US F1: The Winning Formula

Going into the 2010 season, we at Automobile Magazine were convinced that US F1 — the first American Formula 1 team in a generation — was going to be the motorsports story of the year. We were right. We just didn’t realize that the story was going to be the team’s implosion before the season even began.

I spent several days at the US F1 shop in Charlotte in December. I met most of the major players and was given an unfettered look at all of the facilities. I came away convinced that there was enough talent and know-how in Charlotte to get the project done. Then, technical editor Don Sherman made a follow-up visit in January and was equally impressed by the operation. There was no technical reason, we both agreed, that an American F1 car couldn’t be designed and built in the United States. A race car is, after all, a race car, and all the fundamental design and construction techniques are well understood. So US F1’s major challenge, from the inception, was money. And this, in the end, was its downfall.

US F1’s budget was a three-legged stool. One leg came from principal investor Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube. The second was supposed to be realized in the form of TV revenue that’s shared equally by F1 franchise-holders. The third was sponsorship, both in the form of title sponsors and sponsors brought in by paying drivers. As little as two weeks before the team closed its doors, Peter Windsor was telling me that he had most of the money he needed to run the season. But US F1 didn’t have enough sponsorship to complete the race car, and without the completed race car, the team couldn’t attract the sponsorship it needed to keep the doors open. This proved to be a fatal Catch-22.

Rumors that US F1 were in trouble started circulating last year, but they were completely unsourced, and, in retrospect, I think most of them were unfounded. Still, in January, I started hearing from people within the team about serious issues. Money was running out, I was told. The car was running late. Hurley was threatening to take his ball and go home. Anderson and Windsor were in over their heads. But there was still a chance that a miracle might occur, and we didn’t want to pull the plug too soon. So, at the end of the January, just before making a go/no-go decision about publishing the story, I conducted a conference call interview with Windsor and Anderson. When I confronted them with the rumors, they categorically insisted that everything was on schedule and that the team would have two cars on the grid at Bahrain. Based on these assurances, and despite our misgivings, we decided to publish the story and hope for the best.

Kinda wish we could take a mulligan on that decision….

On February 18, several weeks after we went to press, I spoke again with Windsor. During a rambling, emotional interview, he launched into a self-pitying diatribe berating me for my accusatory tone (!!!). He also insisted that all wasn’t yet lost at US F1, and he told me that I might be hearing from him the following week with some surprisingly good news about the team. Alas, I never heard from Windsor again. And by early March, US F1 had slipped beneath the waves without a trace. What a waste of time, effort and money. If nothing else, the article that follows is the story of what might have been.

Ken Anderson doesn’t look or act like the architect behind the most ambitious – and controversial – American racing team to be launched in a generation. At 54, he’s pudgy and balding yet sunny and boyish, and he blends the laid-back cockiness of the motocross racer he used to be with an engineer’s passion for technical elegance. As he strolls through the US F1 race shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, past a design office filled with humming CAD workstations, he pauses frequently to admire a weld or examine a half-milled upright. But he lingers longest over a crude and grimy tubular relic with puny tires that look like they were lifted from a lawn mower. “Isn’t that the coolest thing?” Anderson says, radiating infectious enthusiasm.

It’s December 2009. In three months, at the Bahrain Grand Prix, Anderson’s team is scheduled to put an American car on a Formula 1 grid for the first time since 1986. But at the moment, the only remotely close-to-race-worthy vehicle in the shop is this first-of-its-kind go-kart built back in 1956. In many respects, the mini-me racing car is a perfect metaphor for US F1. Like the revolutionary go-kart, the team has been ridiculed unmercifully by its many critics for being too slow and too small. And like the go-kart, US F1 hopes to challenge some of the most rigid paradigms in contemporary motorsports – about how the international community perceives American teams and about how business is conducted in Formula 1.

Since Formula 1 was inaugurated in 1950, six American teams have gone overseas in search of grand prix glory. All of them featured prominent names and substantial resources, yet they won only three races among them, and Dan Gurney’s historic victory at Spa in 1967 was the only win in a car built in the U.S.A. But bad karma isn’t the biggest obstacle Anderson has to overcome. He’s also defying decades of conventional wisdom, basing his team in the heart of NASCAR country rather than the center of the F1 universe, in industrial England. Even more outrageous, he expects to be competitive despite spending less money and employing fewer people than most of his rivals.

