Friday, September 25, 2009

The Making of a U.S. Formula One Team

(by Peter Windsor nytimes.com 9-25-09)

The story of the new American team that will race in Formula One next season really begins in 1985. That’s when Honda was supplying its wonderful turbo engines to the Williams team and I was working for Frank Williams as his manager of sponsorship and public affairs.

We luxuriated in the 48,000 square feet, or 4,460 square meters, of the new Williams factory in Didcot, England, south of Oxford — a new facility that included a special Honda engine test area and a one-third scale wind tunnel that had originated at a company in northeastern England, Specialized Mouldings. There, in 1977, Peter Wright and Colin Chapman had discovered the principle now called “ground effect.” At the time, that wind tunnel was the equal of anything in the world.

My office was conveniently placed near the parking lot, which meant that I could watch the ceaseless comings and goings of a Formula One team. It was not long before I noticed the regular appearance of a stocky man in jeans who always headed toward the wind tunnel, a briefcase in hand.

A few inquiries revealed that he was Ken Anderson, a young American engineer who worked for Penske Racing, running their new shock-absorber department. Anderson had started with motocross bikes in the United States, but quickly joined the rapidly expanding Fox shock-absorber company. He then formed a successful working relationship with an off-road racer, Roger Mears, winning major desert events with him before working miracles at the Indy 500.

Soon word was out: Penske’s Rick Mears, Roger’s brother, wanted to know about these amazing Fox shock absorbers that were enabling his brother to run so fast. Roger Penske then hired Anderson to set up a Penske shock-absorber company.

Penske shock absorbers quickly became a mainstay of Formula One. But back in 1985, Williams was the only team using them, on the FW10-Honda; in return for the shock absorbers, Williams allowed Penske to use its wind tunnel for development of its British-built Indy car. Thus Anderson’s regular visits to the Williams factory.

Anderson and I became good friends. We quickly discovered that we loved the same things — Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, for example, and the details of the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo space missions. We began to talk about putting our own race team together — first in the United States (with an Indy Racing League team in the mid-1990s) and, more recently, a Formula One team.

Anderson first contacted me about his Formula One idea in 2006. He had built the Falcon IndyCar in 2002 in Charlotte, North Carolina (the car never raced because of a sudden change in the I.R.L./IndyCar engine regulations) and he was now working as an engineer at Haas/C.N.C. Racing, a Nascar team financed by Gene Haas. Anderson said that he had convinced Haas to finance the design and construction of a full-scale, rolling-road wind tunnel in North Carolina and that he, Anderson, was going to manage the project. If he could pull that off, he promised, then a Formula One team would be the next step.

I followed the progress of what would become the Windshear wind tunnel. By the end of 2007, Anderson had finished the tunnel ahead of schedule and under budget. Most of today’s top Formula One teams spent time in Windshear in 2008 and virtually all of them declared it to be the best tunnel in the world. From there, our American Formula One team was but a short step away.

The overriding principle of our project is that, contrary to current wisdom, it is possible to design and build a Formula One car in the United States (rather than in Europe, where all the current teams build their cars). Why would we want to do that? There are a number of good reasons:

Much of the current Formula One technology originates in the United States.

It is much more cost-efficient to design and build in the United States than in Europe (as such car companies as BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota have proven over the years).

Europe is crowded. It’s fine for Ferrari in Italy or McLaren in England, but for all other Formula One teams, it is a case of playing catch-up or paying prices at a premium, particularly when it comes to recruitment and supply.

The Formula One calendar is now based at least 50 percent outside Europe. Never has the sport been so “global.”

By basing ourselves in the United States, we would have the “pick of the bunch” from all the key suppliers, most of whom have been a part of Anderson’s world for the past 20 years.

As a national team, we would start from a unique marketing base. We would plan to race American drivers in the medium term and to build a conduit for them, from grassroots racing to Formula One. The large majority of our staff would be American. We would give talented American engineers and technicians a chance to work on a world stage to which they have not had access in recent decades. On the car’s nose would be marked, “Made in America.”

From the start, we had no doubts about the technical base of the team. The obvious first move was to base it near the Windshear tunnel. We found a building with not a little motor sports history: the original “Hall of Fame” race team’s headquarters, where such Nascar stars as Kyle Busch started their careers.

The logistics, of course, were another matter. We would have to pay for all the travel to and from Europe, but, even so, the figures made sense. We could have our cars and team personnel back in Charlotte after a race like the Spanish Grand Prix faster than the average British-based team would have its trucks back in England, and for virtually no increase in cost. We would join the other Formula One teams for the “flyaway” race logistics — and we would treat the European double-headers just like any other team: We would simply truck our cars to the next race.

We would need, however, a European logistics base. This, in turn, opened another door in our thinking.

We had decided that if we were going to be based in Charlotte, in the heart of Nascar country, then obviously we would have to play to the fans, as Nascar does. We would make our factory “fan friendly,” with easy access to the public, and, with a television production facility in the factory, we would enable Formula One fans to follow the progress of the car from conception to completion.

Our European base would therefore be chosen as much for its location as for its excellent facilities. We want it to be the sort of place that our sponsors, fans and investors want to visit, something different than the standard, murky building on an English industrial estate.

Finally, there was the timeframe of operation — and this, in turn, was linked to the way we wanted to build and run the team. To finance the formation of the team and the construction of the cars in 2009, we would sell a stake in the company to a group of the right sort of investors — people who believed in us, loved Formula One and could see that this team was approaching the future in a new way and was in it for the long haul, not for a quick turnaround.

We were confronted with the global recession, and with a particularly difficult patch of Formula One political turbulence, but at one of our road shows in early February, we met a young man named Chad Hurley, a co-founder of YouTube and now the chief executive of YouTube for Google.

In a Silicon Valley cafĂ©, Chad asked us a million questions about Formula One and our project. He grasped it immediately: the beauty of a new, creative U.S. team taking on the big guns. For an American to stand up and effectively say, “I believe in F1 as the world’s largest global TV sport” when there is not even a Formula One race in America, let alone an American driver in the series, was magical. For him to believe in us and our innovative concepts was something else again.

I don’t think this would have been possible in a country other than the United States. In Europe, the attitude to the global recession was basically, “Let’s do nothing and hope it goes away.” Americans, it seemed to me in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago, still gave time to the entrepreneur who talked sense and examined the problem from every angle.

Before the recession really hit, no one would believe that we could do the team for substantially less than the Formula One norm. In the recession, people suddenly began to listen to what we had to say. Of course, Formula One’s global reach helped: An average of 50 million people watch Formula One events 18 times a year throughout the world.

There is no guidebook to forming a new Formula One team. We are breaking new ground. In the sense that we are building our complete car in-house, we will be the first all-new Formula One team of the 21st century. We will be the first team of the cellphone-text-message-email-YouTube generation. Without those inventions, Anderson and I could never have kept so many balls in the air for so long in so many different parts of the world. We will be the first team to design and build its cars in the United States since Dan Gurney did so with his Eagles in 1966-67.

It was Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works philosophy that inspired us from the start and it continues to drive us today. When Johnson wrote that success is primarily achieved by employing the minimum number of the best possible people, with the company’s head count controlled in an almost vicious way, he was also writing the philosophy of how a Formula One team should operate from 2010 onward.

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