Bobby Rahal

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F1 on hold in America

This month I want to say something about Formula 1, in particular the collapse of the USF1 deal and the prospects for Grand Prix racing returning to the United States.

There’s no question that the failure of USF1 has been a big blow to American motor sport and the potential for young American drivers to get into F1 in any kind of consistent way, as it was in the ’60s when you had three or four Americans racing on a regular basis, such as Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther (above). Frankly, it’s all been a bit embarrassing, and from the outset it seemed like a tall order. In principle, it was achievable, but there was a lot of scepticism in the States as to whether it was a realistic project or not. In the end it didn’t live up to its promise anyway because they were taking money from a South American driver, so they were no different to any other team. It didn’t matter whether it was called USF1 or not, they were gonna take money from anywhere, or anyone, because they had to. So the whole premise that this would help American drivers get into F1 has to be seen as a failure.

The idea that you can build F1 cars over here was maybe a little misguided. Of course you can build them here, but is that the most efficient way of doing it? I think the answer to that is clearly that it’s not. There is the technology here, a lot of smart people, and the manufacturing capability is here – but they’re not building stock cars in England, they’re building them down south in the heart of stock car country. You don’t build F1 cars outside the heart of Formula 1, and that happens to be in England.

Having said all this, F1 does need an American Grand Prix. Right now it’s the world’s biggest market, though China’s catching up, and if you look at the car market then the States is it. So there are a lot of commercial reasons for F1 to be back in the US and maybe even to hold more than one race here because the country is just so big. The major roadblock to Formula 1 in the USA is that F1, like it or not, is just a blip on the radar in terms of sports. It has no imprint. Even Michael Schumacher can walk through the middle of Times Square in New York and nobody knows who he is. That is unfortunately the reality. Of course NASCAR is the 800lb gorilla and Indycar is bigger than F1 too, so it’s very much a niche sport here. The only way for it to work in the States is for F1 to have an imprint, like when Mario Andretti won the title in 1978, or in the ’60s when you had Gurney, Hill and Ginther racing. Then there’s the commercial terms that F1 is able to negotiate: the funds just aren’t available here, so until F1 is prepared to accept reduced fees and invest in the long term it’s not going to happen. The teams, sponsors and manufacturers all want to be here, but they have to invest in making it happen.

I’ve been interested in how the new teams are doing in F1 this year and it reminds me of the challenges we had when I was at Jaguar. I told our board members that for the team to attract the best talent then Jaguar Racing had to be seen as the island in the storm, not the storm itself. Unfortunately, with all the drama that went on at Jaguar, anyone who was any good would not risk going to the team because there were questions about how long it would exist. There wasn’t the stability you have with teams like Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and now Red Bull. It’s tough to make your mark, because there’s only X amount of talent in the pool and the top people are already embedded in the top teams, and that’s a result of many years of investment, spending billions of dollars to get where they are.

Formula 1 is very much a meritocracy; the benefits are based on how you did the previous year, so in many ways the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But that’s how it should be – the top teams have worked hard to get where they are and they’re not about to hand that over. It’s a huge uphill battle for the new teams and I really don’t see that getting any easier. Formula 1 is a long, hard slog and it requires time and patience.