Formula One looks to US market

Formula One’s takeover this week by the Liberty Media opens a new frontier for auto racing’s top flight in the United States, where it has struggled to gain a foothold.

But Gene Haas, the machine tool magnate and founder of the only US Formula One team, said the motorsport’s reputation preceded it.

“When you hear ‘F1’ you know exactly what it is, a global racing series that showcases the latest technology and attracts the best talent in engineering and design,” said Haas.

“It has a tremendous amount of appeal and it was obviously very appealing to Liberty Media. We look forward to working with them.”

Mario Andretti, one of only two American drivers ever to win the Formula One World Championship since its creation in 1950, said the takeover by Liberty, owned by US media mogul John Malone, marks a new chapter in its history.

“Overall, being here in America, to see that America is playing a huge role in Formula One, I think that for us it’s a great story,” he told AFP.

But of the 21 Grand Prix races this year, just one will be held in the United States: the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas on October 23.

Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One, would love for more to be staged in the United States.

But finding sponsors willing to take a chance on sport that currently has limited appeal among Americans — even though  globally its broadcasts draw 400 million viewers — has been difficult.

 – US drivers needed –

Today, it falls to Haas to cultivate interest among American racing fans. Yet  his team, Haas F1, employs a French driver, Romain Grosjean, and a Mexican, Esteban Gutierrez, for lack of a top-notch US driver willing to try their hand at Formula One.

The last F1 victory for an American driver dates back to 1978, the year of Andretti’s coronation.

Last year an American driver, Alexander Rossi, entered several F1 Grand Prix races only to slink away with little fanfare.

Yet he then rose to glory in American open-wheel racing in May, winning the Indianapolis 500.

As for constructors, while Ford’s famed Cosworth V8 may have had a big F1 presence from the 1960s to the 1980s, only Haas is now in the game.

Well versed in the technology himself having made his fortune in machine tools, Haas quickly understood that producing his own open-wheel car would come at a prohibitive cost. In his first season this year, he opted for a chassis built by Italy’s Dallara housing a Ferrari engine.

– Nascar rules the US roost –

Americans love motorsport — the success of home-grown Nascar proves it. But their cars resemble commercial sedans, racing in tight huddles with frequent crashes — the antithesis of the F1 single-seaters, which whip past in single file.

The Indianapolis 500, part of the American single-seat series IndyCar, draws several hundred thousand spectators every year. There, however, drivers ride in virtually identical cars, which helps level the playing field while at the same time making races more spectacular.

This again is a considerable difference with Formula One, where teams are always attempting to eke out a technological advantage over their competitors.

Chase Carey, the new Formula One chairman,  will bring his broadcast and marketing know-how to Liberty Media.

He helped develop Fox Sports inside the Rupert Murdoch media empire, which happens to air Nascar races in the US.

Malone also has a position in the electric racing class Formula E. While this “clean” motorsport still has a ways to go to gain popularity, some imagine Formula E races as curtain raisers for the Formula One Grand Prix events.

As for Andretti, he does not see Formula One moving toward IndyCar’s use of identical vehicles in order to please crowds.

“They must maintain the technical aspect that they’re known for,” he said in an interview.

But, should the costs for racing teams to enter Formula One drop — as the case has been with Ferrari’s work with Haas — Andretti says he could imagine his own son Michael, himself a former F1 driver as well as IndyCar and Formula E team owner, come knocking on Formula One’s door.

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