Atlas F1

America's Lost Generation

by Roy Glikin, United States

The sad news of Davy Jones' injury during practice for the Disney World IRL race is noteworthy to ever-faithful US F1 fans, as Davy is member of an entire generation of American driving talent who were never given an opportunity to prove their worth in F1.

While the epic battle in the 1983 British F3 Championship between Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle has passed into legend, the efforts of a 19 year old kart racer from upstate New York to finish third are largely forgotten. His name, Davy Jones. Given the experience and funding differential, his results were astonishing. At season's end, Davy tested a championship-winning Brabham BT53-BMW to great effect. Brabham's choice for a number two driver in 1984? The Fabi Brothers, Teo and Corrado. In 1985? Francois Hesnault and Marc Surer. Who was fired at the end of 1983? Riccardo Patrese. Very strange, in hindsight.

Sitting at home, witnessing another epic battle starring Ayrton Senna, that of the 1988 World Championship, it seemed clear to this writer, that no matter how talented an engineering staff an F1 team assembled, no matter how wide a corporate coffers were opened, to win you would need to match the undisputed talent benchmarks: Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. The obvious candidates from the left side of the Atlantic? Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti. It took three years for Mercedes-Benz to buy Michael Schumacher a ride aboard the Jordan and bring to light a challenger to the legendary Prost and Senna. As written above, very strange.

There was a time when American drivers were celebrated in F1. Names? Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue. All, indisputably, worthy additions to the field. However, since Mario's World Championship in 1978, only Eddie Cheever and Danny Sullivan were favored with a full seasons in F1. America's most recent F1 driver, Michael Andretti, was stood down after a mere 12 races out of a three year contract. Ayrton Senna was incensed by McLaren's treatment of Michael. He abandoned Ron Dennis and left to join Williams, and the team hasn't been a contender since. The very fact Ayrton rated Andretti ought to silence the forest of (European) critics who concluded Michael couldn't cut it in F1.

The usual F1 commentators and pundits feel no regret at the squandering of American talent. Its time to put that right. Just who are the members of this "Lost Generation?" I'll go back all the way to Rick Mears, who tested a Brabham BT49-Ford just prior to the 1980 Long Beach Grand Prix and Nelson Piquet's first F1 victory. Rick declined Bernie Ecclestone's offer of a ride when he figured out he was to be a rent-a-driver. Piquet's teammate at the time? Argentinean Ricardo Zunino. Zunino's replacement at Brabham? Mexican Hector Rebaque. Did Bernie really rate Mears, Zunino and Rebaque as equals? In hindsight, that's the way it looks.

Ok, comparing Rick Mears to Zunino and Rebaque is shooting fish in a barrel. Not so easy in the case of Bobby Rahal, who drove the two North American races for Walter Wolf in 1978 as teammate to Jody Scheckter. Scheckter's replacements at Wolf for 1980? The almost burnt-out James Hunt and Keke Rosberg. Can't argue with that, although had Walter been able to fund a second car, it likely would have been piloted by Rahal. In that instance, I might have an argument, as there's precedent for top Can-Am drivers of that era to move up to F1 - Rosberg, Patrick Tambay and Jacky Ickx (granted, a retread) are in that list.

Al Unser, Jr. (Can-Am Champion, 1983) is not, and he heads the roll call of ignored Americans. Others? John Paul, Jr. Anyone who saw John ride herd over his father's Porsche 935 in IMSA as a teenager would have no doubt as to his skill. Promise backed up by his victory in the 1979 Michigan 500. Davy Jones matured nicely in IMSA sportscars, matching his old rival Martin Brundle. What's the point of bringing up drivers from 15 years ago? All three are still younger than Damon Hill.

More names? Scott Pruett. Ross Cheever. Robby Gordon. And although a NASCAR driver is as likely to be tapped by the F1 fraternity as Uwe Alzen, you can add the late Tim Richmond, Bill Elliot and Brett Bodine as single-seater contenders.

But it's the treatment accorded to the two big names at the top of the list that is truly irksome. When Carl Haas' Lola F1 team needed a replacement for Patrick Tambay in the 1986 Detroit Grand Prix, the first choice was Michael Andretti. Ah, sorry. No superlicense. Odd really, considering Mike was the 1984 North American Formula Mondial champion (more commonly known as Formula Atlantic), an FIA series intended to qualify drivers internationally. The second choice? Eddie Cheever. Compare the two's Indycar careers and do you see the logic? No, of course not, there isn't any. After Al Unser's test with Williams in 1992, he was advised to do a season of F3000. To which, Al replied "What's F3000?" Bizarre.

F1, however, does rate Indycar engineering talent. John Barnard, Steve Nichols and Adrian Newey have earned their keep since proving their worth in America. No question, there. Ford, Goodyear and Marlboro spend big bucks if F1, so sponsorship money isn't lacking.

Things may be changing. Jacques Villeneuve has done quite nicely, thank you. Due consideration was given to Alex Zanardi and Gil deFerran for F1 seats in 1997. Dario Franchitti, it is rumored, will be placed by Mercedes-Benz in Indycar this year. There is strong indication that, in the future, drivers to be groomed for the F1 show will be seasoned in America. A year of Indycars is probably better preparation for the F1 wars than the somewhat coveted testing contract.

Does this mean Americans will get their shot as well? Compare Jimmy Vasser's resume today to Jacques Villenueve's at the end of 1995. Fairly close. Will Vasser get his propers? Odds are against it. Fact is, Indycar drivers are well paid, race close to home (particularly those who live out of a motorhome during the season) and have a very good time. They are unlikely to develop "fire in the belly" for an F1 opportunity equal to say Mario Andretti's. Like Mario, Jacques Villeneuve took a pay cut to race in F1. It would take a salary in the neighborhood of $10 million to lure Al Jr. across the water, $3-5 million to bring Vasser aboard. Verstappen didn't get his $5 million, and $10 million would place Unser in the top five of F1 driver salaries. Zanardi and deFerran may have had contractual difficulties in moving back to F1, then again, why should they take a pay cut to be a mid-fielder in F1, when they can take the money and race for the championship in America? Pragmatism over romance, America does that to people.

The other clear factor is culture shock. Hill, Gurney, Revson and Donohue may have been as American as cowboys and the Rockies, but Mario is as American as pizza. He got his racing itch at Monza watching Ascari. Cheever too, was an expatriate and came up the ladder in Europe. Jacques Villeneuve may have a maple leaf on his cockpit, but he was born in Monaco, was schooled in Switzerland, and first raced in Italy. He may very well have spent fewer months living in Canada than you have fingers on your hands. If anything, that maple leaf should be a fleur-de-lis. Michael Andretti, despite his parentage, does not speak Italian.

The bottom line may well be, the US is as likely to have an F1 driver, as it is to have a Grand Prix. However, the F1 teams don't need a USGP to beat Schumacher. This writer is willing to bet Jeff Gordon could. Or Unser, or Andretti or...

Roy Glikin
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