Thursday, November 6, 2014
Can Formula 1 ever catch on in NASCAR's America? Mercedes says yes
Formula 1 doesn't garner close to the attention among Americans that NASCAR does — but the chief of this year's champion F1 team thinks that’s all about to change.
Toto Wolff, the head of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team, says the planned 2016 launch of an American F1 race team from North Carolina could help push the series toward the other steps that would build its American fan base — more races and an American-born driver.
The world's most popular racing series hasn't had an American team running a car since 1986, and no American drivers since 2007. Gene Haas, owner of Haas Automation and the co-owner of NASCAR's Stewart-Haas racing, has already begun building offices and reached an agreement with Ferrari for F1 engines and technical help.
Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff
“When you come into this kind of racing, you need to understand what you do. Haas understands because he is in NASCAR and he has faced all the challenges you have when you set up a competitive race series. I think that he probably knows best what is needed at that stage,” Wolff said at Austin's Circuit of the Americas, where his team scored another 1-2 finish on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix.
Part of the popularity of NASCAR also stems from pure drama, something that F1 has played down in the past. The well-known rivalry between winning Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and his counterpart Nico Rosberg has caused some dramatic instances both on the track and off this season.
But F1 has seen nothing like the fistfight between NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski after Sunday's race that made national headlines.
“Competition continues to be intense between our two drivers,” Wolff said. “These boys have been calibrated to win championships and this is the only thing they have ever worked for. Their biggest competitor and enemy is their teammate. There is no tension now, but we had some tensions and an incident in Spa but the situation now is much better than expected."
American drivers could also play a crucial role in helping F1 gain a greater foothold here, Wolff said.
“F1 is like running an enterprise — a midsize company — and you need to have a good face on it.”
And drama isn't the only ingredient. A typical NASCAR race tends to draw about ten times more TV viewers in the United States than the F1 races that air at odd times over a weekend — but the F1 audiences on the NBC Sports Network have been growing strongly, while the NASCAR one has been flat to declining.
And while NASCAR no longer releases live attendance figures, sports reporters in Texas said the 107,000-strong audience in Austin for the USGP on Sunday was greater than the crowd that showed up at the Texas Motor Speedway for NASCAR's AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race.
“Austin is a great venue for the race. We are able to have big business meetings with U.S. firms and the city has great energy," Wolff said. "If we can get a second race into a fancy location like Las Vegas or New Jersey, it would be great.”
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, whose win at Austin this weekend is his tenth this season, believes that having a second U.S. location is crucial to getting F1 in front of U.S. fans.
“NASCAR is on every week. We won’t make a wave with one race. We need a couple of races here to really see F1 grow in popularity," Hamilton said.
Even without a home-grown team to cheer for, American F1 fans turned out in force Sunday. Kim Reimer, a Tallahassee fan, spends hundreds of hours working to create an exact scale replica of the Ferrari F1 car to wear as a hat to each race he can attend.
“I’ve been a racing fan for years. I brought my mother and my brother to this race and I’ve been coming for the last three years," he said. "It’s great to have an F1 race in the U.S. and I’d love to see another location open up soon.”