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Windsor: I learnt a lot from USF1 – and I'd do it again

16 August 2010

Reflecting that 'a bit of humiliation is always good for the soul' and that things should be kept in perspective, Peter Windsor has spoken publicly for the first time since USF1 bit the dust earlier this year, admitting that he has learned a lot from the failed venture and is 'a better person' for it – and confessing that were the right opportunity to present itself, he would do it all again.

The whole sorry saga of USF1 scarcely needs running back over. Suffice to say that having originally launched the initiative in early 2009, just over a year later and following a litany of errors and misfortune – from an inability to attract sufficient sponsorship to compete at the highest level, albeit not aided by the timing of the global credit crunch, to a PR campaign that lurched from one calamity to another, and this despite Windsor having previously been a public relations specialist – the North Carolina-based concern was the only one of the four anticipated F1 2010 newcomers not to make the grid for the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir.

The critics railed against the fact that Windsor and partner-in-crime Ken Anderson had had considerably more time than Virgin, Hispania and particularly Lotus – all of whom ultimately did make the grade despite having had their entry bids accepted at a later date, the latter not until September – to put the team together, and to realise the dream of an all-American outfit in F1 for the first time in more than two decades.

They had led José María López on, they had led YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley on, they had led engine-supplier Cosworth on, they had led the FIA on and worst of all they had led an entire nation on – that was USF1's clinical post-mortem after the governing body sounded the death knell by refusing to grant Windsor and Anderson their requested deferral until 2011. In his first interview since the dream degenerated into a recurring nightmare, however, Windsor contends all was not what it seemed – and insists that any unfavourable comparisons with the success of Lotus are grossly unfair.

“There was never a moment I didn't think it was going to happen until it didn't happen,” the Englishman told GPWeek. “You learn in life constantly to push and to fight. Within your control, you always do all you can to make it happen. Most of the people I know in motor racing are like that – they never give up until it's over.

“We were awarded an entry in June, but that was for an FIA championship that did not include any of the big-name teams. They were lining up for the so-called 'breakaway' series. It wasn't until late July that the two parties – the FIA and FOTA (Formula One Teams' Association) – actually sat down and spoke with any sort of civility, and it wasn't until mid-August that we actually signed into the single-championship Concorde Agreement. Until that time, we couldn't exist as a company, we couldn't have a website, we couldn't trade, we couldn't hire people.

“As far as I know, Lotus was already a long way down the track with design work by then – and their design team was a harmonious unit, well-used to working under pressure and familiar with one another. I believe I'm correct in saying that Mike Gascoyne's excellent Cologne-based team was borne of his time at Toyota. That's a totally different kind of operation. That's a car being designed in an F1-friendly environment for a build-group in the UK.

“We never contemplated that sort of set-up. We were trying something completely different, not only in the context of F1 today but within the context of the history of F1. We were designing and building a car outside Europe – and doing it in-house as well. Until then, everyone was saying that Europe was the only place to do a car; we felt, with the extensive technology infrastructure that now exists on the east coast of the States, that the time had finally arrived when an F1 car could be designed and built in America.

“It was never going to happen overnight, however; if a well-oiled Mike Gascoyne operation only just made Bahrain, we were always going to need more time to do the same thing around a brand new project in the States. And it wasn't just Mike that took the Euro, third-party route; the other two new teams also used a third-party design and build facility – which, strictly-speaking, isn't what F1 is all about.

“Ken Anderson first came to me with the USF1 idea in the wake of David Richards failing to take his place on the grid as the 12th team. David pulled out, I think, because he wanted McLaren to build his cars. The origin of our team, therefore, was 180 degrees in the other direction – we had to do our own car. It was clear, following David's problems, that this was F1's future; every team was going to design and build its own cars, and so that was our template from day one, with the proviso that we wanted to make our technology something we could talk about and sell, something unique and fun.

“When we originally planned our team, there were two or three free spaces on the grid and nobody had made a move to try to fill them. Everybody believed the conventional wisdom that an F1 team must cost €150 million or thereabouts. We set out to change that – to show that, in the States, you could do a start-up team for much less and that it could grow from there. This was long before the recession, remember. This was in the days when F1 sponsors were falling off trees.

“As it happened, our approach chimed-in perfectly with the recession that began over the winter of 2008/09. That was one of the reasons we were successful in raising our capital; people were ready to listen and to learn about another way to do an F1 team – and to globalise via F1. Problem was, we then lost a lot of time as F1 imploded.

“As we now know, the budget cap formula never happened, even though the new teams for 2010 owe their original genesis to it. Look at Adrián Campos – he genuinely believed that he was going to be able to run his team for €30 million! As amazing as it seems, I think some of the new teams were even enthusiastic about F1 splitting into two. Instantly, they were going to be big fish in a very small pond. As it is, I don't think any of the new teams are happy with the situation as it is now – but there you go.”

Though he alludes to having wanted to make the whole idea 'fun', that was a commodity in conspicuously short supply as USF1 perhaps inevitably reached the end of the road, and the increasingly implausible positive sound bites dried up. Explaining that the notion of running with Toyota's ready-made but never raced TF110 was not an option as 'designing and building the car in-house was an inherent part of USF1' and as such, anything else 'wouldn't have been USF1', Windsor now concedes that with the benefit of hindsight goggles, 'it would have been better than doing nothing at all' given his team's ultimately impossible race against time to make the field.

Clearly chastened by the crushing disappointment of the whole process and the acerbic media denigration of his and Anderson's shambolic efforts, the former Williams and Ferrari team manager-turned-TV commentator argues that just as he never gave up before, nor is he about to start now – and acknowledging that his love for the sport is still very much intact, if all the conditions were right he claims he would be open to trying again.

“Obviously I was very, very sad,” the 58-year-old concluded. “Equally, I've learned a lot – and, hopefully, I'm a better person for it. I wanted to do an all-new and very creative F1 team, we got an entry, we gave it 100 per cent and we didn't make it. A few people have said a lot of nasty, critical things – but believe me, none of the things they've said have been as tough as the things I've said to myself. That's what happens when you try something difficult and new.

“If it was the right package – by which I mean the right group of people and the right situation – yes, certainly [I would try again]. For all that, I was very impressed with the decision made recently by Nicolas Todt (team principal of GP2 Series front-runner ART Grand Prix, that recently withdrew from the F1 2011 bidding process). Of all the people I know, he is perfectly-positioned to start a new team, yet he isn't doing so. Why? I think it is because he believes F1 still has a long way to go – and if anyone is perfectly-positioned to judge, it's Nicolas. Don't forget that we put USF1 together pre-recession, pre-budget cap, pre-FIA/FOTA split. Now the world is very different; now even the midfield F1 teams, let alone the new teams, are struggling to find sponsors.

“A friend said to me recently that a bit of humiliation is always good for the soul and, as hard as that is to swallow, I know deep down that she is right. I don't think we were the only start-up company not to make it through the recession – and we made it much further down the line than many other race team projects. You think Frank Williams began only in 1978? You think there weren't three less successful Projects prior to McLaren's Project Four? David Richards' F1 operation never made it past the entry stage.

“No disrespect meant to any of those people or companies – but let's keep things in perspective. For my part, I love life and I love racing and I appreciate all my friends in racing – even the critics. More than ever before, I also try to remember to be grateful every day for the opportunities ahead of me.”


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