Ingram: A US F1 Post Mortem
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:
This weekend was supposed to be the first time a major racing team from Charlotte was competing on an Easter Sunday. Instead of racing in the Malaysian Grand Prix, the US F1 team officially fired employees who had been considered temporarily laid off via an e-mail from founder Ken Anderson as the weekend began. Some holiday.
US F1 was supposed to be a team that would shine the light on the array of technical capacity available in the Mooresville and Charlotte area as well as showcase the depth of racing expertise in the U.S. This according to the team’s founder and a bona fide contingent of contributing participants in the Charlotte area. Instead, US F1 has been the source of deep embarrassment at best after failing to make the grid in F1.
So what went wrong?
In a nutshell, the team started out underfunded and then failed to generate sponsorship. When Anderson fell behind on the design front, there wasn’t enough cash to outsource the construction of needed components or complete payment to Cosworth for leased engines. Without a car, sources of funding such as paying drivers or the $10 million in travel fund money from sanctioning body FIA were not available. Without a car, a sponsor in Switzerland that had committed to $30 million over three years backed out.
Claims from both unpaid suppliers and employees remain unresolved – as does the question of the financial solvency of US F1. Not the least of problems is a possible prosecution from the FIA’s World Motor Sports Council regarding US F1’s failure to make the grid this season after becoming a signatory to the Concorde Agreement that governs the relationship between F1 and the FIA.
It’s uncertain what the role was of Chad Hurley, the YouTube guru and the chief investor in US F1. Nor is it clear how much authority was held by Peter Windsor, the sporting director and longtime friend of Anderson. None of the three key players are communicating with the media at present. But it has become clear that Anderson retained control of the team as the general partner.
In retrospect, it might have been better to have called the team KA F1 after its founder. But in perhaps the only smart marketing move he made, Anderson understood the association with America was an important reason for the FIA to include him among its four new teams invited to participate in F1 against the existing factory powerhouses. It now remains to be seen if the team’s failed bid has bankrupted any further interest in the U.S. by the powers that be in F1.
Ultimately, the reputation of the Charlotte and Mooresville area for high-end, high-value racing expertise will not be injured by one team’s inability to take advantage of it. There’s more of a lost opportunity when it comes to expanding the world’s appreciation of the depth of engineering and technical input that now goes into the cars and teams competing in NASCAR and in America’s sports car racing brands of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series.
The failure of US F1 to make the grid has also brought up the issue of how the FIA has engaged the effort to bring in new teams. But three of the four new outfits have made it through the first three races this year, although they were still considerably off the pace (i.e. at least three laps behind) in the Malaysian Grand Prix won by Red Bull Racing’s Sebastien Vettel.
Whatever your point of view, there was some poignancy in Malaysia on Sunday. The Virgin Racing VR-01 of Lucas di Grassi finished the event, giving the little British team its first finish of the year. Like US F1, the Virgin team had one major investor – Richard Branson – yet still had to cope with a very small budget. (Branson only pays for marketing rights.) Virgin, formerly known as Manor Motorsport, had its car designed entirely by computer and computational fluid dynamics – the same methodology as used by Anderson.
After a slow start in pre-season testing and major technical problems with its hydraulics, Virgin managed to start the season at Bahrain, pick up its travel fund money from the FIA and is now in position to land sponsorship in the future. Albeit well off the pace like the other two new teams at Lotus and HRT, the Virgin team has made a statement about the technical capacity of the British heartland.
By comparison Anderson had a similar opportunity to create an F1 team. Yes, he started virtually from scratch by comparison to a Manor team active in the lower formula ranks since 1990.
But the rules were the same in both situations. To go racing, first you must have a car. To have a car, first you much have a sound monocoque. Alas, there were some questions about the first one from Anderson’s design at US F1 and then not enough time or money to produce another one.
Once the panic hit that a car would not be built by the season opener in Bahrain, there was an effort to acquire cars from either Dallara or the always fluid option presented by Stefan GP and its ex-Toyota chassis. But if you didn’t have enough money to finish your own car, by what hocus pocus was a purchase or merger going to be accomplished?
There’s little doubt that Anderson had the capacity to design a car and that the employes assembled at US F1 in Charlotte from around the world and local suppliers had the expertise to build a car. Sadly, we never saw it.
Quote of the Week: Virgin Racing’s technical director and designer Nick Wirth made these comments after Lucas di Grassi scored the team’s first race finish at the Malaysian Grand Prix. Wirth intends to introduce a new moncoque and body panels at the fifth round of the F1 championship at Barcelona in May.
“This weekend has been, from start to finish, a clear step forward and comes as a result of diligent hard work from a great many people and I dedicate this result to them. We’ve come in for heavy criticism for our radical low-cost design approach and relative inexperience in F1, which makes our performance throughout the weekend all the more satisfying. Finishing our first Grand Prix as the leading new team will give us lots of information and we’ve got some clear direction on issues to address for Shanghai, which will allow us to perform better all round, without distracting us too much from the bigger Barcelona upgrade.”
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com