1 fan. Was this team legitimate?  Who will race for them?  Who will sponsor them in this economy?  All questions posed across the F1 global community.

A sign of encouragement was first seen in late February of 2009 as Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor announced that the rumors were true, and USF1 or United States Grand Prix Engineering was born.  Not only did the team exist, they were already talking about who might drive for the organization when the green lights signaled the start of the 2010 season in Bahrain.

Popularity and excitement around the team grew at a rapid pace.  This was helped by the presence of Mr.Windsor during Formula One race broadcasts and the frequent hype generated by the team’s de facto soapbox, Speed TV.  Known as mainly a NASCAR channel, the network took it upon themselves to help generate excitement about the team.  It did also help that the team’s main base of operations was based in Charlotte, North Carolina, home to all of the major Spint Cup teams.  USF1 was starting to come together, but doubts over its late start and the lack of drivers would continue to linger around the team.

As spring rolled into summer and some of the other newly announced F1 teams such as Manor, Lotus, and Campos began to at least mention driver preferences, little was heard from the Charlotte backed organization. When the other teams were signing title sponsors, Mr. Windsor and the team would only give subtle overtures and avoidances to anything considered a tough question requiring a straight answer.

When pressed on the subject on air, Mr.Windsor would only respond with “we are fielding many possible line ups” and offering only vague hints at even potential considerations to fill both seats.  It was the hope of many US fans that there would be at least one US born driver announced.  In a way, the over exposure on the Speed network allowed NASCAR to put it’s mark on the team in a way that I doubt Mr. Windsor had wanted to.  During the summer when the buzz about the team was the most intense, NASCAR commentators would suddenly insert drivers like Kyle Busch, Scott Speed, and Juan Montoya. It almost seemed that NASCAR wanted a piece of the team that would soon be operating in its corporate nexus of Charlotte.  The rumors about drivers ranged from the absurd to the absolute bizarre, the strangest being Indy Car driver Danica Patrick’s remarks that “she wasn’t interested” in considering pursing a seat for the team.

The reality about the team started to manifest itself when it was announced this past summer that YouTube founder Chad Hurley had thrown financial support behind the team.  Rumors of Best Buy signing on with the team were also starting to gain steam as well.  Best Buy had been trying to break into the European market for years and being on the side pod or vortex generator of a F1 car would have certainly helped their brand exposure in the European, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets.

Things became slightly more troubling when the first driver was announced and it was nobody anybody really expected.  When Jose’ Maria Lopez of Argentina was announced as the team’s first driver a collective “Who?” rang out across the motor sport world.  After months of speculation and hype, this was all that USF1 could announce?  While the other teams were preparing for their debut in Jerez, Spain, USF1 was still trying to secure not only general sponsorship, but also additional funds to keep Lopez’s services.  It was looking as the fate of the team was becoming more of a forgone conclusion that they would never make the grid in Bahrain, maybe hope remained for the middle of the season, or even a delayed launch until 2011.

The team’s demise was confirmed by the FIA when their entry list for the 2010 season was released two weeks ago.  USF1, long suspected of not being able to make the grid would not race in 2010, and the American team from Charlotte who “hoped” to sign US talent “eventually” closed it’s doors with both team principals having yet to comment.

The team’s failures are many and there still may yet be hope for a US team to make the grid in todays “new team friendly” F1 but the faults of USF1 started at the very top.  When pressed for answers, Mr.Windsor who was acting in the capacity of team spokesperson would provide very vague answers to some very basic questions such as engine provider, title sponsor, and driver candidates.  Even if Mr. Windsor didn’t have the answers to those questions, he could have gone a long way to establish creditability for the team if he just admitted that the team was still looking for all of those things.  Instead he just skirted away from the chance to establish fact in a team surrounded by fiction.

If he was also able to sign somebody like Ryan Hunter Reay or Marco Andretti to even a test contract it could have been a great help in finding sponsorship. Marco had been given a test by the Honda team a few years ago, and while it was a basic demonstration for the young American, it seemed to be a prelude to possibly a test seat by 2010. Both of those men could have been a great help to the team by convincing fans of not only the legitimacy of the “US” in USF1, but also help bring sponsors to the table.

The demise of the USF1 effort was upsetting, if not frustrating to see.  While there were many fans who hoped it would succeed, the team did not want to show it’s support back to the fans that desperately wanted it to succeed.   Had the team staged a demonstration run at Watkins Glen, or in New York City, I am sure that there could have been serious excitement generated by a team started on good intentions but faced with the hard realities of today.

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