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Editorial

What to make of Gurney's F1 team

 by Commando Cody
October 2, 2002

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Thanks a lot, Phil!

In an interview published yesterday, Phil Hill--the 1961 Formula One World Champion--took aim and drove a stake through the heart of the proposal for an All-American Formula 1 team to be headed by himself and racing legend Dan Gurney.

"I can't even use the word premature. I hadn't heard a word about it until the story broke," said Hill to the BBC. "I just don't have anything to do with it at the moment. I give Dan every good wish I can."

Sure, Phil, that's why you just screwed him.

Which begs the question of why Hill appeared with Dan Gurney at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday when the proposal was announced and allowed a brief televised interview to be broadcast during the United States Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon without mentioning one word of his damning allegation?

And make no mistake, Gurney never said it was anything more than a proposal. In fact, he gave it a time frame of 10 days within which it would either become a reality or be shelved.

Now, the proposal can't even be shelved as Gurney's credibility has been destroyed.

So, why didn't Phil say something to the press at the time? Well, in fact, he did speak to reporters as broadcast the day of the USGP. Asked why he waited until now to express an interest in forming his own Formula 1 team, Hill replied: "An opportunity for ownership never really got off the ground before."

Questioned further about the reported business plan of proposed team principles, Bob Balachowski and Russ Olsen, Hill (not Gurney) reportedly said: "They've both made wonderful strides and completed steps to do super groundwork to get to Formula One. They re at very similar stages."

Does that sound like a man who "hadn't heard a word about it until the story broke?" Furthermore, Hill's story keeps shifting time frame. When first questioned about his involvement, as stated, he referred to his possible ownership position. If we are to believe him now, when he was caught unawares by Gurney's press release, his immediate reaction was "what's in it for me?" Otherwise, why did he wait until Sunday night to blow the whistle on the deal? Friendship for Gurney? That's obviously out the window due to his subsequent actions. So, apparently he didn't like what he was offered. Because in his next Associated Press interview, he claimed not to have heard of the proposal until 20 minutes before the press announcement. Then, it became 5 minutes. Now, in the BBC interview, he was supposedly surprised on stage. Next, I suppose, he will have been at home in Santa Monica restoring a Packard when someone threw the press release tied to a brick through his window?

Hill's obvious point being that his involvement, like Alice after eating the mushroom, becomes smaller with each passing moment while Gurney's credibility diminishes in tandem. At this point, I'd say Dan's biggest mistake in this matter was believing Hill to be his friend.

Assuming the opposite, what would Hill have had to lose by keeping his mouth shut for 10 days? It would have had absolutely no effect on his reputation, fame (such that it is), or anything else as far as can be determined. Ten days from the press announcement, he could simply have said, "Well, we gave it the old college try, but it didn't work out." And walk away. No harm, no foul, and a friendship intact.

Instead, he went out of his way to defame Gurney while disingenuously wishing him "every good wish I can." Perhaps, Hill reveals himself in his wording: "every good wish I can," meaning he can't. He has no good wishes for Dan Gurney.

Which is a shame because he has not just hurt Gurney but the chances for an American Formula 1 team as well.

If one reads Gurney's press release and subsequent statements to the press, with the sole exception of Hill's allegation, every word attributed to Gurney is true.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. Gurney follows Formula 1 and is well aware of the situation involving the Arrows team and the American backers team boss Tom Walkinshaw reportedly had lined up to save the team. Moreover, he knew that Red Bull's Mateschitz had also expressed interest in the Arrows team specifically to turn it into a "Team USA." When the Arrows situation deteriorated beyond redemption, that potentially left some major sponsors of an American Formula 1 team without an option. Gurney obviously was hoping to interest them in his proposal. That's why it had such a short time frame; Gurney figured that was the duration of the window of opportunity--if he hadn't heard from them by then, he never would. Forgotten in all this is the fact that Gurney has a life to get back to as well.

So, he put his vision out there hoping to get his project jump-started. Dan says he's been planning an American Formula 1 team for two and half years. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the man knows this to be typical of him. He says he got really serious about nine months ago when he joined with businessmen Bob Balachowski and Russ Olsen, who had a detailed plan to finance the team. One consideration for any new team is the engines it will use. Gurney said he had serious discussions with Ford and had a hand-shake agreement for Cosworth engines and could have a signed contract from Ford within a few weeks. Questioned if he'd spoken with Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, Dan said he had and Ecclestone has promised his support. Asked about Hill's involvement, Gurney said that he "had recently come on board." Is any of this untrue? In fact, has anyone ever known Dan Gurney to utter an untruth?

At his announcement, Gurney said the time is right for an American team, although it would "require certain dominoes to start falling pretty quickly, but it would be a monumental situation."

Autosport allowed as how the timing of the former Ferrari teammates couldn't have been better. Formula 1 is limited to 12 teams but the season started with only 11 after Prost folded and will likely be 10 as Arrows seems inevitably headed towards dissolution. "With two slots vacant on the grid, it is actually a good time to launch a team without having to pay 'goodwill' for a current outfit." Thus, Formula 1 would appear to need Gurney's new All-American team as much as Dan would like his team to compete in Formula 1.

