Flat Spot On: One Driver’s Career Dilemma
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Can we talk? And yes, it’s about Danica Patrick – but not necessarily at Daytona.
On a weekend when a woman participated in an official Formula 1 session for the first time in 22 years at the British Grand Prix, the question continues to be begged. Will Patrick be going to F1 in 2016 along with Gene Haas, the man who is trying to be the next American team owner to crack the ranks of road racing’s ultimate spectacle?
For Patrick, it’s yet another landmark opportunity to break the gender barrier in the modern era. If she can beat the other two candidates currently vying to break into F1, she’ll become the first woman to start a race in F1’s world championship since Lella Lombardi in 1976.
Before Friday’s first practice at Silverstone, where Susie Wolff drove four unimpressive laps for Williams until an engine failure sidelined her, the last woman to participate in an official session was Giovanna Amati in 1992. But the Italian failed to make a grid in three tries and was cut loose from what clearly was a misguided attempt to raise sponsorship money by the Brabham team.
Would Haas be making a similar ill-fated attempt if he goes down the road of trying to bring Patrick into F1? It’s a bit more than a rhetorical question. With sponsorship in mind, when the Marussia F1 team decided to test the relatively experienced Maria de Villota as a potential driver in 2012, the result was an unintended acceleration type accident at an airfield track that resulted in a head injury and the driver’s death the following year.
Brave and very experienced in open wheel cars, Patrick has outstanding car control, loves racing at high speed
and is smart about racecraft. As a teenager, she was the runner-up in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, considered one of the stepping stones to F1. So the idea of her behind the wheel of an F1 car in 2016 at the age of 34 is not exactly daft.
It seems very likely Haas would stand to gain from putting Patrick into his F1 car. With budgets starting at $200 million to be competitive, even a guy like Haas, who has a magna cum laude in cash flow, could use a little extra dough from sponsorship. As the endorsement on her hood at Daytona this weekend from the Florida Lottery indicates in addition to the usual Go Daddy scheme, the name Danica Patrick attracts commercial backing. And Haas, who already has a contractual relationship with Patrick through Stewart-Haas Racing, has confirmed he’s interested in having her drive an F1 car for him.
But could she be successful? Can she even beat Scotland’s Wolff or Swiss racer Simona De Silvestro, who is testing with the Sauber team, to the F1 grid? That is a far more muddled picture. As for Patrick herself, she has adopted a tactical approach with the media. “I’m still working on my NASCAR career,” she says.
There are hard-boiled cynics – some are known as press box mavens – who believe a move by Patrick into F1 would be a matter of following the endorsement and money trail to the next level after moving from IndyCar to NASCAR. Yet, there’s reason to believe Patrick moved to NASCAR because it was a more likely location for her to win a major league race.
As the IndyCar schedule gradually moved from ovals toward one dominated by street and road races, the chances for Patrick to win a second race after her triumph at Twin Ring Motegi’s oval dwindled. Her qualifying and race performances on the street and road circuits were often lackluster. Though a switch to NASCAR meant leaving the Indy 500 behind – where Patrick has consistently been a contender – it also meant a schedule dominated by ovals, which has been her strong suit.
It follows that F1, the fiercest road racing league in the world, could pose some problems.
I once asked Patrick after she made it to the final group in knockout qualifying at Long Beach why she didn’t
excel in IndyCars on road circuits in qualifying as often as she had on the twisty stuff in Formula Ford or youth karting? Her answer was interesting and typically forthright. She confessed she had trouble getting up to speed quickly – throwing down a fast time right out of the pits, the key to knockout qualifying.
In F1’s pressure-packed knockout system, this tendency by Patrick to take several laps to get going could well mean relegation to the back of the grid and not much chance of success. Even worse, it could raise questions if she belonged in the sport to begin with if the lap times were not close to competitive. The specter of the 107 percent rule also looms – where times not quick enough would exclude her from the grid.
So far, Patrick has not done well in NASCAR’s version of knockout qualifying either. (She has five top 10 starts in 18 races.) After starting on the Daytona 500 pole in 2013 under the old format, Patrick’s first outing under knockout qualifying at Daytona resulted in a 29th place starting position for the Coke Zero 400.
Patrick’s size would be a plus in F1 in the sense that teams are looking to save weight up high in the chassis with lighter drivers. On the other hand, is Patrick’s physical size a potential problem?
When Janet Guthrie raced in NASCAR she was fond of saying, “You drive the car. You don’t carry it on your shoulder.” Along these same lines, Patrick said the stock cars of the Sprint Cup are actually easier for her to drive than an IndyCar. The high downforce generated by the front wings on the IndyCars made them more difficult to steer, she said. (It was a problem that bothered her on the street and road circuits much more than on ovals, where turning is far more incremental.)
All of this supports Patrick’s move to NASCAR as a better place to possibly win a race with a schedule full of high-speed ovals. The record tends to confirm this point of view. After excelling at Indy and winning on the daunting high banks of Motegi, she has started on the pole at Daytona and finished in the top 10. (For those who complain she won on fuel mileage at Motegi, she still got to the finish faster than any other driver who had the same opportunity.)
With four restrictor races on the schedule each year, Patrick is a candidate to win at least at Daytona or Talladega every season in cars like those fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing. Imagine the endorsement income if she won at either one of those tracks.
As always, Patrick has her business manager and father T.J. Patrick negotiating for her. If the past is prologue, the current contract with Stewart-Haas is a two-year deal with a third option year in 2015. That leaves plenty of negotiating room when it comes to how a transition to F1 could take place should Haas be able to design and build a competitive car.
But can she win in F1 after so far struggling to get the front of the field very often in the Sprint Cup?
It’s not likely a new team will be at the front of the field in F1 any time soon, which would be a significant consideration. But even against long odds most racing drivers would relish the prospect of competing in ultra-sophisticated racing machinery in a world championship. On the other hand, if it’s about winning, the prospects for Patrick look better in NASCAR – or in a return to the Indy 500 – than in Formula 1.
– Jonathan Ingram is the author of “Danica Patrick, America’s Hottest Racer,” published in 2005 by Motorbooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments