Who will be the next American to tackle Formula 1? Guest writer Gerard Hetman talks to his countryman Jonathan Summerton, an up-and-coming driver with his sights set on F1.
It is a fact that in the world of Formula One, nationality can be a huge factor in determining the career prospects of a young driver. With every team on the grid having significant commercial interests to promote, the “marketability” aspect may be the deciding factor in seeing a promising talent get the backing and support needed to reach the ultimate goal of an F1 race seat.
While there is no shortage of talent in the ranks of GP2 and other junior series, those of us here in the United States cannot help but notice the lack of American drivers among those who are seen as top prospects for advancing to F1.
Since Mario Andretti brought the F1 title to Pennsylvania in 1978, no other American has managed to achieve profound success on the big stage, despite a series of memorable attempts. Many of us long for the day when the Stars and Stripes flies proudly over the top step of an F1 podium again, and are always on the lookout for the driver to make it happen.
While theories abound over current NASCAR and IndyCar starts potentially making a jump to F1, one name flies under the radar. Unlike many of the better-known drivers, he has experience in many of the same series that have launched the current stars of F1, and has raced and won at multiple F1 venues around the planet. That name is Jonathan Summerton.
Racing at home and abroad
When looking at Summerton’s records and results since he began racing, a vision emerges of a young driver who is assembling an impressive resume on both the domestic and international scenes. First braking into kart racing in 2002 in his home state of Florida, Summerton began racing in the Skip Barber Series in 2003, bagging his first car win in the regional race at Moroso.
In 2004 he made his debut in Formula BMW USA, picking up wins at Montreal, Indianapolis (becoming the youngest ever winner at the speedway), and Road America. He then received the BMW scholarship that would allow him a full season in Formula BMW Europe in 2005. Summerton finished 10th overall in the series, including a second place at Spa, helping pave the way for him to race in F3 Euroseries in 2006.
While racing against many current F1 test and race drivers, Summerton did not disappoint. He had the highest average qualifying position for a rookie in the series, finished ninth in the final standings, and bagged a win at Hockenheim to cap the season.
However, his most notable success has been with Team USA in A1 Grand Prix. Summerton took over as race driver for the last four events of 2006-2007 in the “We the People” car, collecting a podium finish at Mexico City. Returning to the series after the first two races of the 2007-08 season, Summerton captured his finest moment to date with a win in the feature race for Team USA at the Shanghai International Circuit – the first win for the team in the short history of the series.
Despite his impressive results, Summerton found himself out of the A1GP seat for this season when Team USA was acquired by Andretti Green Racing, who decided to rotate AGR drivers Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick in the race seat.
Summerton spent the rest of 2008 driving for Newman Wachs Racing in the Atlantic Championship Series. He picked up wins at Road America and Edmonton Airport, and was locked in a battle for the championship heading into the final race at Road Atlanta. He and title rival Jonathan Bomarito were beaten to the series title by Markus Niemela of Finland, but Summerton received the series “Most Likely to Succeed” award.
While Summerton has collected some impressive results in his career, he still faces a number of hurdles to get to his ultimate goal of reaching F1. In a series of email exchanges, he was more than happy to give us his take on those challenges, as well as a range of other thoughts on his career and F1.
F1F: How did you first become involved in motor racing, and what has led you to ultimately aim for a career in F1, as opposed to a series like NASCAR or NHRA?
JS: I initially got involved in racing through R/C cars, which led me into karting. I chose F1 to focus on as I know that is the ultimate series and only the best drivers in the world are there. I know it’s hard but that’s what makes it more fun.
F1F: Earlier this year you delivered the first-ever race win for Team USA in the A1GP series, and also managed several other podiums for the team. How has this success boosted your reputation and visibility in the racing community?
JS: Well, I am not sure really. I do know that it should have helped with my reputation and it is a great honor to represent your country and win a Gold medal for it. I do know that the win helped me with my future racing opportunities.
