A new all-American team is slated to enter Formula One in 2010, featuring a car, drivers and engineering all based in that country. Brits on Pole asks: what does this mean for the series, for motorsport in general, and for British racing?
It’s looking increasingly likely that Team USF1 will be lining up on the – will it be Melbourne? – grid in 2010 for its first season of competitive racing, at least if Max Mosley’s plans to reduce costs can be brought to fruition.
The team is reportedly fronted by Ken Anderson, technical director of NASCAR’s Haas CNC Racing, and former Williams and Ferrari man Peter Windsor, also a noted F1 journalist.
It reportedly plans to promote US racing technology under the banner ‘Made in America’ and its car is due to be designed and built in Charlotte, North Carolina – NASCAR central – as well as featuring an American driving team.
Let’s say right at the top that the idea has been almost universally welcomed.
Everybody wants to see a full grid and no-one thinks it’s right that the two north American races should have been removed from the F1 calendar when open-wheel racing has to fight its corner against the tin-top sort at the best of times in the States.
And we dearly hope that the outrage expressed by American fans realising that their views meant almost nothing to the sport’s promoters won’t be echoed over here round about July 2010.
But its choice of branding does raise some exceedingly complicated questions, even though this is hardly the first time in the sport’s history that entrants have raced under a national flag.
British Racing Green
Early motor racing used a system of colours in which entrants’ cars were painted according to their country of origin. Thus Italy became eternally associated with the colour red, France with blue and Japan wore a red and white design based on its flag.
Then, of course, there was British Racing Green and the ‘Silver Arrows’ German design still invoked by Mercedes Benz today with its popular Silver Arrows display team. The full list of national racing colours is much longer: you can view it courtesy of Wikipedia.
The US design, apparently, was blue and white stripes – not that you’d know from A1GP, where Team USA runs with a design based on the national flag. The stripes are red and white, while the blue is used as the field for white stars.
But it’s not just in racing livery that A1GP could collide with an American F1 entrant. After a rocky couple of years, the nation’s entry is now happily running under the auspices of top IRL team Andretti Green Racing with Marco Andretti at the wheel. Few families are more closely associated with American open-wheel racing than the Andrettis – isn’t there quite some possibility of brand confusion here?
Tifosi della Ferrari
Of course, A1GP didn’t invent the national concept either, as much as the series markets itself as filling a need not satisfied by Formula One.
Sometimes teams become strongly associated with particular countries, Ferrari being the standout example. The red cars are Italian-designed and manufactured and are such a national institution that a native driver behind the wheel is a reason for a public holiday. Brazillian Ferrari driver Felipe Massa has family roots in Italy.
And although fans of the defunct Minardi, based in Faenza, used to refer ironically to Ferrari as ‘the other Italian team’ there is really only one show in town.
BMW appeared to be moving in a similar direction when it broke with Williams, bought up Swiss privateer Sauber and installed German driver Nick Heidfeld behind the wheel. If Robert Kubica wasn’t so obviously a prodigious talent, would he have made way for Sebastian Vettel already?
National or international?
But these are still the exceptions. McLaren is, in many senses, the archetypal British team especially with Lewis Hamilton driving for it. Or is it?
Founded by a New Zealander and an American, it relies on German engineering and has a penchant for employing Finnish drivers, a country where it also maintains a winter training camp. Recent reaction to the death of Teddy Mayer demonstrated the Kiwis’ continuing passion for what they regard as their team.
Or take Renault: a French team based in Britain and run by an Italian which attracts passionate support from Spain for its double world champion driver Fernando Alonso. It’s the true European team.
This kind of set-up is far more the rule than the exception.
The most overtly national team ever to race in Formula One is probably Vijay Mallya’s Force India. But even a billionaire enthusiast is, to some extent, forced to practise the art of the possible: his all-Indian outfit is in reality based in Northamptonshire and running with an Italian and a German-Uruguayan driver with no ‘home’ grand prix to visit yet.
And here’s the rub. Because Formula One is a truly international sport – at least, at the moment. But could there be high-level support for this to change?
Going for gold
The prospect of a high-profile national entrant is particularly interesting when viewed next to F1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone’s claim that the sport’s best interests would be represented by a medals system based on the finishing positions in each race. The championship winner would thus be the driver with the most gold medals.
It has long been this site’s contention that this suggestion has more to do with the fact that the Olympics enjoys public interest, public funding and sporting kudos that Formula One can only dream of, and that Ecclestone is trying for a little bit of gilt-reflected glory.
Sports that use the medals system are very often organised around national teams. Some of them – athletics for instance – have an aura of being the acme of personal sporting achievement.
Athletics also, while being badly tainted by drugs, manages to give the impression of not being as tainted by money as many other areas of competitive sport. (Whereas F1 seems to have few drug problems, that reach the public domain, at least.)
We’re the last people to talk down the skill it takes to drive a racing car at speed, and the fitness regime that is necessary to make it to the top of the sport, and which means drivers like Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button are athletes in their own right.
However it is fair to say that Formula One will never achieve the same kudos in the public eye for the individual achievement of its performers (possibly correctly as the work of so many people goes into the achievement).
Therefore we think the medals idea is dead in the water. Should Massa break his in half and give a bit to Rob Smedley? If so, how much? And would McLaren exercise its famous right to keep the original medals in its trophy room while the drivers had to make do with replicas?
This whole business has us wondering: as a site that attempts to carve out its niche by appealing to national sentiment among racing fans, could we see Team UKF1 ever turning up on the grid?
And the answer is no.
While it’s possible to see how such a team might theoretically come about – probably through the buy-up and rebranding of the struggling Honda or possibly Williams – something about it doesn’t ring true.
There are two reasons why not. Firstly, Britain is such a centre of world motorsport that six of the – let’s say ten for the moment – entrants into the 2009 F1 championship are already based here, most of them within a few square miles of each other in the Midlands. Bernie Ecclestone is a Brit, and so is Max Mosley.
In other words, this country has such an overwhelming involvement in the sport already that it’s very hard to see how it could be contained within the narrow boundaries of a single team.
As mentioned at the top, even Team USF1 will be benefiting from the expertise of the British former Williams manager Peter Windsor.
Secondly, and perhaps just as significant, it just doesn’t fit with this country’s motorsport tradition which is one of bloody-minded individualism and cars built in people’s garages – leading to the creation of dogged privateer teams that punch way above their weight to achieve results they never should have. (Well that’s the myth, anyway. One of them did grow up to become McLaren.)
Somehow it’s hard to picture that meshing together into Team UKF1.
Scanning the landscape for possible F1 entrants in this country, as everyone did recently when wondering if a buyer could be found for Honda, two names that were mentioned were David Richards and Trevor Carlin – individuals who definitely fall into the privateer tradition, which we suspect will soon prove to be alive and well and as viciously competitive as ever.
Jolly good marketing
Of course, it’s arguable that Team USF1 will turn out to be a privateer with a jolly good marketing gig – and good luck to them.
But introducing the idea of teams with a unified national identity into a sport that thrives on internationalism may provide another set of complications at a time when, for economic and environmental reasons, the sport is already backed into its corner with its gloves up.
Force India? May prove a great addition to the F1 grid. Team USA? Brilliant, bring it on. Team Great Britain? Not needed, not wanted, and not likely to ever happen.