F1 and America – David Hobbs Gives His Take…

We are fast approaching the end of the season, which among other things includes the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Since I last checked in with an installment for my ‘F1 and America’ series quite a bit has happened regarding my favorite topic. As most of you are already aware, Gene Haas, who will be spearheading America’s F1 effort, has elected to start his foray into motorsport’s highest level of racing not next season but instead the following year in 2016.

I have not bothered to hide my disappointment (in previous posts) regarding this announcement for it means that I and many other F1 fans here in America will have to wait yet another year to have an American F1 team to support. However, it would be disingenuous if I did not also express my relief that Haas and company will have a full year to get up to speed in the pursuit of success in quite possibly the most difficult of racing formulas.

Plus it gives this blogger yet another year to examine and understand the relationship between these tentative allies, America and Formula 1. So far I have had the great pleasure to speak with James Allen, Alexander Rossi and Peter Windsor. All are experts for similar but very different reasons. What they had to say was both interesting and enlightening to say the least.

Next I focus my inquiry a little closer to the storm so to speak. Here in the States most F1 fans watching anything which has to do with F1 are tuned into NBC Sports Network, and the arbiters of this are Leigh Diffy, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and pit-lane reporter Will Buxton. Who better to put questions of America and F1’s intermingling to than one of America’s point men that I welcome into my living room each and every Sunday to watch the red lights go out and the racing begin?

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Hobbs in the seat of a Honda RA301 at Monza in 1968. An engine issue resulted in a retirement on lap 42. On the grid with Hobbs: Denny Hulme, Jacky Ickx, Jack Brabham, Jackie Steward, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jochen Rindt, the list goes on. Wow, what a line up…

David Hobbs, a particular favorite of mine probably because he is a former driver and appreciates Fernando’s talents almost as much as I do, graciously agreed to my interview request and I could not be happier. Before we start, here is some background on David Hobbs if by some chance you have escaped knowing who he is. Born in England, Hobbs has over 30 years of motor racing experience racing all types of machinery. The bulk of his racing was competing in sports and endurance car racing which included Ferraris, Porsches, a Lola, a BMW, a Mantra, a Triumph, and the very well known and famous Ford GT40.

Reliability was a big issue for cars in Hobbs’ era, but he managed plenty of 1sts, 2nds and 3rds despite that. There were four Indy 500 starts, which yielded a top five and a top ten result, impressive. There was IMSA and Cam-Am racing and, the pinnacle of any driver’s career in racing, Formula 1 competition with BRM, Lola, Honda and McLaren.

Not a bad resume, wouldn’t you agree? It was with this in mind, that Mr. Hobbs is a racer first and foremost, that I crafted my questions to fully exploit his expertise and get his opinion concerning the relationship between the country that he now makes his home in and the sport in which he raced. Let’s begin.

AmeriF1can.com: How does racing in the States compare to racing abroad? 

David Hobbs – Road racing around the world is very similar to road racing here in the US. Same sort of tracks, same sort of admin, marshaling etc. When I first raced here, the circuits were not up to the standards of European tracks but they are now. The club racing scene here is very strong but it is in Europe too, especially in the UK.

AF1: What do drivers from other parts of the world think about racing in the States? 

DH: The drivers who come over here now are very enthusiastic about racing here. Many are now based here and are main runners in Tudor and Indycar. They love the tracks and the cities. The F1 circus really like the track at Austin and the city. John Wheatley from Red Bull told me last year that Austin is fast becoming one of the races of the year. I’m sure the F1 drivers would like two events in the US, but that is looking less certain as time goes on.

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Here is our driver at the Amelia Island Concours with the show’s founder Bill Warner. Next to David Hobbs is one of the most famous cars in racing, a Ford GT4O in classic Gulf livery, which in 1969 Hobbs drove to 2nd in class at Le Mans.