“This is a skunk-works deal,” Anderson says as he strolls between rows of CNC machines milling exquisitely complex components out of blocks of aluminum. “In 1992, Williams did the FW14B, arguably the trickest F1 car ever built, with 180 people. So why did Toyota need 800 people last year? We’re lean and mean. There’s no upstairs, downstairs. We’re in Joe Gibbs’s original NASCAR shop, built in ’94 before he moved to his garage mahal. It’s not McLaren. But our autoclave still gets hot. It doesn’t know it’s in a 40,000-square-foot building.”

US F1’s headquarters in the States – modest by F1’s grandiose standards – isn’t the only unique aspect of the team. Anderson, the team principal, and executive VP and sporting director Peter Windsor, best known to most Americans as the longtime grid reporter on Speed’s F1 broadcasts, have created a singular business model attuned to current economic realities. Cars will be built in North Carolina but prepped in a satellite race shop in Spain. Turning a profit is a major goal, so US F1 will hold the line on costs. The principal backing comes not from a car manufacturer but from YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley. The new-media marketing effort will focus on slick video, social networking, and product tie-ins rather than conventional PR.

The team’s DNA is another surprise. Contrary to expectations, US F1 isn’t wrapping itself in the American flag. Team members also hail from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Wales, and England. Plenty of them have valuable F1 experience. R&D manager Steve Brown was snagged from Brawn GP, while control-systems manager Frank Dushan Hanisko comes from Renault and operations manager Dave Stubbs enjoyed a long career at Williams. But Anderson also headhunted Americans from homegrown race series. Chief aerodynamicist Eric Warren worked most recently in Sprint Cup. Machine-shop manager Brian Williams has punched tickets from Indianapolis to Dakar. Production director Dave Skog started in Top Fuel. Team manager John Anderson is a legendary figure with two Indy 500 wins to his credit.

By F1 standards, the team’s cast of characters is so alien that it might as well have come from outer space. Thanks in part to the Not Invented Here syndrome, US F1 has been hammered by skeptics ever since it debuted last year, most hilariously in satirical computer-animated videos that were a sensation on – wait for it – YouTube. Ken Anderson didn’t officially become an entrant until he signed the Concorde Agreement – the constitution governing F1 – last July, and he’s been playing catch-up ever since, prompting F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to declare that he didn’t expect US F1 to make the first race of the 2010 season.

Sitting in his office, with engineering drawings of his car spread across his desk and a painting of Gurney in his Spa-winning Eagle on the wall behind him, Anderson blows off the European naysayers. “They’re a bit full of themselves over there,” he says. “The Brits have done a good job of convincing people that you have to be in England to build a Formula 1 car. The thing that people – especially Americans – don’t realize is that ninety-something percent of the technology in Formula 1 comes from the United States through the aerospace industry. I’ve built cars before. A pound of carbon fiber costs the same whether it’s going in a Formula 1 car or a toilet seat. We’re going to have a good, strong car that can bang wheels and come out the other side. Will it win races? That’d be a stretch. But it’s going to be very competitive.”

Anderson doesn’t command much respect from Formula 1 junkies because his F1 exploits were limited to two forgettable years as technical director for the long-forgotten Ligier and Onyx teams. But a closer look at his résumé reveals one of racing’s most versatile pioneers. In the early ’80s, while working at Fox Racing Shox, he helped bring shock-absorber technology from motocross to off-road racing. Through his association with desert rats Roger and Rick Mears, he then moved to Indy cars. Roger Penske hired him to establish Penske Racing Shocks, and Anderson later designed and built cars at Penske’s factory in England. While testing a Penske Indy car at the Williams F1 wind tunnel, Anderson befriended Windsor, who had recently moved from a career in journalism to a job as commercial director for Williams.

Anderson went on to design and build the G Force and Falcon IRL cars and did stints in CART and off-road racing. Windsor, meanwhile, unsuccessfully tried to buy and then create his own F1 teams. Eventually, the two men joined forces to establish CART and IRL programs, but their teams never materialized. In 2006, even as Anderson and Windsor were living an ocean apart, they decided to take a run at forming an American Formula 1 operation. “Without the cell phone and the Internet,” Windsor says, “we wouldn’t have US F1.”

From the 1960s through the 1990s, F1 was dominated by relatively small British constructors that were in the business of building racing cars. But over the past decade, Ford, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Toyota, and Honda began underwriting F1 teams as marketing tools. Costs skyrocketed to unsustainable levels. “Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get two cars on the grid was sheer insanity,” Anderson says. “It was clear that, if Formula 1 was going to survive, it was going to be with teams whose business was racing. Also, there had to be a limit on the number of teams, which would then give you a proper sports franchise.” Eventually, all of the carmakers except Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault bailed, and spending limits were imposed on the remaining teams from 2010 forward.

