The USF1 Story: Does anyone want any toast?

One of the feel good stories of the 2016 season so far has been the positive debut of the Haas F1 team, who have scored a miraculous 18 points after three races. Let’s not forget, it’s been six years since the last new entrants to the sport, of which only Manor survives today. It’s also been a further 31 years since the last fully fledged American entrant, the other Haas. This was almost not the case though, as among the last glut of new teams there was one which didn’t even get as far as the season premiere in Bahrain 2010.

The American Dream

2009 and 2010 were a strange time for F1. At the end of 2008 the credit crunch and resultant market crashes world-wide caused major ripples in the car manufacturing industry, leading to the exit of BMW, Honda and Toyota from the sport in just 12 months. The FIA responded to this downturn by opening the tender for new teams. With 6 grid spots to fill, 3 teams would be chosen.

However around this time a new group began to make noises about entering the sport. Former Williams manager and motorsport media personality Peter Windsor started talking about a new venture he and former Ligier & Onyx engineer Ken Anderson were looking to set up, which was not only to run under an American license but was to be completely based in the States.

A completed nosecone - USF1's finest achievement?

A completed nosecone – USF1’s finest achievement?

At the time – as is still the case now – new teams were a rare thing in the sport, which had at one time boasted an entry list of nearly 40 cars. USF1 were loud about their ambitions to enter the sport. Teasing first with a logo, comments in the press and then in an announcement on SpeedTV in early 2009, Anderson and Windsor told the world they were going to build and race cars in the 2010 season.

USF1 is go!

After applying and successfully winning a bid for the 2010 season in July 2009 the team started hiring staff and setting up its facilities in Charlotte, North Carolina. However, there were to be no illusions that this was a big undertaking.

Building an F1 team from the ground up takes time, and the history of F1 is littered with teams that paid the ultimate sacrifice for just not being prepared enough to compete properly such as Life, Andrea Moda and the now infamous Mastercard Lola and they had had factories, pre-prepared designs and manufacturing equipment at their disposal. USF1 was a completely new entry with no continuity of car development beyond the experience of the individuals involved – which in fairness, was extensive – and all this while setting up shop outside of Europe’s motor racing heartland. Nevertheless, Windsor and Anderson made bullish statements to the press about the team’s potential and excitedly promised an all American driver line-up.

The presence of an American F1 team like this immediately caught the F1 press’s imagination as speculation story after speculation story appeared about who would be sitting in the USF1 Type 1 in March 2010. Anderson and Windsor were of course happy to oblige in order to drum up publicity and many names from the world of IRL and NASCAR started appearing in the frame. Names such as Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch and recent F1 refugee Scott Speed were said to be in the picture at various times.

From the outside things seemed to be going well at first. Investment seemed to be steadily flowing in, most famously in the shape of YouTube founder Chad Hurley. The team had also managed to bag a supply of Cosworth engines for its foray into F1. However, behind the scenes things were not so rosy.

Cost caps, nosecones and toasters…

It’s probably fair to say USF1 suffered a great deal from the proposed introduction and then swift U-turn on a cost cap in Formula One. The team was banking heavily on Max Mosley’s planned cap of £40 million being implemented, which would give the team a shot of running somewhat competitively with the more established teams and would hugely reduce the costs of getting started.

Development on the Type 1 failed to progress much further beyond the monocoque.

Development on the Type 1 failed to progress much further beyond the monocoque.

However, as 2009 drew on it became clear a cost cap wasn’t going to happen as Max Mosley butted heads with the newly founded Formula One Teams Association (FOTA). FOTA made it abundantly clear no such cap would be introduced, without a breakaway racing series becoming a reality, the idea was quickly watered down. The instability in the sport and lowered chance of being competitive in 2010 probably put investors off the idea of bankrolling the team. Worst still, the team’s planning was delayed by a month due to the late signing of the Concorde Agreement.

In addition to all the external turmoil in the sport things were also getting chaotic behind the scenes in USF1. There is no denying that the duo of Windsor and Anderson, despite their ambition, was not able to conjure up the miracle needed to get USF1 off the ground. Everything was way behind schedule and while the other newcomers Lotus and Virgin Racing had announced full driver pairings by December, USF1 hadn’t named a single driver for their new team, American or otherwise. And despite the announcement of Hurley and ad agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners as investors, money was not moving into the team fast enough.

Rumours were now starting to swarm that the ambitious new team was way behind with its car development. Nonetheless the team maintained a constant social media presence; interviews with Anderson and Windsor, pictures and videos showcasing designs, the bare facilities – coincidentally enough featuring HAAS machinery – and even the USF1 Type 1 nosecone and monocoque itself. The former was smashed to pieces on video as part of the obligatory crash testing.

