JUNE 15, 1998
Jeff Gordon and Formula 1
THERE have been rumors for some time that CART ace Alex Zanardi is planning to return to Formula 1 next year but in recent days we have heard a remarkable story suggesting that NASCAR's Jeff Gordon has also been approached by Williams Grand Prix Engineering to consider a career in Formula 1 racing.
The approach was made last winter and has been confirmed by Jimmy Johnson, the man who negotiated Gordon's deal with Hendrick Motorsport but is now working for a rival team.
While the concept of a NASCAR star in Formula 1 may seem absurd, Gordon may be interested in such a move. He is still only 26 years of age but has already won the NASCAR Winston Cup title on two occasions: he was the youngest ever winner of the series in 1995 and took his DuPont-backed Chevrolet Monte Carlo to a second championship last year.
With CART and IRL currently unable to produce a topline American single-seater racer for F1 racing, it is a logical step for F1 to look to NASCAR where Gordon has been the dominant force in recent years. He would be a great catch for F1 as it tries to break into the North America in a high profile way in the year 2000, with plans for an American GP and SylvesterÊStallone's movie about Grand Prix racing. He is one of the United States of America's top sports names and is a polished media performer.
While Gordon might see F1 as a good challenge it is hard to imagine that he would be able to earn as much money in F1 than he can in NASCAR. Last year Gordon earned around $40m mainly from endorsements and licensing. With a high-profile F1 in the United States and a big marketing push from companies such as Universal (which has backed both Williams and Gordon in the past) a deal might be possible.
NASCAR is currently beating both CART and IRL in the TV ratings in the United States and hiring the biggest NASCAR star could bring F1 an instant audience in America - if Gordon was in competitive machinery. Williams is not expecting a particularly competitive season in 1999 - the final year of its Mecachrome engine deal - but the new Williams-BMW deal in 2000 promises to be a much better package.
While there is little more than vague contact between Williams and Gordon, there are more and more stories suggesting that Zanardi is to abandon CART to return to return to F1, probably as part of the Honda Formula 1 team. He currently leads the CART series with three wins in the first eight races as he tries to add a second title to the one he won last season with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.