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NOVEMBER 15, 2003

Why Townsend Bell is just what Formula 1 needs

The news that Townsend Bell is to test for Jaguar Racing is great news for Formula 1. The 28-year-old from San Luis Obispo in central California has all the right credential for Formula 1 although it would perhaps be better for him to have one more season in Formula 3000 in order to post a good result in that series.

Bell's rise through the ranks has been relatively rapid given that he did not do much karting and was 22 before he began car racing in Formula Dodge. A year later he was an instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School at Laguna Seca and in 1999 won his first races. This led to a chance in Indy Lights in 2000 and Bell rose to the job and finished second in the series behind the more experienced Scott Dixon. In 2001 there was no stopping him: Bell beat Dan Wheldon to the title with six wins, becoming the first American driver to win the Indy Lights title since Bryan Herta in 1993.

At the end of the 2001 season he was signed up by Patrick Racing to compete in CART. In 2002 he raced with Patrick Racing but, despite some promising results for a rookie, the relationship did not gel and Bell left the team in the mid-season.

He decided to head for Europe in 2003 and signed up with Formula 3000 Champions Arden International. While overshadowed by his team mate and champion Bjorn Wirdheim, Bell showed that he has the pace to be a frontrunner in 2004. He finished seventh in the series, his best result being third in Hungary, but he did well enough to earn himself 1600km of testing with BAR.

There are some in the United States who say that Bell did not make it in CART but he has done more than enough to show that in the right situation he is match for the best young hotshoes in America and can mix with the best in Europe as well. And that is the most important thing. He is not an American star being parachuted into Formula 1 as Michael Andretti was in 1993. Bell has done the groundwork which Andretti did not do and in doing so has earned the respect of his rivals in Formula 3000. Because they do not know him from the junior formulae, the other drivers have had to learn how far he can be pushed and that did affect his results in 2003 as there was incidents which would have been avoided if he had served a full apprenticeship in European racing.

Bell could be a valuable tool for Formula 1 in the United States because the World Championship gets very little coverage in the mainstream press simply because there is no American driver and no American team. But interest in the sport will be given a jump-start if Bell lands a regular F1 drive. The fact that he is getting a proper test in F1 has already gained a lot of column inches in the US and that momentum will continue if he gets the drive. America is a very inward-looking country when it comes to sports but there will be plenty of support if an American does appear in a competitive situation in Grand Prix racing.

And that has to be good news for the sport.