These are very encouraging words from Mr. Hobbs. F1 already has a challenge making inroads in the States. Could you imagine how much more difficult F1’s job would be if the drivers and teams were not that particularly excited to race here? Sadly, Mr. Hobbs is correct about there not being a second race on American soil. The FIA recently released the 2015 race calendar and the US has only the Austin race scheduled. The New Jersey prospect with Manhattan’s skyline as a backdrop is now D.O.A. The city of Long Beach re-upped with the IndyCar series and as the expression goes, that is that…

 AF1: Can you give us an appraisal of where F1 is currently in regards to the US fan base and where you see the sport going in the US in regards to growth?  This is Ferrari’s biggest market; if this is the case why doesn’t this translate to more F1 fans?  

DH: The US fan base is really quite strong and bigger than I think most people realize. Our ratings this year are up well over 50%, some races have been up over 100% but there is so much major league sport here that F1 will never become a mass audience sport. The fact that this is Ferrari’s major market sums it up. They sell about 2,000 cars here a year, Chevrolet sells nearly two million and that is the sort of stat you need to look at. 

Again, David Hobbs’ answer is bittersweet, “the US fan base is bigger than most people think,” but despite this fact and the significant increase in NBC Sports Network’s ratings, Hobbs puts it into the true context of motor sports here in America. The subtext is that F1 will never be as big as NASCAR; as James Allen said in his interview, F1 will continue to be a niche sport. I guess truthfully I never really expected F1 to get as big as NASCAR, just as European football (American soccer) will never compete with the NFL.

However, this examination is not so much about whether F1 can be as big as NASCAR here in the States, but rather what F1 is doing right or wrong in its effort to show the American Motorsports market that it has quite a bit to offer. My premise is that given the chance, many more racing enthusiasts would take the time to discover just how awesome F1 is in regards to the technology, the drivers who are arguably the best in the world, the rivalries between those drivers and their respective teams and most importantly, the racing itself.

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Why is this photo in here, you ask? According to David Hobbs this is the crux of the problem. Chevy sell nearly two million cars in the US annually. How many does Ferrari sell? Two thousand. F1 is fighting an uphill battle.

AF1: I posed this question to James Allen, Alexander Rossi, and Peter Windsor, but would like your take on it. Americans love cars and Americans love technology and are often at the forefront of it with Apple, Blackberry, Facebook, Instagram, Tesla, and many other high-tech companies that are successful here. What is the missing link that Americans are not already super-fans of the most high-tech kind of driving there is?

DH: Those companies may come from the US but cell phone use and technology is far ahead of the US in practically every other major country. The TV broadcast band and picture, and cell phone tech are better in most countries than here, believe it or not. Americans like cars but they like simple cars and simple pleasures too. 

I knew I could count on David Hobbs for an insightful answer to this question. In this case it seems that having such a massive mass market is not an advantage to the US. Because I can only figure that the lowest common denominator of our mass market has been holding back adoption of the latest technology in TV and cell phone use. However, I don’t think that affects the F1 equation so much. But I do think his second point is important.

Americans may invent and worship high tech, but only to the extent that it makes things simpler for them. One can hardly argue that F1 technology is simple – even I, a die-hard and seasoned fan can barely follow what the cars do besides make it around the track. I guess we’ll have to persuade them with the RACING, then. That can hardly be argued with. Now on to the most important part of the discussion: Gene Haas and the American team to come.

AF1: What are your thoughts about America’s homegrown effort competing in the pinnacle of motor sport?

DH: I hope the Haas racing team works well but I’m very concerned about his simplistic approach. He said to Leigh back in the spring, “Well we make lots of cup cars every year, how can an F1 car be so different?” A bit scary. I hope he pulls it off but it seems he has a great deal to learn. It will certainly help raise awareness of F1 in the US so that has to be a good thing. What we don’t want is a repeat of the Peter Windsor debacle.

AF1: When you say a great deal to learn can you give the reader an idea of what that means? 

