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Ingram: Oh Canada – And U.S., Too

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 7 2010

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

After the demise of US F1 earlier this year, it seemed safe to conclude America would not be participating in the world championship this year and that it would be a long while before an American presence would re-surface. Since then, it’s become evident that things move quickly in the political realm of F1. The U.S. is back on the agenda big time.

The only trip to North America on the current F1 schedule comes up this weekend in Montreal at the Canadian Grand Prix. It will be interesting to see if more news emerges along the lines of future prospects for Americans in F1 from just across the St. Lawrence River.

Already, the announcement of a new purpose-built track in Austin, Tex. and a ten-year agreement to host a new U.S. Grand Prix beginning in 2012 underscore the desire within F1 to involve America. Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo’s confessions that he’d been dreaming of a third Ferrari sponsored by an American company have been followed more recently with comments from multiple MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi (before his crash on Saturday) saying he would be happy to be a third Ferrari driver.

All the recent activity has left behind the curve those who think F1 commercial czar Bernie Ecclestone is anti-American. Personally, it seems to me that Ecclestone is like any race promoter and believes everybody’s money is green.

When Parris Mullins first met with him in London early this year as an envoy on a mission to save US F1, he found Ecclestone engaging and supportive. Up to a point. “Bernie told me that he would do everything he could to help, just don’t ask for money,” recalled Mullins of his international forays to save US F1.

In Mullins’ presence, Ecclestone made a series of phone calls to get the low-down from F1 insiders on just what the prospects were for a deal to get US F1 on the grid at Bahrain after the American team’s own Type 1 remained stillborn. Mullins’ negotiations to buy Dallara and Toyota chassis direct from the source or work out partnerships with the teams of Jose Ramon Carabante or Zoran Stefanovic may not have worked out. But he did form a good working relationship with Ecclestone and Montezemolo.

A firm believer in individuals making their own way, Ecclestone’s efforts to assist Mullins and primary US F1 investor Chad Hurley tends to surprise those interested in F1 in America. Ecclestone, who’s every word to the media makes news, fed this perception by dissing the effort of US F1 early on. But, says Mullins, that resulted more from a lack of respect toward F1 shown by team founder and principal Ken Anderson, who not only missed his car-building deadline but also missed meetings of team principals in Europe.

There’s been a lot of discussion about green racing in F1 and elsewhere, but it seems to me that the very expensive world championship is at a crossroads when it comes to green according to money. The explosive growth of the F1 brand since the 1970’s hinged on tobacco money, manufacturers who invested millions in engine programs and then invested hundreds of millions in ownership of entire teams.

Now that the tobacco money is gone and the factories are disappearing, F1 needs to come up with sponsorship that doesn’t assume leverage like the sport had with tobacco companies banned from direct TV advertising or with manufacturers leveraged by the need to expand into new world markets or perish. The sport has recently formed a commercial working group much along the lines of its longstanding technical working group to focus on how to go forward.

That’s why Mullins continues to be active in F1. The prospects range across a wide spectrum, from the purchase of interest in an existing team with investment from Silicon Valley to introducing a major sponsorship from Silicon Valley. Or, perhaps, both.

The timing is right, says Mullins, for some fresh air when it comes to how F1 attracts and services sponsors. As a representative of Hurley, the CEO of YouTube and a wholly owned subsidiary of Google, former Ferrari salesman Mullins has a timely view of F1’s future and believes he’s got some better ideas. “The sport needs a more imaginative approach at attracting sponsors and to explore different forms of media,” he said. “Obviously, social media is one of them.”

It now seems obvious that F1 can no longer afford to blow off one of the world’s biggest commercial markets in an era when revenue sourcing and cost control for teams are high on the agenda. It remains to be seen if the city of Austin and promoter Tavo Hellmund can step up to some very high commercial standards or if the U.S. race goes the way of Donington Park’s failed effort. The first Grand Prix in Korea scheduled for later this year may be the next to run into a cancelled debut as well.

But recent events are hardly a set-up. F1 needs all the help it can get and some of it is very likely to come from America.

Quote of the Week: “I dream of a third Ferrari managed by an American team with the stars and stripes flying.” – Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo.

See ya! …At the races.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 7 2010
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