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US F1: What Went Wrong In America’s Comeback?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 9 2010

The machine shop at US F1 had machines, but produced no Formula One cars. (Photo special to RacinToday)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

In the closing days of the US F1 team’s demise, Ken Anderson made a last-ditch proposal to the FIA requesting his team be allowed to begin its season at Barcelona, site of this weekend’s fifth round of the Formula One championship.

But the FIA decided the wheels had come off US F1’s effort to build a car and declared the grid position open for potential new entrants in 2011. Instead of racing in Spain, US F1 has fired all its employes and begun accounting for $3.5 million in debt. Last month, two transporters acquired from Brawn GP were seized for non-payment and put up for auction on eBay.

What went wrong in the US F1 shops in Huntersville, N.C.?

In the weeks since the team shut its doors, employes have come forward to talk about the failure to produce a car for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix – or make enough progress to convince the FIA to keep US F1’s grid spot open. It all came down, said team members, because founder Anderson couldn’t work with the team he created.

“Ken Anderson followed through on 50 percent of the promise of US F1,” said Parris Mullins, who negotiated bids to purchase chassis or create mergers in the 11th hour of the team’s crisis in an attempt to put it on the grid at Bahrain. “Ken assembled a small, excellent team. But he didn’t allow them to execute.”

It was a theme expressed repeatedly by members of the US F1 team in interviews. Anderson’s “need for absolute design control and his lack of understanding was the singular reason for US F1’s demise,” said Frank Dushan Hanisko, one of the team’s experienced F1 veterans.

Former Ferrari salesman Mullins, a very well-connected 27-year-old from Silicon Valley, had initially introduced his friend Chad Hurley to Anderson, which resulted in a $15 million investment in US F1 by Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube. When Mullins moved to Charlotte to assist in business development, he found a reasonably stellar cast that eventually included Steve Brown, the former R&D officer for Brawn GP, Hanisko, formerly the integration engineer for Renault F1 Team and Kevin Bialas, a veteran racer hired from Gulfstream Aerospace who directed the composite shop.

But by mid-January and 60 days before the first Grand Prix in Bahrain, Bialas had only 15 of the design patterns he needed to build what he estimated to be 350 to 500 parts necessary to construct an F1 car.

“We had some very, very talented engineers, but they had their hands tied and were not able to do the job they were hired to do,” said Bialas, who informed Hurley of the situation in a private meeting.  By then, the building of the car had already spun out of control and Mullins was already working in Europe to try to secure chassis from Dallara intended for the financially strapped team launched by Adrian Campos. Mullins was also trying to acquire the TF110 chassis built by Toyota before its withdrawal from F1, which were in the hands of Serbian Zoran Stefanovic.

In the third week of January at a meeting of department heads in Huntersville with Anderson, the team’s chances of making the grid at Bahrain on March 14 received a unanimous vote of no confidence, a situation that severely shook sporting director Peter Windsor, who had asked for the vote.

Anderson cited the “enormous task” of building a car following the late signing of the Concorde Agreement after starting the team from scratch and said the acrimonious debate last summer between FOTA and the FIA spoiled the sponsorship market. As for the vote of no confidence, he said the staff never fully committed to his vision for a start-up team operating on a low budget. “I was very disappointed in the lack of commitment from many of the people we hired,” he said.

Upon applying to join the Concorde in December of 2008, Anderson brought in longtime friend and journalist Windsor, a veteran of F1 public relations, as the sporting director. Hurley was recuited as the primary investor in January of 2009 and in March Brian Bonner came on board to pursue sponsorship after being recruited from a firm in Charlotte. Following the delays in the official confirmation of the Concorde, the move into facilities in Huntersville took place July 31st. The team quickly installed offices and hired staff, including Brown, who was released early from his job at Brawn GP. The minimum of technical equipment to build a car was in place just 24 weeks before the deadline for shipping a car on Feb. 15 for crash testing in time to make the grid in Bahrain.

Anderson’s strategy counted on what was missing in-house could be secured in “NASCAR Valley,” where the infrastructure built up for Sprint Cup teams around Charlotte included a full-scale moving ground plane wind tunnel at Windshear and a state-of-the-art computing system at Corvid Technologies that had helped GM teams win five straight Sprint Cup championships and its factory Corvette team win at Le Mans six times. Corvid gave Anderson all the computing power he needed for a design by Computational Fluid Dynamics and he hired Corvid’s founder, Dr. Eric Warren, as his chief aerodynamicist.

But the entire set-up ran into a major logjam. Anderson appointed his son Jason as the design director, in effect making Ken Anderson the team principal and its chief designer. Jason Anderson, who came from the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team and had no F1 experience, kept the chassis design in his computer system throughout the early design stages and did not share it with the other engineers. “For the engineers doing all the other operative parts and pieces,” said Bialas, “when you don’t have the piece it fits to, that makes it very difficult.” The chassis design, still not complete when it came to internal details beyond the shape, was not available to the other engineers until late December.