Anderson and Windsor wrote a business plan for a low-cost team based in the United States. They approached the obvious suspects – rich American racing enthusiasts – but none of them bit. Although Wall Street investment bankers were intrigued by the sport’s global reach, they declined to commit. The sweet spot for the team’s fund-raising efforts turned out to be Silicon Valley, where Anderson focused on wealthy entrepreneurs who’d prospered in the region’s start-up-happy culture. The problem was that most of them wanted a 51 percent stake in the company, and that was a deal-breaker.

In YouTube’s Hurley, Anderson and Windsor found “the perfect partner.” He wasn’t an F1 obsessive, so he wouldn’t meddle, and he bought into the team’s business plan, which meant he wasn’t fixated on an exit strategy. The deal was done on Valentine’s Day at a late-night dinner in Palo Alto, California. Despite Hurley’s association with YouTube, the company hasn’t come onboard as a sponsor. But the Web site is critical to the team’s marketing program.

One of Anderson’s first hires was commercial director Jason Markham. A documentary filmmaker, Markham quickly amassed a team of video and computer-graphics wizards rather than MBAs and salesmen. His office looks less like a traditional marketing department than the equipment room of a film company. “I guarantee you no team in motorsports has the assets we have in this room,” he says. “Only six weeks of the year are on the racetrack. That leaves the other ten and a half months for us to create our own content.”

At the moment, F1 is barely a blip on the American radar. It comes with a lot of elitist baggage, and the demographic of its minute fan base skews middle-aged. Markham hopes to embrace a wider, younger, hipper audience by posting hours of edgy content on YouTube and other Web sites in the hopes of igniting viral marketing phenomena like the Ken Block gymkhana videos. By heightening brand awareness, US F1 can also be a compelling tool for American sponsors looking to penetrate emerging markets.

To a certain degree, of course, US F1 can succeed in the marketplace only if it doesn’t embarrass itself on the racetrack. Besides the hurdles faced by any start-up, Anderson is also hamstrung by the fact that a Formula 1 car has to fit within such narrow design parameters that it’s hard for any team to gain significant technical advantages. Still, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve.

Refueling has been outlawed for 2010, which means that cars will start races carrying as much as 350 pounds of fuel. In recent years, designers have opted for ultrastiff suspensions to keep cars as low as possible, thereby maximizing downforce. But because the weight and balance of the car will change so dramatically during the course of a race, Anderson has a contrarian strategy. “I’ll bet you that we have more shock travel and more suspension travel than anybody else,” he says.

On the aero front, the team’s secret weapon is Warren. Before immersing himself in racing, he started a company that writes its own computational fluid dynamics (CFD) code – software that allows engineers to model airflow on a computer. “Most other teams use commercial software that’s written for a broad audience, not just racing,” he says. Warren, on the other hand, benefits from code customized for motorsports. “So if we have a new piece of hardware to test, we can tailor our program to it.”

The most common alternative to CFD analysis is wind-tunnel testing, and here US F1 has another advantage. The team’s race shop is less than fifteen miles away from Windshear, a one-of-a-kind, full-scale wind tunnel that uses a gigantic stainless-steel conveyer belt to simulate driving along a road at speeds up to 180 mph. The data generated by the facility is so good that four F1 teams tested there last year. Anderson knows the place like the back of his hand – literally. He designed the wind tunnel and oversaw its construction.

But the team’s biggest competitive advantage, he believes, is precisely what critics call its fatal flaw – location. “This time next year,” Anderson says, “we’ll be the best-funded team in Formula 1 because the buying power is so much better in the United States.” Using Yankee dollars instead of pounds or euros allowed him to load up on brand-new equipment, including a rapid-prototyping machine; two autoclaves; a dozen CNC mills, routers, and lathes; and thirty-two CAD stations. He was also able to lure top craftsmen with wages that buy more in Charlotte than they do in Oxfordshire or Maranello. And being the only F1 game in town has a serious cool quotient.

“As soon as Ken called me, I was ready to rock and roll,” says machine-shop man Williams, whose three earrings and multiple tattoos don’t fit the F1 mold. “Just because the stuff over here is a bit more rudimentary doesn’t mean the people are more rudimentary. I get tired of people saying, ‘In F1, we did it this way.’ You know, we went to the moon in 1969.”

