American drivers audition for F1 rides
It was an encouraging Thanksgiving week for U.S. road-racing fans, with news emerging from Europe that two up-and-coming American drivers will participate in the Formula One young drivers' test Dec. 1-3 in Jerez, Spain.
Firestone Indy Lights champion JR Hildebrand will share time with DTM ace Paul di Resta in a car run by the Force India team. And in one of the BMW F1 team's final functions, 18-year-old American Alexander Rossi also will test at Jerez as part of his prize for winning the 2008 Formula BMW Americas championship.
While Rossi is a couple of years from being ready for F1 -- he raced in the Formula Masters series for 2-liter winged formula cars this year and recently made his GP2 series debut in Asia -- Hildebrand is arguably the most accomplished young American road racer who isn't competing in the Izod IndyCar Series. Aside from his two years in Lights culminating in this year's championship, the 21-year-old from Sausalito, Calif., has experience in Formula Atlantic and A1 Grand Prix cars on his résumé.
He's also smart, articulate and ambitious, which is why a brief meeting a few years ago with Force India team principal Vijay Mallya ultimately led to a recent invitation for Hildebrand to join di Resta in sampling Force India's F1 simulator (di Resta is a cousin of two-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti).
"I thought I did quite well," Hildebrand said of his time in the simulator. "I knew there was room to improve, but I felt I accomplished my goal, which was to learn and improve throughout the day. It took a while for the team to analyze the data, but when I got the call to say I was going to have a chance to drive the car, I was ecstatic. It couldn't have come at a better time."
Force India switched from Ferrari to Mercedes-Benz engines in 2009 and showed great improvement, with Giancarlo Fisichella taking the pole and nearly winning the Belgian Grand Prix. The team announced this week that Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi will be Force India's 2010 race drivers, but an opening exists for the team's test and reserve driver.
Di Resta, 23, who has three DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) race wins and finished in the top three of the championship the last two years, is likely being championed for the role by Mercedes-Benz.
Even if Hildebrand doesn't get the Force India ride, it's still a tremendous opportunity for him to get some real-world experience in an F1 car and perhaps demonstrate to the Charlotte-based Team USF1 organization (also known as U.S. Grand Prix Engineering) that he deserves consideration for a race or test drive.
Team USF1 also made the news last week, albeit in a less patriotic way for Americans. Jose Maria Lopez, a 26-year-old Argentine, said Friday that he will be one of Team USF1's race drivers for the team's debut campaign.
"Today it was agreed that after meeting the commercial requirements, 'Pechito' will become a driver for this team on 2010 season," stated Lopez's Web site.
Team USF1 principal Peter Windsor confirmed advanced talks with Lopez several days earlier, again via Lopez's Web site.
"I would be very happy if he raced with us next year," Windsor said. "He's not just another driver on the list. Jose is more than that. He is a driver we are interested in and we want him to be with us."
Lopez is a former reserve driver for the Renault F1 team. He won one International GP2 race and competes in the popular Argentine Touring Car series.
Given the Americans' lack of F1 experience, it's unrealistic to expect Team USF1 to field a pair of American drivers. But the team was thought to be pursuing drivers with genuine F1 experience, including former Renault racer and McLaren tester Alex Wurz.
Lopez, who like Hildebrand must be granted an FIA superlicense prior to being eligible to participate in an F1 race, does not qualify as "an experienced Formula One driver," and the reports of his signing to race for Team USF1 diminished the start-up team's credibility even more.
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda is one of the most prominent skeptics. Assessing the new teams set to enter F1 next year (Campos, Lotus, Manor and Team USF1) for the official Formula One Web site, Lauda said, "For me the most doubtful case is this American team. They seem to be nowhere."
If Team USF1 does make it to the 2010 F1 grid, it could do worse than selecting Hildebrand as one of the drivers.
"I know it's a big challenge, but I feel ready to tackle it," Hildebrand said regarding his upcoming Force India test. "The aim is to learn the track and the car and then hopefully show my potential.
"As an American, we don't necessarily have the culture of F1, but anything that's so impressive and cutting-edge demands respect. I hope I can do the car and myself justice."
John Oreovicz covers motorsports for ESPN.com.
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