USF1 is officially dead. That is the message coming from both America and Argentina just 24 days from the F1 2010 curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix, with the alleged departure of both key backer and YouTube
co-founder Chad Hurley and head of business development Brian Bonner – and an unnerving, unbroken silence from the North Carolina-based operation for the last three weeks.
The Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson-led outfit – bidding to become the first US team to join the top flight since the ill-fated Beatrice Haas Lola effort in the mid-1980s, and the first Stateside-based squad since Dan Gurney's all-American Eagle entry two decades earlier still – has been dogged by cynicism and speculation ever since it was formally announced early last year, with the sport's influential commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone repeatedly stating that he was unconvinced USF1 would ultimately make it.
How, mused the critics, will a team based the other side of the Atlantic to each and every one of its adversaries possibly compete with them when faced with the logistical nightmare of transporting its cars and equipment across the Pond for all of the European grands prix? Further doubts arose when little evidence was seen of the development of USF1's maiden challenger at a time when rivals were progressing apace with their own and announcing launch dates and testing debuts.
The icing on the cake came when multiple Argentine touring car champion José María López – a man who has not driven a single-seater since 2006, but who can bring a reputed $8 million along with him in terms of sponsorship, $900,000 of which has already been stumped up by his country's government – was recruited as the first driver, and barely three weeks away from the starting lights going out in Sakhir, there has still been no mention at all of the 26-year-old's likely team-mate in 2010.
Now, Argentine media sources are claiming that the ambitious project is dead in the water and that López has headed across to Europe in search of alternative employment – with seats only remaining available at similarly troubled newcomer Campos Meta 1 alongside fellow South American Bruno Senna and at Serbian hopeful Stefan GP, which is bidding to join the fray should an opening arise and where ex-Williams ace Kazuki Nakajima seems all-but certain to occupy one of the two cockpits if an entry does indeed crystallize.
Windsor is said to have informed the former Renault F1 test driver, his father and his manager Felipe McGough 'with tears in his eyes' that the Charlotte concern will not make the first three races of the campaign, and might well even be forced to miss the year altogether. That would arguably make USF1 the shortest-lived F1 team in history, taking over the mantle from MasterCard Lola, which at least made it to Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in 1997, before folding ahead of the next race in Brazil.
Frustrated by the lack of progress at USF1, it has been reported that Hurley has switched his attentions to Spanish entry Campos [see separate story – click here
], which is itself in the final stages of endeavouring to secure an investor to assure its spot on the starting grid in 2010. It is believed that Hurley has already held meetings in London with McGough and Campos co-founder José Ramón Carabante.
There are also stories doing the rounds of unpaid and increasingly restless employees, of the cancellation of planned media visits to USF1's headquarters – whose premises, it emerged last week, are up for sale for $3 million, though the team insists this will not affect its ongoing tenancy, due to expire in 2014 at the end of a 'long-term lease' – and even, somewhat incredibly, of there being only one paid mechanic on-board.
“The bottom line is really simple – sponsor money didn't come through the way it was supposed to, and it has ground down the company to a halt,” an unnamed source told the New York Times
. “They're having trouble making payroll, they're having trouble paying suppliers and that's the situation they find themselves in.”
“It was quite funny for us to hear some of the new teams saying they didn't know when they would fire up,” Lotus F1 chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne added, speaking to ESPN
as the Englishman expressed his incredulity that a team could be preparing to compete without a fixed launch or roll-out date yet. “We knew from the day we submitted the entry when we could be ready. If you are a proper outfit, with a proper design and production schedule, you know exactly when you have to do these things.”
The Cosworth-powered USF1 contender was due to take to the test track for the first time in a private shakedown outing at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama later this month, but so far no confirmation has been forthcoming, and for a man to whom – as a respected SPEED TV
commentator, though he has apparently now been replaced in that role – words invariably come easy, Windsor's silence of late has been practically deafening.
As eleven of its twelve competitors continue to test with a vengeance, time is fast ticking down now to the first practice session of the 2010 F1 World Championship – but it seems that for USF1, time might have sadly run out.