Unfortunately it was becoming noticeable not much of substance was happening with the team; Windsor seemed to be leading the press on a wild goose chase. This was illustrated best by an inspired satirical series involving the team wasting its time building toasters and courting the media, parodying the style over substance that the whole project had shown.

Then in December, Bernie Ecclestone started dropping hints about USF1’s ability to make the start in March. The signing of Argentine F1 débutant José María López in January, who bought with him a much needed $8 million of funding, did little to abate suspicions that USF1 wasn’t going to be the new dawn for American drivers in the sport.

The team is toast

The tide had irreversibly turned against the fledgling outfit, and the situation quickly descended into farce. The personnel had realised as far back as December they were not going to have the time or resources to get the Type 1 to the grid in March. Staff at the Charlotte facility lay the blame squarely at the feet of at Anderson, with all engineering decisions having to be approved by him before proceeding, as well as just straightforward shoddy planning and time-lining causing a backlog in production.

Then President of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, poses with lead driver in waiting José María López (R), and Peter Windsor (L). A team so focused on its all-American image using a left-wing populist government's cash as a crutch may not have gone down well with home fans, had they ever made the grid!

Then President of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, poses with lead driver in waiting José María López (R), and Peter Windsor (L). A team so focused on its all-American image using a left-wing populist government’s cash as a crutch may not have gone down well with home fans, had they ever made the grid!

Windsor and Anderson had continued meanwhile in somewhat blissful ignorance of the grave situation facing the project and had continued to maintain the perception that everything was running smoothly in the media. It wasn’t until February at a factory meeting however that the penny fully dropped, when Windsor asked who thought that the car wouldn’t be ready in time and was shocked to find that every single member of personnel raised their hands.

With the situation rapidly unravelling, Anderson, Hurley and Windsor appealed to the FIA for help, asking if they could miss the first four races of the season. Charlie Whiting, the FIA’s technical representative, paid the team a visit in Charlotte to see if the team would have a shot at entering at all. What he found was a team grossly unprepared to race in the top flight of the sport. Long time F1 journalist Adam Cooper revealed that with car production at a standstill, the staff had instead started work on actual prototype toasters as a humorous way to pass the time.

As each day past, the situation continued to become even more surreal. Chad Hurley desperately attempted to join forces with Zoran Stefanović’s Stefan GP team in a merger, who later famously made an unsuccessful attempt to start the season with the leftovers from the recently defunct Toyota team. Both Windsor and Anderson were said to be against this, but the talks resulted in nothing.

Hurley and López, having seen the writing on the wall swiftly parted ways with Anderson and Windsor. The team later announced it had collapsed, leading to the dismissal of the 60 strong personnel and the facilities and equipment were sold off, all this just a solitary year after the project had been launched to such fanfare and before the other teams like Hispania Racing, Virgin and Lotus had even started work on their respective projects.

The American Nightmare

The powers that be in F1 had seen and heard enough. The FIA banned the team permanently from all of their sanctioned championships and issued a fine of €309,000. It amounted to little more than a symbolic gesture, with the team so woefully unprepared they would have struggled to even rival Stefan GP’s efforts of sending a box of tables and chairs to a Grand Prix weekend. USF1 earned the unlucky distinction of being possibly the only team in F1 history to collapse financially and be banned by the governing body before so much as fitting a wheel to its car. To make matters worse, the choice of USF1 for the vacant entry into the sport also led to such promising motorsport names as Lola, Prodrive and Epsilon Euskadi to be overlooked for 2010.

After over a year of protracted development efforts, the fledgling ‘team’ had little more to show for it except for a half built monocoque, a nosecone, some half-finished composite moulds for a state-of-the-art toaster, and several dormant social media accounts. Much like a North Korean show factory, once the media curtain had been lifted it turned out there had been very little happening behind the scenes. The hype had failed to generate the kind of investment they had hoped for. A group of engineers from the project attempted to club together and set-up a new team under the name of Cypher – taking aim at another FIA entry process for the 2011 season – but little came of it.

F1 is already a difficult nut to crack, even for established racers. Coloni, Onyx and Pacific demonstrated junior formulae credentials offer little in the way of guarantees when stepping up to the top level. Toyota, whose demise was partially intertwined with USF1’s stillborn existence, demonstrated even the most healthily funded new entrants would struggle to make an impact. To try and build a brand new team from scratch in under a year, in a country which is known for being difficult for Formula One to break into, could either be seen as dreaming or madness.