• 5 minutes with ... Peter Windsor

'A bit of humiliation is good for the soul'

Adam Hay-Nicholls August 16, 2010
Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson had great expectations for their team © Getty Images
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When did you realise that Bahrain wasn't going to happen?

There was never a moment I didn't think it was going to happen until it didn't happen, if you see what I mean. 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 people are like that: they never give up until it's over.

Given that timeframe, were you not tempted to buy the TF110 off the shelf from Toyota? A car that may have had potential, and would have saved you a lot of aggro…

Designing and building the car in-house was an inherent part of USF1. A lot of people have said, with hindsight, 'You should have done the Toyota deal. You should have done this deal or that deal'. The reality is, it wouldn't have been USF1. Yes, it would have been better than doing nothing at all, in retrospect. One of the problems was that it wasn't just the chassis on offer; the Toyota engine deal was an integral part of the package. And by that stage, of course, we were contracted to Cosworth.

Lotus have built what looks like a strong team, and they were granted their entry 15 September 2009. USF1 was awarded its entry three months earlier, on 12 June…

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 - 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 had done quite a lot of design work before 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 born 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 who 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.

As I say, we never even contemplated doing that. 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 - i.e, 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 - i.e, something unique and fun.

Toyota didn't announce they were pulling out till November. In September, there were four people working at Lotus Racing …

True - but also think it's fair to say that Mike Gascoyne was already a long way down the track with his design work by then. Back in 2006, 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 150m Euros 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 globalize 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 nonetheless owe their original genesis to it. Look at Adrian Campos: he genuinely believed that he was going to be able to run his team for 30m Euros! 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.

The chassis-sharing proposition was blocked, and that put a stop to DR's McLaren-Mercedes deal. Had USF1 come in on the promise of a budget-cap and then pulled the plug, that would be understandable. But, in fact, you were antibudget cap?

The 'chassis-sharing' proposition was never anything more than that - a proposition. It was never written into the technical regulations. The budget-cap, however, was an official part of F1. With the exception of ourselves, it attracted all the new teams into the vetting process. For a while, budget-cap was definitely going to happen - and it was one of the reasons for the FIA-FOTA split. So the two circumstances cannot be compared. We decided to come in to F1 under the 'classic' regulations in force in 2008 and still basically in force today. I never liked the budget-cap idea. The concept of cars on the same grid running to two sets of technical regulations I think was, and is, unworkable - as was proved, as I say, by the reluctance of the FOTA teams to supply engines.

A lot of your marketing was around the belief that the US still has a major role to play in F1. What now is the future for American drivers?

There's a rich seam of talent out there - and many of the new stars want to make it to F1, as distinct from NASCAR or Indy. They're committing to it early. Look at Alexander Rossi, for example: he has a lot of momentum behind him; he is racing in Europe, and winning; and he is living in Italy, studying for college in his spare time. Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Jonathan Summerton, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, John Edwards, Charlie Kimball. It's a long list already - and that doesn't include the guys I've probably forgotten plus some of the really experienced, polished drivers like Patrick Long and Alex Gurney. I'm surprised that more F1 teams aren't out there signing up the good young Americans as they come along. It's only a matter of time before F1 returns to the States, so where is the downside in investing in a young American driver and thus increasing your chances of working with American corporates?

Why did no-one sign Danica Patrick a few years back? It's beyond me. She's probably the best female single-seater driver in the history of the sport, she's attractive, she works hard - and yet no-one in F1 seemed to take her seriously. If BMW had raced Robert Kubica and Danica for the last few years would they have been any less successful? For sure they would have sold more cars in the States….but that's assuming America is still important to the F1 corporates. I assume it is, but you should never take anything for granted in F1 these days…

Would you ever consider setting up another F1 team?

If it was the right package - by which I mean the right group of people and the right situation - yes, certainly. For all that, I was very impressed with the decision made recently by Nicolas Todt. 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 that 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.

How did the problems affect you personally?

Obviously I was very, very sad. Equally, I've learnt 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 has been as tough as the things I've said to myself. That's what happens when you try something difficult and new. 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? DR's F1 operation never made it past the entry stage. No disrespect meant to any of these 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.

Peter Windsor says he still loves F1 as much as when he was a teenager © Sutton Images
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You haven't fallen out of love with F1 then?

No, no way. I love it. I started as a flag marshal at the age of 13 and I began to write professionally when I was 15. I've been lucky enough ever since to work in motor sport - as a journalist, in TV, managing drivers, managing sponsors, as the Team Manager and Sponsorship Manager at Williams - and also as General Manager of Ferrari's British F1 facility. I love just about all sport, if I think about it, let alone motor sport. Kimi in a rally car! Let's have more onboards! BTCC, GP3, GP2, Formula Ford, karts, Fiat Abarth 500 racing - everything. Of course, F1 is the ultimate and, for me, seeing Jenson and Lewis in the same car is a real joy - as are the contrasts between Michael and Nico, Mark and Sebastian, Fernando and Felipe, Rubens and the other Nico: I love watching great drivers competing within the same teams and so I think F1 this year is fabulous. I'd like to see more people watching F1 on TV - and I'd like to see the teams make themselves ever-more open to new media. These are my new missions. That's why I'm delighted - and very fortunate - to be writing for GPWEEK. I'm very much looking forward to sharing my ongoing passion with everyone who loves the sport - past, present and future. On-line magazines such as this, video, traditional websites and magazines, Twitter..…it's all out there, and the F1 world is expanding virtually as we speak. How could I not be excited about everything that lies ahead?

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Adam Hay-Nicholls is editor of GP Week and Formula One correspondent for Metro UK and Metro International Adam Hay-Nicholls joined the F1 circus in 2005 as a founder and senior writer of The Red Bulletin - an irreverent and innovative magazine that was printed at the race track four times every grand prix weekend, and which achieved cult status. In 2010 he became editor of GP Week and is also Formula One correspondent for Metro UK and Metro International - the world's largest circulation newspaper