The result were numerous re-jigs, which cost time and money. “When we got other designers in from F1 teams, Jason didn’t want to put the chassis out there,” said Bialas. “That would have been the thing to do, put it out there and talk about it, try to make it better.”

Instead, it was the work of the experienced designers that was constantly being revised, which kept the project in limbo according to a team member who asked not to be identified. “The design engineers would finish their work and go home at night,” he said. “They would come back in the next day and Ken and Jason had re-done everything.”

Bialas, who had worked for the teams of Dan Gurney and Bobby Rahal, constantly had to make revisions to the front end of the chassis due to Ken Anderson’s revisions of his own front suspension design. The suspension employed coil-over shocks versus the torsion bars currently used in all F1 cars, but the springs didn’t fit well in the era of needle-nose designs. “Ken Anderson was designing an Indy car,” said Bialas, “not an F1 car.”

Anderson said he wanted to get the weight out of the front bulkhead area up high by putting the springs at the bottom of a coil-over set up lower in the nose. “The car would have had very good mechanical grip,” he said. Although he changed the wheelbase midway in the process, Anderson said he took into account the shortage of time and funds and concentrated on putting a car on the ground. “What I wanted to do was have a simple, strong and safe car and be at Bahrain,” he said. Ultimately, the only chassis design to be completely assembled was a mock-up version used for fitting the engine and gearbox, a transverse model designed in-house.

Anderson blamed the poor result on the fact he’d hired people from highly budgeted F1 teams with several hundred employes. “We didn’t want to try to out-Ferrari Ferrari,” he said. His last option was farming out the engine cover, wings and undertray to suppliers. But that ran aground because of lack of money.

When Bonner first came on board to locate sponsorship, Anderson was insistent that money be brought in quickly. “He told us to go after the low-hanging fruit first,” said Bonner. The idea of easily secured sponsorship for F1 from American companies by a new team without a track record was naive, said Bonner. “He thought people would leap all over themselves to be involved,” he said. “We had no performance history. We hadn’t done anything. We had nothing on paper. People expressed a lot of interest, but they said, ‘Go do something.'”

After an initial engine lease payment to Cosworth and starting up operations in the former shops of Joe Gibbs Racing, the remaining budget totaled an estimated $8 million. It was not enough. By January, the team needed to purchase the electronics equipment from McLaren used by all teams and make payments to the FIA, among other expenses. By Jan. 15, the team missed the payroll for five days.

The focus had already turned to paying drivers. But Anderson said the team was sundered when a signed sponsor pulled out. That sponsor was Marisco Liqueur, which was backing British driver James Rossiter. He had been recruited by Windsor, who declined comment on the team’s struggles to get its car built.

Marisco’s vetting of the team’s circumstances revealed mounting debt plus no immediate prospects of a car and the company declined to make its initial payment of $2.8 million in early January. Argentinian Jose Maria Lopez’s backers paid $800,000 to US F1 as an initial payment to secure his ride after signing in late January. That was the first installment of an $8 million agreement according to Lopez’s manager Felipe Gough.

Anderson believed he had an option of missing the first three races while retaining US F1’s position on the grid. But at a meeting of department heads in the third week of February, the vote was unanimous that the team would not be able to make the fourth round of the season in China. Anderson then requested to the FIA that the team be able to join in May at Barcelona.

Efforts by Mullins on behalf of Hurley to secure the Dallaras from the Italian manufacturer or the Toyotas directly from the Japanese company ran into road blocks because of existing contracts. Mullins tried to secure a partnership with the team of Stefan GP to gain access to the  ex-Toyota TF110’s. That failed, said Mullins, primarily due to team owner Stefanovic’s intransigence.

“We offered a merger based on full retention of our staff in North Carolina and branding on the car,” said Mullins. The offer collapsed because the Serbian seemed impervious to the fact Ferrari was F1’s best recognized team. “He wanted to have two red cars,” said Mullins, who had also visited Ferrari headquarters in Maranello during his travels. “That would almost be sacreligious.”

Currently trying to recruit U.S. companies as potential sponsors in F1, Mullins said efforts to secure an alternative path got a lot of help from Formula One Management’s Bernie Ecclestone. “He was more than happy to flex his muscle and get things done,” said Mullins of their January meeting in London, which included several phone calls by Ecclestone to key players to help US F1 broker a deal.

With no deals or US F1 car in sight, the FIA elected to open the 13th position on the grid to new teams in 2011. Anderson is reported to be among the applicants for the spot, but declined to comment specifically about future plans on the record. He said US F1 was still intact despite having fired its employes. “The entity,” he said, “is moving forward.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 9 2010
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