Formula One News reported that "Schumi welcomes idea of Americans returning to F1." It said the German superstar believed that Formula One racing would benefit greatly from having an all-American team in place for next season.

"I think it would be good," said Michael Schumacher, a five-time Formula One world champion. "I mean, as big a nationality spread you have is better for the coverage of Formula One. And America being such a big country, if we have a race here, it would be great."

McLaren boss Ron Dennis, although skeptical that a new team put together on such short notice could be immediately competitive, welcomed the idea: "I think these two guys, as long as they have the budget and they choose the right people, will bring something that we should really welcome. If we've got an American grand prix team, then you really have got something to pull the crowds in. But, as with so many things in this world, it's easy to say you are going to do something... We welcome them, but I don't think they realize how steep a hill it is that they are about to climb!"

Dennis added: "I've been around a while in motor sport and I know Phil and Dan very well. I've got fond memories of coming across Dan for the first time at Goodwood in 1965. It was the era when there were no seat belts and it was literally string-back gloves, short-sleeved shirts, goggles and open helmets."

"His All American Racing team had superb cars, beautifully prepared, probably a bit overweight and without the best power plants in the world, but nevertheless really well run and professional. It will be interesting."

Not now it won't.  "It'll be difficult but it's very possible," Gurney told The Indianapolis Star newspaper.

"We're past the preliminary discussions. We have key people in place and certain facilities in place. If and when we get a deal done with Ford, that will lend a great deal of credibility to the whole thing."

That was spoken before his ex-Ferrari teammate and rival decided to make credibility an issue. What's particularly interesting is that Hill chose primarily European news outlets to be his megaphone of choice. One wonders what role Bernie Ecclestone plays in all this. He was conspicuous by his absence in Indianapolis for the Grand Prix. Reportedly he was in court trying to resolve the issue of Formula 1's commercial rights.

About three years ago, Ecclestone agreed to pay the equivalent of one year's F1 television revenues, in installments, to the FIA (which is headed by his "former" attorney, Max Mosley) to secure for his privately-owned SLEC all of F1's commercial rights for the next century. The math is pretty easy to do: the commercial rights were worth about 100 times what Bernie paid for them (when he got around to it). Then, in a complicated series of events, Ecclestone was supposedly hoodwinked into selling 75% of those rights to the German Kirch Media Gruppe for a couple of billion dollars. The Formula 1 manufacturers and teams got pretty bent out of shape about it because they were under the impression that Bernie was going to sell the rights to them. So, they're threatening to form the Grand Prix World Championship (GPWC), a rival series to Formula 1, unless Ecclestone gets the rights back for them. Their cause was greatly aided by the Kirch Media Gruppe going into bankruptcy earlier this year. Formula 1's commercial rights action.

The point is, who knows what Bernie Ecclestone is doing? No one in Formula 1 has a clue, although they're loaded with suspicions. So, does Bernie really want Dan Gurney's All-American F1 team to join the roster or not? Only Ecclestone (and, maybe, Max Mosley) knows for sure. It's interesting that following Phil Hill's "revelations" the IndyStar, and U.S. press in general, have been mildly supportive of Gurney (downplaying the Hill incident as some sort of misunderstanding), while the European press have been going for the throat. Is Gurney just another pawn in Formula 1's deadly power politics?

It is a fact that the European press's reaction to Gurney's proposal demonstrably cooled when it learned that the American F1 team intended to start from scratch. Possibly, they had hopes that Dan et al were going to make a bid for Arrows? At one point, Toyota is reported to have looked into purchasing the team in order to acquire their payout under the Concorde Agreement (Toyota doesn't qualify this year for a share) but decided that the potential liability from creditors far exceeded the Concorde monies. Apparently, everyone remotely connected with F1 has come to the same conclusion. Yet, they had hopes that Gurney might buy in? One guesses we must still be considered provincials?

At this point, it's difficult to see how the situation is salvageable. I think if I were Gurney I might make a few inquiries about Arrows and leave it up to Ecclestone to make it a viable situation financially. Red Bull could almost certainly be counted on for at least some sponsorship and would welcome (nay, insist) on American drivers. That would be a big part of the battle out of the way and, with Cosworth power, Dan could apply his considerable skills towards "Americanizing" the Arrows car.  I think the F1 community is frightened enough about 2003 and only 10 teams that they could also be counted on for some help (or to at least stay out of the way) and, for sure, the renamed Arrows team could make the grid in 2003.

Or Dan could just say to hell with it! No one could blame him after this fiasco.

Dan Gurney's word is his bond and you can take his hand-shake to the bank. That can't be said of many successful people, especially those who've attained legend status. I have no idea what Phil Hill's motives are for doing what he's doing, I'm not sure I want to know. But I, for one, am going to let Hill plead temporary insanity in absentia and not let this incident ruin 71 years of a good man's exemplary behavior.

Dan, if you're out there, you're still The Man in my book. Your word is good with me and countless Americans anytime.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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