The American F1 Dream: Conor Daly’s push for the top

3 Comments

Formula 1’s recent revival in the USA has been wonderful to see. The return of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin has been a complete success, and an American team is set to join the grid in 2016 courtesy of NASCAR team owner Gene Haas.

However, there is still one thing missing: an American driver. You have to go back to Scott Speed in 2007 for the last US F1 racer, but there are two very young and exciting talents coming through the ranks at the moment.

First up, we have Alexander Rossi. The Caterham test driver is perhaps the closest to F1 at the moment, but he is still yet to make the full-time step up. We spoke to him about his chances a few weeks ago in Montreal.

The second is Conor Daly. The two drivers took different routes up the junior ladder, but the ultimate goal remains the same: Formula 1. Therefore, with the sport becoming increasingly pro-American, surely it must bode well for an American driver?

“People keep saying that,” Conor explains, “but me and Rossi are still here in GP2, and we’re not getting those calls to jump up. I love being American, I happy being American, but we can’t keep seem to generate the support that other nationalities get from their pure countries – not morale support, financial support.”

And this has been what has held Conor back all too often: finances. After what he called “the worst winter ever” in pursuit of a race seat, he eventually secured a last-minute drive in GP2.

“I’m not fortunate enough to have governments behind me or oil companies, so it is what it is and I’m happy to be here and we’ve done every race so far so all is well,” he said. “I can’t be more thankful to these guys for the opportunity.

“We’ll just have to continue to see how it plays out, and even if it’s Alex and not me, that’s awesome, I’d love to see Alex there, but we cannot stress enough that we need help to get there for sure.”

The fact that Formula 1 has become so business oriented has been to the detriment of drivers such as Conor. Strictly speaking, the sport should involve the best 22 drivers in the world. However, the rise of the pay driver means that sometimes the size of your wallet can mean more than the trophies on your shelf.

Daly, Rossi, and even Gene Haas have all had to deal with the difficulty of being an American trying to break into a Euro-centric sport. “For me as a driver, you had to come to Europe to try to get to F1,” Conor said. ” I think no matter what he’s going to make the right decisions when it comes to the time to do it.

“I think if you have a base of operations in America, you can also just as easily – maybe not have one big one but two small ones. I’m sure when the time comes they’ll make the right decision either way.”

Haas Formula appears to be Conor’s best chance of stepping up into an F1 role in the near future, but after seeing many opportunities come and go over the years, he is unwilling to say for certain that he will make it into the sport.

“Some day you could be at zero percent, and the next day you might get a call and things are at 95%,” he said. “I thought I was gonna be a Formula 1 driver when USF1 came up. All of a sudden we thought ‘wow, life is good’.

“I thought everything was going to be fine when I had a contract with Gerry Forsythe for ten years. He was one of my original investors, and then after 2010, my best season in Star Mazda, he decided that he wanted to pull out.

“I’ve known a lot of things, and it’s all gone well, but then it’s all gone up in flames too so I can’t put any percents on anything.”

What Conor said next summed up the sometimes brutal and uncertain life of a racing driver trying to make a break into a top-line series.

“You have to be confident that opportunities are real, but for sure if any opportunities come up you have to chase it to a certain point to make sure whether it’s real or not,” he explained.

“But for sure you hear a lot more things in racing that never happen then actually do happen, so that’s the shady part. There’s so many people who promise so many things that never actually happen; that’s the sad part of racing.”

It is sad. It is sad that drivers without the necessary funding see their F1 hopes go up in flames. Conor currently races in GP2, which is technically F1’s direct feeder series. However, the last two champions – Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer – are not racing in F1, nor is Sam Bird or James Calado, who came second and third respectively last season. Some of the drivers currently in Formula 1 did not come close to winning the championship.

Nevertheless, Conor is pleased with where he is. “GP2 is a pretty high level championship. I’ve got so much experience now that I can take it really anywhere and I think people would benefit from it, so for sure there are opportunities anywhere.

“I think there are opportunities in sportscars, I obviously have to meet the right people, get in the right meetings, do all this, do all that, as you normally do. IndyCar, I think I would love to do for a very long time if that’s something that I need to do. Long shot left field, if NASCAR, there’s something there I’d take that too.

“Anything, so long as I’m driving and going fast I’m happy.”

Formula 1 remains the ultimate goal, naturally, but it is refreshing to see a driver making himself open to other avenues. Be it F1, IndyCar or sportscars, Conor will be sure to impress.

Amid the flux of pay drivers, reserve roles and billionaire backers, both of our American drivers are fighting hard to get to the top; the hope of hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out in F1 once again still burns brightly.

Follow @LukeSmithF1

Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
1 Comment

Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”