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MAY 14, 2005

Is this Bernie Ecclestone's dream woman?

Some years ago, the Atlas F1 website ran a story called "The Woman of Bernie's Dreams", about a little known 17-year-old girl called Danica Patrick, who had given up the comforts of home in Illinois and was living in Birmingham, England, competing in the British Formula Ford Zetec Championship and doing well. Five years on Patrick is taking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by storm with Rahal Letterman Racing.

The thing that makes Patrick unusual is that at 16 she went off to Europe, to try to be successful in the tough world of Formula Ford, where the champions of the future are so often seen. She was racing with Haywood Racing, as team mate to Anthony Davidson, and she was pretty impressive. It certainly impressed Bobby Rahal, who was in Britain at the time, running Jaguar Racing.

"It really impressed me that at such a young age she would leave home and go to live in England," Rahal said. "That spoke volumes about her commitment. A lot of young people say they want to be race car drivers, but not many are willing to do the things you have to do."

Rahal, in particular, understood what Patrick was doing. As a youngster he too had lived in Britain when he wanted to be an F1 star.

"It's not easy for an American to live in that society," he says. "Let's face it, motor racing has not been the most open for the female gender and particularly in England," he said. "So all of those things just, in my mind, spoke volumes about her commitment and dedication to what she wanted to achieve."

Patrick's moment of glory came in 2000 when she finished second to Davidson in the Formula Ford Festival, matching the best ever performance by an American in the event. The 2001 and 2002 seasons were less successful but Rahal was keen and planned to put her into Jaguar Racing's Formula 3 programme. Before that could happen, however, Rahal was ousted and the programme was axed. Bobby went back to the United States but later agreed to put Patrick into a Toyota Atlantic car.

"I've seen Danica race and she has the potential to be a big star in motor racing," he said. "I wouldn't be spending this amount of time and money if I didn't think she could make it big. She has the drive and determination to be competitive in the future. We have to give her the equipment and effort to showcase her skills. She knows what is in front of her and I think she is ready for the challenge."

And so it has proved.

She may be back in America but the time in England and visits to the F1 circus in Indianapolis underline that Danica has the ambition to make it in the big time, not just in the United States but also in Formula 1. To achieve that she is going to have to do exceptionally well in the Indy Racing League but she has made a good start and already F1 people are looking across The Pond and wondering if she is good enough to run with the F1 boys. If she is, Danica Patrick could be F1's ticket to success in the United States of America because after years of trying F1 is only just beginning to make an impression in the US. It is well understood that what is needed is an American driver and Scott Speed may be the man who is in line to step up but perhaps Patrick might one day come to F1 by the route used in the past by Jacques Villeneuve, Alez Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Cristiano da Matta. Success in America does not indicate whether or not you will make it in F1. The machinery is vital but when you are an American woman and can run with the boys in the USA, there are going to be a lot of doors open in F1 circles. And the most important door of all is Bernie Ecclestone's office because if he can, he will fix it for Patrick in F1.

That may be a year or two away but an impressive performance at Indianapolis this year will certainly help that process.