DH: I feel he might be underestimating it and the expense of it all, he says he can run the car out of North Carolina but it has to be run out of Europe somewhere.

Note: Since this interview was conducted it has been reported that Gene Haas has made some concessions on this point. It would seem the new plan is to build the cars in his North Carolina facility but the bulk of the racing operation will be run out of an HQ that is being built in England. Similar to investors rewarding a stock when the company that owns that stock sells off troublesome parts of the company, I think everyone involved with America’s first real team in years is breathing a sigh of relief. The only sensible way to run a new F1 team is to be where most of the teams (eight out of eleven) are located. In my opinion this is a bullet dodged. There will be more however…

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Gene Haas has elected to build his F1 facility here in the States, but his official F1 operation will be run from a satellite base in the UK. This is good news for all involved. There is no reason to make this more difficult than it already is, and trust me when I say competing in F1 is the hardest form of motor sport there is…

Of all the interviewees that I have spoken to in regards to this topic, David Hobbs is the best placed to assess this aspect of what Haas will have to do if he wants to be successful racing in F1. This is a tricky one for me to comment on. Since I am not a driver, engineer, designer, or mechanic I have nothing as a baseline to draw any conclusions. I have to believe that Gene Haas fully understands what he is getting himself into. However, like Hobbs, I too have seen the few interviews that he has given and I share a bit of Hobbs’ skepticism. Building and running an F1 team is nothing short of moving mountains. I’m not saying it can’t be done but the undertaking is massive. Just ask Jordan, Minardi, Sauber, Spyker, Virgin, HRT, Marussia and most recently Tony Fernandez of Caterham. And by the way most of these teams did not have to start from scratch.

AF1: Whom do you think Haas might pick for drivers? 

DH: As far as drivers go, he will need an American and a good solid experienced F1 driver. Button would be ideal. He does not need two rookies, that would be disastrous, and he does not need an IndyCar driver either, as the two formulas are so different. Alex Rossi would be a good choice for the American, as would Connor Daly. Haas F1 does need a top driver like Mario Andretti to really help put it on the map; in an American car it would be a dream. That though is a long way off I’m afraid and will probably not ever happen as the financial cost is so high. 

AF1: Can I clarify, when you say the financial cost is too high, what you mean is that Haas is not willing or cannot pay an Alonso-type salary for a driver, correct? And further, when you say a long way off that is in reference to what specifically?

DH: Haas very well may have that kind of money for a driver of that caliber but at the moment there just is no one like that [Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton] who is available and probably one will not be available for quite some time.

I have to agree with Hobbs in regards to Jenson Button. I could very easily see a scenario playing out where he spends one more season at McLaren and then has no options with another top team. The challenge of the first American F1 team might just be interesting enough to the Briton that he will throw caution to the wind and take a gamble. I also think Alexander Rossi is a perfect fit. Young, fast and already familiar with F1 machinery, the race calendar and the circuits. I am going out on a limb to say Rossi will be in one of the Gene Haas F1 cars. What I do find curious is that Hobbs does not think any of the current drivers in IndyCar would make a good candidate. What about someone like Scott Dixon, or Will Power? In Dixon’s case he is mature, stays out of trouble, knows how to conserve fuel and is a champion. In Power’s case, he is just so fast and similar to an Alonso, just never ever gives up. But this is why Hobbs is the expert/driver and I am the one asking the questions.

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This is how the F1 racing community see David Hobbs today. No more coveralls or crash helmet. Instead, dressed in a sport coat and tie he and his colleagues at NBC Sports Network break it down for us before, during and after the Grand Prix…

AF1: What do you think still needs to be done in the U.S. to show everyone what you and I already know – that there is nothing quite like watching F1, from the cars to the racing on track, there is just no comparison? 

DH: Sports TV over here is dominated by NFL, Baseball, Basketball, Ice Hockey and NASCAR, that is a lot of TV time and if Football (soccer) can’t get into the big time, what chance does F1 really have? Although we do better than Indycar and both are showing strength this year which is good for open wheel racing. A top American driver in a top team would be an enormous boost and a top American team would really help too, but both are a long way off yet. A race in NJ would be terrific but that is not looking too good either.