Still, by early February, barely six weeks before Bahrain, only one driver – F1 rookie José María López – had been confirmed, and the team’s sponsorship package remained incomplete. While critics claimed that the car would be not only late but dead slow, talk of financial constraints fueled speculation that US F1 might seek permission to miss the first races of the season. “It’s just total bollocks,” Anderson insists. “Short of an airplane going down in the Atlantic with all of our stuff on it, you’ve got to be at all the races. We’re busting our ass to get the car done. We’ll be there [in Bahrain].”

By Don Sherman

CHASSIS Designing and manufacturing any modern racing car is a computer exercise supported by powerful layout, analysis, and fabrication tools. After the design is optimized on-screen for aerodynamic performance, weight and balance, stiffness, strength, and other parameters, the resulting digital files guide computerized manufacturing machinery. Suspension control arms are milled from titanium and then clad with airfoil-shaped carbon-fiber reinforcements. The tub consists of carbon-fiber skins sandwiching honeycomb-aluminum core material. Hundreds of resin-impregnated carbon-fiber sheets are precisely cut according to specific patterns and positioned by hand inside a mold, which is itself made of carbon fiber. An autoclave – essentially a pressurized oven that uses vacuum to force the composite materials into conformity with the mold – cures each part at 225-300 degrees Fahrenheit in several hours. The finished tub has top and bottom sections nested together with four bulkheads; high-strength adhesives and fasteners hold that assembly together. Molded-in aluminum and titanium inserts provide attachment points for the engine, the suspension, and a titanium air-box gusset that protects the driver in the event of a rollover. Special Zylon-composite panels guard against side penetration. Collision forces are mitigated by energy-absorbing material built into the composite side pods and front and rear crush cones. The side pods house the radiators and guide air toward the compound rear-wing assembly. A fifty-five-gallon fuel cell (necessitated by the new ban on refueling) is loaded through a bottom aperture into the cavity between the driver and the engine. The front suspension has one coil-over damper per wheel operated via pull rods plus a third spring to manage brake dive. The rocker-arm rear suspension operates through push rods. Carbon/carbon brake rotors are gripped by AP calipers.

ENGINE The 2.4-liter V-8 supplied by Cosworth to US F1 (and four other teams) is the engine that the Williams team raced four years ago retuned for the current 18,000-rpm rev-limit era. Rules aimed at cost constraint define the bore, stroke, bore spacing, weight, and even the height of the engine’s center of gravity. The number of valves, spark plugs, and fuel injectors is also specified. The block, heads, and pistons must be aluminum, and the crankshaft and camshafts must be iron or steel. Fuel injectors are positioned about three inches above very short intake trumpets. To allow the four valves in each cylinder to be canted toward the bore center for optimum breathing, there are finger followers between the cam lobes and the valve stems. Pistons are fitted with one compression and one oil-control ring. To trim both inertia and parasitic losses, the bare minimum amount of lubricating oil is used. In spite of the severe design restrictions, this engine generates nearly 4 hp for every pound of its weight. The fully fueled weight-to-power ratio of US F1’s Type 1 is just over two pounds per horsepower.

GEARBOX The US F1 team’s trump card is a clever gearbox that’s light, compact, and aerodynamically efficient. A four-inch-diameter, six-plate clutch is supported by the aluminum gearbox housing to relieve the engine’s crankshaft of thrust loads. A bevel-type input gearset doubles the torque and shifts the drive from a longitudinal to a transverse orientation. As torque passes to the four successive gear shafts, which provide seven forward ratios, it climbs about eight inches from crankshaft height (less than four inches above the pavement) to axle height. This narrow staircase arrangement affords an open path for air to flow over the rear diffuser, maximizing rear downforce. Gear changes and clutch movements are controlled by the driver’s shift paddles.

Also From America

Team: Scarab (Lance Reventlow)
Year: 1960
Races: 5
Wins: 0
Points: 0

Team: All American Racers (Dan Gurney)
Years: 1966-68
Races: 30
Wins: 1 (1967 Belgian Grand Prix/Dan Gurney)
Points: 17

Team: Shadow (Don Nichols)
Years: 1973-80
Races: 199
Wins: 1 (1977 Austrian Grand Prix/Alan Jones)
Points: 67.5

Team: Penske (Roger Penske)
Years: 1974-76
Races: 30
Wins: 1 (1976 Austrian Grand Prix/John Watson)
Points: 22

Team: Vel’s Parnelli Jones (Parnelli Jones)
Years: 1974-76
Races: 16
Wins: 0
Points: 6

Team: FORCE (Carl Haas)
Years: 1985-86
Races: 36
Wins: 0
Points: 6