Commentary

So many reasons to doubt U.S. in F1

Updated: March 6, 2009, 9:39 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Ken AndersonAP Photo/Chuck BurtonKen Anderson, one of the owners of USGPE was ready for his closeup at the team's announcement last month. Will the team ever be ready?

When pigs fly, or Ferrari slashes its racing budget by 85 percent -- whichever comes first -- then a competitive Formula One team will be based in the epicenter of the NASCAR industry, Charlotte, N.C.

And even then, it wouldn't be something Americans necessarily would be proud of.

Still, even NASCAR fans and journalists are getting caught up in this notion of an American F1 team, floated last week by veteran British F1 executive and journalist Peter Windsor and American engineer Ken Anderson.

Wildfire fantasy has ensued in the chats, blogs, conversations and news stories. In essence:

I know! We'll have Kyle Busch as one driver! Yeah, that's the ticket! And -- and -- and -- Danica Patrick as the other! Or -- or -- or -- maybe AJ Allmendinger, star of the last days of Champ Car, would work! Or Scott Speed! Marco Andretti! Graham Rahal! Hey -- try this one -- what about Juan Pablo Montoya in a comeback?

To understand why the NASCAR community is abuzz, you have to recognize the undercurrent of fascination with F1 within NASCAR. In the motor-coach compounds at the NASCAR tracks on Sunday mornings, drivers and crew members turn on their satellite TV systems and watch F1.

The crewmen and engineers marvel at the technology, and the drivers just want to drive the magnificent little cars.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon and Kyle Busch
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanJeff Gordon, front, long ago passed up his chance to drive in F1. Kyle Busch, back, is being looked at as the next most likely NASCAR driver to step up.

The greatest envy of Jeff Gordon I have ever heard from the mouth of Tony Stewart had nothing to do with Gordon's four Cup championships and three Daytona 500 wins. It was all about the fact that Gordon once got to test-drive a Williams F1 car, and Stewart didn't.

For years, I've sensed a sort of "We could do that" wishful thinking.

Now Windsor and Anderson are singing the song of the NASCAR mindset, touting the technological resources around Charlotte that were developed for the NASCAR industry and later Indy cars, and are now in critical oversupply because of the free-falling economy.

Minds, machines and materials are bargains around Charlotte nowadays.

So Windsor and Anderson reckon this is precisely the time to get in on a new bottom floor of F1, much as Jeremy Mayfield, Tommy Baldwin and Scott Riggs have seized opportunity to rush in at the bottom of a deflated NASCAR economy.

Windsor and Anderson say they've set a budget of $65 million (although they haven't made clear where that money will come from) for 2010 to start their team. That sounds great in NASCAR, where $65 million is plenty to run two Cup cars for a season.

But consider that Ferrari and McLaren have each been spending more than $400 million a year lately and that Ferrari at its peak with Michael Schumacher topped half a billion in some years.

The Formula One Teams Association on Thursday passed a resolution aimed at cutting team budgets in half by 2010, according to The Associated Press.

But that still would be $200 million or more, far above the upstart team's proposed $65 million, even assuming Windsor could raise that in a country where NASCAR sponsorships are dropping and on a continent where there won't be a single Grand Prix race this year for the first time since 1958.

There is talk in Europe that the FIA, in meetings later this month, will place a budget cap of about $64 million on all F1 teams.

Even if Ferrari and McLaren formally went along with such a paltry -- for them -- cap, then when pigs fly will they actually abide by it.

[+] EnlargeFOTA Meeting
AP Photo/Keystone, Martial TrezziniA lot of serious looking men are striving to make F1 cheaper. But will it still be F1?

But for the sake of argument, let's say all F1 teams will operate on $65 million a year. Indeed, Windsor has heard from the FIA that his type of plan is "everything they're looking for" under current economic conditions, he told ESPN.com's Dan Knutson at a news conference.

Windsor conceded that he and Anderson "would just get laughed out of the ballpark" if these were normal times in F1.

But under cut-rate conditions, F1 would be a shell of itself, gutted of the essence of its appeal, which is ultrahigh technology on unlimited budgets.

I've always felt there has to be at least one racing league in the world without boundaries, just to see how far engineering can take automobiles.

Put clamps on that, and you have hardly more than a gussied-up IRL.

Tight, primitive rules, hard knocks and hardscrabble teams are part of NASCAR's charm. They would be the downfall of F1.