There’s a strong similarity here to what Peter Windsor said about the media coverage in America. In Windsor’s case he mentioned that there is no pre-race promotion, there are no billboards, no chat shows (on cable TV I presume) no special events, nothing in the way of support. It’s true that since NBCSN has taken over the rights to show F1 here in the States the coverage is many times more comprehensive than when the Fox channel Speed was in charge. That being said, the only take away here is that we, meaning we Americans, just don’t do enough to promote F1 irrespective of what the sport should be doing on its own.

Note: This is the end of the interview in regards to the subject of F1 and America, however I could not let the opportunity pass without posing a few questions to Mr. Hobbs about the coming together of Mercedes driver’s Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

AF1Obviously you are aware of the coming together of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg very early at the Belgium GP. What are your thoughts now that the race is over and we all have a little perspective? 

DH: Why Rosberg was driving rather aggressively at that stage of the race is just beyond me… but at the end of the day it was just an ill-judged move on Rosberg’s part and it can only be considered a racing incident.

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Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg commit the ultimate sin for teammates. They crash into each other. Hamilton DNFs and  Rosberg lost a sure win. David Hobbs says it was a racing incident. He also says it is the last nail in the carbon fiber coffin for any Mercedes team unity…

AF1Is there a precedent for payback in racing? For example, Rosberg says, ‘You didn’t let me by in Hungary, so how do you like this, Lewis?  Or something along those lines. You being a driver, you’re perfectly placed to shed some light on this. 

DH: Yes there is an element of this kind in racing. The problem occurs when you have a driver like Hamilton who generally drives aggressively and usually gets away with it, such driver will on occasion run into a driver that is not ready to yield to him and in the case of the Belgian that is exactly what happened between himself and his teammate. 

AF1Would this be such a big deal if it was between two different drivers on the grid vying for that same corner? 

DH: Obviously Lewis and Nico are the two drivers who are in contention for the championship so of course this amplifies the crash.

AF1Was this the last straw for Nico & Lewis? Is their relationship now irreparable in regards to any meaningful team unity for Mercedes? 

DH: I would say so. This will probably be the last nail in the coffin…

AF1: One last question for you, Lewis or Nico for the title? 

DH: Nico or Hamilton? It should be Hamilton but lady luck has not been on his side at all, although it is still a toss up, another poor result though could put him under. Lewis should win it, he is the better of the two.

The second to last question is the most telling and probably what most of us knew already. Although the Italian Grand Prix did not present any instance for the two Mercedes drivers to breach the strict orders from the team that employs them, one gets the feeling that it is a delicate truce that must be looked after in the season’s remaining  races.

Thanks to David Hobbs for taking the time to sit down and share his insight on F1’s place here in America. I am by no means done with my quest to understand more about F1, the way it works and the people in the sport that I find so interesting and compelling. On a personal note I want to say to David Hobbs, whose familiar voice using such words as clag and kaa-blam-oo have been a part of my Sunday for a very long time now, thank you. It was a great pleasure talking to you.

-jp-

2 Comments on “F1 and America – David Hobbs Gives His Take…

  1. Lisa
    No worries, and again Im sorry this has slipped through the cracks. Damn these spammers. Thanks for the words of encouragement… This was a fun interview b/c I actually spoke with Mr. Hobbs instead of having to submit questions via email. Hobbs was very nice and had several stories to tell about racing, wish I could have included them. He interviews exactly how he commentates…
    -jp-

  2. Sorry not to comment more lately JP, been a bit ‘life busy’ (boy’s just started nursery)!

    Love the style of the interview and how you have broadened and opened discussion on some of the answers.

    Found the response on popularity in America and the discussion on America and technology particularly interesting.

    Great work as always JP!

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