F1F: When A1GP Team USA was taken over by Andretti Green Racing, and the team ownership put their drivers in the A1GP seat, did you feel it was a blow to your professional development?
JS: I feel it was a blow to me and the development of my career. I know I had proven I was able to win this coming season, and I was called back by the old team owner. What I know though is that I am still focused on making it to F1, and this is just a little speed bump in the road.
F1F: You had a very strong season in the Atlantic Series this year, but also narrowly missed out on the title. What lessons and knowledge did you take away from that experience?
JS: Well I am constantly learning in everything I do. This season… well lets just say luck wasn’t on our side, and that new drivers shouldn’t be allowed to mess with the championship race in the last race of the season, as that is what messed with our championship. I know we should have won that championship, and we were the best car there in the series, but luck just wasn’t on our side.
F1F: It is no secret that a driver’s nationality can play a huge part in earning a seat in Formula 1. As an American, do you see your nationality as a positive or negative factor in trying to break into the F1 ranks?
JS: I feel that it is a little bit of both. I know to get into F1 it is probably harder, but once you are in and doing well I feel you are at an advantage, as the American market is what most teams want to succeed in.
F1F: In your career to date, have you raced against anyone current F1 test or race drivers? If so, please tell us a little about your experiences racing against them.
Well, I have raced against 7 current race/test drivers in the same year when I was in F3 Euroseries in 2006. I raced with Sebastian Vettel, Kazuki Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hülkenburg, Paul di Resta, and Giedo van der Garde. They are all very quick and very aggressive. My teammate was Buemi – we worked very hard together and helped improve each other’s performance by being very close in time to each other at every track we visited. Vettel was a good hard racer and was very fun to drive with.
F1F: With hundreds of drivers around the world aiming for only 20 or so F1 race seats, what do you feel gives you an edge in your quest to land a spot on the grid?
JS: I know I am an American and we already talked about that, but I feel I have a marketing advantage. Plus, I feel I am capable of racing and beating all of the current F1 drivers.
F1F: Looking at sponsorship and financial backing, tell us a bit about your current sponsors and backers, and how they have contributed to your career development.
JS: This past season I had Eddie Wachs, Paul Newman, Cheyenne Entertainment Games, and Nuclear Energy. I am very grateful to have them this past season. As for the upcoming season, I am still working on finding sponsors for my next season-it is a tough business finding them. I am continuing to look for sponsors for this season as I need them to continue racing and continue on the path to F1.
F1F: Your website lists Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya as influences on you-what do you admire about these drivers?
JS: Michael Schumacher is the best driver of all time in my opinion, and is a very personable person to talk to. With Montoya, he is the most aggressive driver I know and pulls the last ounce out of a car. He is also a very cool driver to talk to and be around, and respects his fans a great deal.
F1F: One of the helmets you are often seen wearing is painted bright yellow with a patriotic band around the middle-not unlike the designs worn by Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton. How did you come up with this design?
JS: Well, it is actually a very bright orange around the outside. The reason is that Orange is my favorite color, and I am very patriotic about being an American, which brought me to add the stars throughout my helmet and then involve the American Flag. I wanted to be different and have my helmet stand out from the rest.
F1F: You’ve raced on many current and former F1 tracks-what are some of your favorites to drive, and what ones would you like to race at in the future?
JS: I really enjoy Hockenheim, Spa, Magny Cours, Monza – they are tons of fun to drive. As for the future, I would love to drive at the Singapore F1 Circuit, Valencia Street Circuit, and many other street circuits. I really enjoy racing on street tracks, as there isn’t any room for error.
F1F: Without revealing any confidential information, can you give us an idea of where your career is heading in the near future. Have you tested for or held public discussions with any teams in different series?
JS: Well, I can say that I feel the future is looking very bright. I tested in the Indy Lites series recently, and the test went very well. I enjoy the cars and feel at home with many of the teams. I am also currently trying to put together a deal to run in the Indianapolis 500.