So even if the proposed American team turned out to be competitive, it would be in a league on the wane.

How does Formula One Management, run by F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone, view this? Windsor said as late as last week that Ecclestone was supportive and positive. Then Wednesday, the F1 Web site Pitstop.com reported that FOM apparently has objected to Windsor's original name for the team, "USF1," and demanded removal of the F1 brand.

So Windsor looks to have changed the name to USGPE -- United States Grand Prix Engineering, apparently -- reminiscent of the Williams Grand Prix Engineering team he managed in the 1990s.

Windsor learned much about logistics in his years at Williams in its heyday. But funding of the team was directed by others.

Logistics cost money.

F1's transport fleet of 747s flies out of London and Milan, central points for loading teams' equipment, and I doubt they're going to divert a plane to Charlotte to pick up one fledgling team's equipment on the way to Japan or Malaysia.

So USGPE, or whatever it is called, faces the expensive air freight of just getting its equipment to join the fleet out of London, or the exponentially costlier prospect of flying its cars directly from Charlotte to the Grand Prix venues around the world.

Montoya With the singular exception of [Juan Pablo] Montoya -- who hasn't exactly set the NASCAR world on fire -- the time of the crossover drivers such as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney ended with Mario's '78 title. As the various forms of racing have grown more complex, they have moved too far apart for a Kyle Busch to master one form, then jump with any success to another. And sponsorship demands force drivers to declare in one form and stay there.

Windsor's tossing about of the names of Busch and Patrick as possible drivers for the team has drawn a lot of publicity, all the way to the London newspapers.

But both Busch and Patrick have said that, although flattered, they haven't even been contacted by USGPE.

And neither is remotely qualified, when you really think about it, to step into an F1 car and be competitive anytime soon. Busch's background is all in stock cars. Patrick did spend a frustrating few years in the schooling formulas of Britain and Europe. Even so, road racing is the weaker part of her IRL game.

Andretti has yet to impress in the steppingstone formulas to F1. Rahal has been a fair to middlin' driver in the IRL. Speed is in NASCAR after being dropped by a shoestring F1 team. Montoya is in NASCAR because he was about to be squeezed out of the top ranks of F1. Allmendinger has digressed too long in NASCAR to transfer his open-wheel skills to F1.

Most of all, I must side here with T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote that "old and wise" really means "tired and disappointed."

I am too old and wise to believe USGPE will fly, much less soar, because I am too tired and disappointed after chronicling all the notions of a serious American presence in F1 that have arisen in the three decades since Mario Andretti won the world championship in 1978.

There hasn't been a serious American F1 constructor since the storied but ineffective Shadow team of the 1970s. And by the time Shadow folded, it was based in England out of necessity.

Even when Mario Andretti won the world title, it was for a British team, Lotus.

Since then, I've chased stories, beginning circa 1990, that Al Unser Jr. might go to Williams, that Michael Andretti (Mario's son, Marco's father) would go to Ferrari, then that Michael actually was going to McLaren … then when Michael crossed the pond in 1993, driver and team were so out of sync that he came home in midseason, having flopped or been set up to fail, depending on your viewpoint.

[+] EnlargeHeikki Kovaleinen and Lewis Hamilton
AP Photo/Alastair GrantMcLaren F1 teammates Heikki Kovaleinen, left, and world champion Lewis Hamilton likely have little to fear from the USGPE team.

Then Jackie Stewart told me in the mid-'90s that Jeff Gordon was the best candidate to transfer, and I chased that notion for a while. Gordon, to his credit, was wise enough to quash the conjecture from the start, saying that, in his 20s, he was too old to focus on a vastly different discipline.

With the singular exception of Montoya -- who hasn't exactly set the NASCAR world on fire -- the time of the crossover drivers such as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney ended with Mario's '78 title. As the various forms of racing have grown more complex, they have moved too far apart for a Kyle Busch to master one form, then jump with any success to another. And sponsorship demands force drivers to declare in one form and stay there.

Another factor is intangible -- the question of whether the world F1 community really wants an American presence. I have come to doubt that, having covered F1 quite a bit for a time. This is one sport we can't beat the rest of the world at, and I think the rest of the world quietly likes it that way.

All in all, this talk of F1 in Charlotte, and these dreams of Kyle or Danica wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton, are fun and fascinating.

Unless you're tired and disappointed from so many flights of F1 fancy.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE