Townsend Bell - the next American driver? 24 Sep 2003
This weekend sees the fourth annual running of the United States Grand Prix since its return to Indianapolis in 2000. With the event now firmly established, what US fans really want to know is when they will again get to see an American Formula One driver. Michael Andretti was the last, back in 1993.
There are a number of American pilots coming up through the ranks. Riccardo Antinucci, son of one-time Grand Prix driver Eddie Cheever, races in British Formula Three, while 1961 champion Phil Hill's son, Derek, Will Langhorne and Phil Giebler have all tried Formula 3000.
Meanwhile, former Formula One racer and Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan has sifted through the young US talent in the Red Bull Driver Search, which aims to push American drivers closer to Formula One seats. Some of those spotted have gone on to race in Europe in Formula Ford, Formula BMW, Formula Three and Formula 3000, but it is still early days for the programme.
However, one American has found himself in a real Formula One seat this month. Former Indy Lights champion and CART rising star Townsend Bell, now competing in Formula 3000, tested a BAR in the week following the Italian Grand Prix.
"I didn't think of Formula One too seriously until I started getting close to making it in CART, and went to the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2000," said the Californian "Then it really kind of hits you that there is this big opportunity. I realised it's the ultimate motorsport."
Bell and his father-in-law, long-time motorsport PR guru Rod Campbell, felt that Formula 3000 was the best way to fast-track his path towards Formula One. "Nobody takes a CART person seriously when you are looking into Formula One," said Bell. "The community here doesn't pay close attention to your results. Cristiano da Matta is a friend, but it's hard to argue that he would have got to Formula One without the support of Toyota. That's why I decided to move over to England and F3000 to show what I can do."
As the BAR test proves, the move is already paying off. "It's an incredible opportunity and I think talking to people and being a regular face in the paddock has helped enormously. Plus I live in Oxford so I know some of the BAR guys. To do my first F1 test with a big manufacturer and a big team is vital. Things are easier already because of the F3000 races I've done this season. I'm not a foreigner. It's an easy fit."
On occasions Bell has struggled to come to terms with the lack of track time available in Formula 3000, but he has still made his mark with some strong performances and is convinced the move to Europe was the right one in his bid to reach Formula One racing.
"We are looking on 3000 as a two-year programme, and I'm pleased with the progress I've made. There are no short cuts, but I came to the right place. It's been a while since an American has been close to a Formula One opportunity, so I'm taking a step in the right direction and I think I'm being realistic."
(The above is an edited extract from a much larger feature on Formula One racing in America, available exclusively in the October issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)