F1F: Turning to American open-wheel racing, do you have any interest in the new IndyCar series beyond the Indy 500? What do you think the future outlook is for the sport – will fans, sponsors, and drivers such as yourself be attracted to it?
JS: I am very interested in the IndyCar series and feel the series is going to continue to get stronger. I do feel going toward the road courses that it will improve the racing. I also believe that allowing new engine manufacturers would also be very positive to the series.
F1F: You won the Formula BMW support race at the United States GP at Indianapolis. With ongoing talk about the return of F1 to America, what venue(s) would you like to see F1 race at here in the United States? Would Indianapolis be a good venue again? Or, given your love of street tracks, where would be a good spot for a street race in the USA?
JS: I feel that a street race in Washington D.C. or in Las Vegas would be great places for it. I believe that street circuits are great for spectators and also good fun for racing.
F1F: What is your overall opinion of how F1 can grow and become more popular here in the United States? What are some of the important elements in building the sport’s image here to increase popularity?
JS: I feel F1 needs an American in the series and performing well, and also more easily accessible pits for fans so they can look at the high-tech cars. I also feel that having a race in the US that has good viewing and passing areas will increase spectators.
Working up the ladder
In looking at Summerton’s prospects for entering F1, he will undoubtedly be compared to the legacies of previous Americans who have raced in the series. Could he be the next Mario Andretti – a world champion and all-round racing superstar? Will he be another Eddie Cheever – a talented driver with a long F1 career, but no wins or championships? Or could he be another Scott Speed – a former A1GP driver who fizzles out of open-wheel racing with no impressive showings?
To start with, Summerton has already spent a good bit of time racing with – and beating – many of the top prospects who are on the short list for F1 seats in the near future. While F3 and Formula BMW are still a ways off from F1, he has shown that he can be competitive with the best if he has the proper equipment. He also has experience racing at many current or recent F1 venues in Europe, North America, and Asia – eliminating the “lack of track knowledge” argument that often dogs American prospects. In addition, he is friendly and outgoing to the press – something sure to please fans, sponsors, and team personnel in the F1 world.
In terms of the opposition, we all know that describing the competition for an F1 seat as fierce is an understatement, and Summerton will need to continue to prove his worth by compiling wins and, eventually, championships. Also, the financial climate is making life difficult for drivers and teams in all series worldwide – while this is no fault of his, it will create some obstacles for Summerton in terms of backing and sponsorship. Lastly, while the marketing potential of an American driver is tremendous, there is always the chance that a narrow-minded team boss may be afraid to take a chance on an American, out of fears that they could wind up with another disruptive situation along the lines of Speed’s dismissal from Toro Rosso.
When looking at the current grid, Summerton’s best chances for a drive may be with a team that has significant interests in America, yet is not tied to an extensive network of young drivers. Perhaps a team like Williams – who could be in the market in a few seasons if Rosberg bolts or Nakajima is called back by Toyota – would find him attractive as someone who would be a fresh face for American sponsors, yet relatively inexpensive to sign when compared to more experienced and glamorous alternatives. One of the big car manufacturers who have stood up for the American market, such as Toyota, could also be a player for Summerton. Lastly, while it seems remote at best in the current financial market, there are always wealthy parties interested in starting an F1 team, and any new team with American backing would surely find Summerton as an attractive proposition.
In summary, while he still has quite a way to go, Summerton has turned in a list of performances that should at least put him on the radar screens of F1 team bosses and owners. While he may not yet have the financial backing or lucrative endorsements that are behind many of his contemporaries, there’s no reason why he can’t be just as quick if given the opportunity in F1. It will take a bit more seasoning, and perhaps a detour through another top-line racing series, but don’t be surprised to see Jonathan Summerton on the F1 grid in a few years time.
Special thanks to Rebecca Banks for arranging contact with Jonathan.
This is a guest article by Gerard Hetman. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.