Formula One continues to endure a love-hate relationship with American drivers. The last U.S.-born race winner was '78 World Champion Mario Andretti, while the pitiful performances of his over-hyped son, Michael, compromised the reputation of Stateside wannabes. For every marketing boffin that dreams of an American superstar, there is an engineer who shrieks in horror at the hint of a Yankee twang.
Townsend Bell has little time for such xenophobic stereotyping. California's F1 hopeful has a direct and emphatic answer to the suggestion that Americans can't compete in such a rarefied atmosphere. "Pizzonia was fired this year--does that means Brazilians can't cut it?" he asks, rhetorically. "There is a stigma associated with American drivers, but there's nothing in the water or food that says we can't do it."
Bell's mention of Pizzonia is significant. Jaguar Racing sacked the diminutive Brazilian mid-season after he failed to match the pace of his highly rated teammate, Mark Webber. Pizzonia's replacement, Justin Wilson, showed flashes of promise but was dogged by bad luck and inconsistency. Wilson is also short of money, and by the year's end, it had become clear that Jaguar's number two for this year would need to be blessed with more than just talent--he would also need a suitcase full of cash.
These factors explain why Bell and I found ourselves chatting in the Jaguar motorhome at the Valencia circuit in Spain. Bell had arrived two days earlier to test the Jaguar R4 alongside Webber and 20-year-old Austrian hotshoe, Christian Klein. Officially, this was not a shoot-out for the second race seat, but the inference was clear--perform well, and you're in with a shout.
For Bell, the test marked a bridging point in a career that has taken a couple of eccentric turns. After some success in karts, he progressed through the Barber Dodge Pro Series to Indy Lights. In 2001, he won the Indy Lights championship, claiming six wins from 12 races and becoming the first driver in Indy Lights history to lap the entire field on his way to victory at Milwaukee. His performances earned him a drive with the Patrick Racing Team in the Cart FedEx Championship for 2002. Bell finished fourth at Portland but was dropped after nine races following some robust driving.
The loss of the drive prompted a rethink and a shift in strategy. "Champ cars as a series is a shadow of what it used to be," he said. "I had a couple of different opportunities, but going to race ovals in the IRL wasn't my first choice. I consider myself to be a pretty talented road racer, and I thought, 'Okay, I'm at a crossroads now; I've just turned 28 years old; what am I going to do?' The biggest challenge is to be the next American in F1. The odds are long, but here I am."
Bell attended the last five Grands Prix of the 2002 season in search of a test drive. "They [the team managers] said, 'Forget it, come to Europe and show us what you can do on our own turf, in F3000,'" he explained. Formula 3000 is the natural feeder series for Formula One--its graduates include Coulthard, Panis, Webber, Wilson, Heidfeld and Montoya--but it is also the formula in which many careers have stalled--just ask Allan McNish.
To uproot and move to Europe was not an easy decision. "Until recently guys like me weren't really focused on getting into F1," he continued. "I wanted to get to CART because it was a great championship. If I had wanted to be in Formula One when I started, I would have come to Europe earlier." The switch to F3000 for the 2003 season meant "...a step down in terms of income and profile," but it was the only way forward. Bell even moved to Oxford "...to be part of the community."
He joined the crack Arden team, alongside Swedish driver Bjorn Wirdheim. But while Wirdheim won the championship with three wins and 78 points, Bell amassed just 17 points, his best finish a third at the Hungaroring in Hungary. He admitted that it hadn't been easy: "I was a fish out of water. My first standing start was at Imola. I ran into my grid girl, because I was paranoid about where I was supposed to park on the grid--I almost broke her leg."
Nevertheless, Bell's performances and his past reputation led to two F1 opportunities. The first was with the British American Racing (BAR) team, which involved three days of straightline testing at Lurcy-Levis in France. It was a useful introduction to the speed and sophistication of a contemporary F1 car. "I felt like a kid in a candy store, pushing all the buttons and asking, 'What does this do, what does that do?'" he said.
The call from Jaguar was another indication that Bell is now being taken seriously by Europe's big hitters. Bell was introduced to the car on a specially designed driving simulator at Jaguar Racing's Milton Keynes factory, and he also had a seat fitting before the team made its way to the Valencia circuit, which played host to the Michelin-shod F1 teams.
As we spoke, Bell was back in civvies after having completed 63 laps of the circuit. His best time was a 1m12.330s, compared with Webber's benchmark of 1m11.876s and Klein's 1m11.955s. It was a solid performance and one that impressed Jaguar's Director of Engineering, Dr Ian Pocock. "Both drivers [Klein and Bell] have been excellent," he explained. "They've both been very professional, attentive with the engineers and accurate with their feedback. The lap times also show that they quickly got to grips with the car."
Pocock explained that he was "...looking for the guy who is going to give you the best technical feedback, because we need to develop the car. You have to look at the potential, where you think they're going to be, how they're going to fit with Mark [Webber] and the team." He was also quick to point out that the laptimes weren't comparable because "...we're running different programs all the time in different conditions."
Bell was equally dismissive of the significance of the times. "There is a huge disconnect between what the media perceives to be the lap time and what the team and I know the lap time means in terms of fuel load, tire compound, time of day and car setup," he explained. "You guys won't know, because the information's not shared with you."
I was anxious to learn more about what it actually feels like to drive an F1 car and how it compares with other formulae. "You can't possibly visualize what it's going to be like in one of these cars until you have your first go," he said. "It is such a quantum leap in performance. An F1 car is around 400 lb lighter than a Champ Car, and it's got much more downforce. It's a big step.
"They've also got quite a different feel than a conventional racing car. They've got power steering, fly-by-wire throttle, grooved tires, carbon brakes and electronic assistance. All that combined creates a totally different user experience. It's almost like going from Windows to Mac. It takes a little getting used to."
The two rookie drivers had access to Webber's telemetry, which provided a welcome benchmark. "It's great to know where the limit is," said Bell. "In turn one he's awesome, really impressive. You're going from seventh to fifth gear and doing a minimum of 130 mph. You need experience to get the confidence. The question isn't what happens going in [to the bend], it's what happens on the other side. You just have to work your way up to it."
Bell must now hope that he is given further opportunities to build up his confidence. A few days after the test, it was announced that Klein would be partnering Webber in the Jaguar team for 2004. The 20-year-old had proved quick and mature, but his cause had also been helped by $10 million of funding from Red Bull. The announcement ended Bell's hopes of a race seat, but at the time of going to press, the role of test driver remained vacant.
The rules prevent a man of Wilson's experience from driving on Grand Prix weekends, which would make Bell an ideal candidate for the job. He would be able to learn each circuit and to measure himself against the race drivers. It would be a good platform from which to step up to a race seat. But to secure the drive, he will need to provide funding. When we spoke, Bell remained tight-lipped about the state of his finances. "I don't walk around with a big suitcase of cash--very few people do," he said. "Big companies don't work that way."
If he can find the backing, there seems little doubt that he would be a popular choice within the team. Jaguar would relish the marketing opportunities associated with running a mature, genial and P.R.-friendly American driver. Bell is certainly confident that he is in the right place at the right time.
"I see a huge opportunity for F1 to grow its audience in the U.S.," he said. "NASCAR is autoracing in terms of the public's mindset,but there's a whole host of people who aren't interested in NASCAR and who might think that F1 is a really cool thing. A year ago I was just wandering around trying to get a test drive. Now I've had a proper run with a good team. We're making headway, but I still have a ton to learn." This confident but realistic approach might just be what Jaguar needs.