It is perhaps a sad state of affairs that there are currently more British drivers enjoying successful careers in the Indy Racing League (IRL) and Champ Car than there are in the upper echelons of European single seater racing.
Coupled with the ever-growing number of Brits in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and other stateside endurance series, it is clear that the USA is exerting a magnetic pull on many of our top drivers. Why?
First, money. There are far more paying drives in the USA than there are in the UK. Once a driver is successful it is likely that they will be signed up regardless of whether they have personal sponsorship behind them. While Dan Wheldon, Darren Manning and Dario Franchitti are all top drivers, it is unlikely that any of them would have continued their careers or made a living from the sport had they stayed in Europe. Likewise, ALMS drivers Jonny Mowlem and Robin Liddell are unlikely to have been paid to drive in the UK, in the way that they are in the USA. Part of the reason for this is that in the USA they like winners. If a driver wins, a seat will be found for them. Of course if they don’t there is the risk of being dropped like a stone (Mark Taylor’s brief IRL career with Panther Racing is testament to this).
The second reason I would cite is the glamour factor. Dario Franchitti’s European career was petering out in Deustche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) series in the mid-90s. He headed off to pursue a drive in CART (which is now Champ Car) and started winning.
This success was followed by multi-million dollar contracts and a marriage to a film star. As a result it is less surprising that he turned down the chance to race for Jaguar in 2001.
To better understand the ‘glamour’ argument, ask yourself this simple question: Would you rather go testing at Laguna Seca on a balmy Californian morning or Snetterton in wet and windy Norfolk? For a British driver the opportunity to race and live in the USA is a once-in-a-lifetime chance and it is unsurprising that so many drivers choose this option.
Then there is the simple fact that most drivers just want the opportunity to race, preferably without paying for the privilege. I guarantee you that if Mongolia launched an F3 series where the drivers got paid, half of the British F3 grid would be on the first plane out there. For example, one ARP Formula Three driver, the talented James Winslow, was going to do British F3 in 2005, but after a winter of scrabbling around for sponsorship he got offered a supported drive in Asian F3. Guess which one he chose.
There are downsides to racing in some USA series. Firstly, it is often more dangerous than European racing. The particular perils of oval racing at over 330 kph around concrete walls are obvious, but many US road courses also have tiny run-off areas and concrete walls lining the track. Dario Franchitti has not completed a season in three years due to injury and Dan Wheldon’s IRL debut at Indianapolis ended with him sliding for half a mile on his roll hoop. Late 1970s F3 star Stephen South’s career ended when he lost a leg following an accident racing sports cars in the USA (South was considered a far greater talent than Nigel Mansell).
The nature of oval racing may offer high speeds and close battles on the track but its artificiality makes it deadly boring to those who served their racing apprenticeships at such places as Oulton Park or Brands Hatch.
Yes, I know, every track has distinct characteristics, but given the drivers’ collective enthusiasm ahead of the first IRL race on something other than an oval (and getting to turn right for a change), at St. Petersburg last month, I think they’re with me on this one.
Likewise, many of the road courses are city centre street circuits low on character and even lower on the possibility of producing great racing. True, many of the recent additions to the F1 circuit are bland clones of one another, but the calendar also features some of the world’s most awesome tracks.
Another point worth considering in the question of whether Franchitti, Wheldon et al would have cut it in F1? I have to say I don’t think they would. This is not to say that I don’t believe them to be immensely talented racing drivers – I do – but I don’t feel that any of them are Grand Prix winner standard. This may seem harsh and there is no way of knowing short of sticking them in an MP4-20, but drivers like Darren Manning were only sporadically fast in F3 and F3000, and never seemed to be likely to break through to F1. Indeed the only driver racing in the USA at the moment whom I believe to be a genuine loss to the world of Grand Prix racing is Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais. Friends in the racing world have told me that they believe him to be the most naturally talented driver they ever saw. His continued domination of Champ Cars confirms this.
Whilst I can see the reasoning behind the argument that too many Brits are racing away their careers in the limelight in the USA, I believe that, for them, it was the best, if not only, option that they were faced with. Though I would love to see more competitive British drivers in F1, those currently racing in the IRL just don’t seem to have the absolute ability to rival Michael Schumacher. And you can’t begrudge them wanting to compete in the high-profile world of American motor sport.