Meet Jonathan Somerfield…Somerset…Someone?
Jonathan Summerton’s website confidently predicts that he will be “the next American Formula One champion”. Unlikely, you may say, given that his name and credentials aren’t exactly inspiring, but it could be about to get slightly more likely if the rumours are to be believed. The 21 year old from the town of Kissimmee, Florida (which I can proudly say I’ve stayed in) is one of 5 young American drivers under consideration to land the token American drive at US F1 and is now hot favourite to secure it. Which would be quite a shock, because he has never tested an F1 car, never even come close to getting an F1 drive in the past, and must have been further off every other F1 team’s radars than David Beckham. Perhaps one of the most surprising choices of the 2000s.
So who is he, then? Well, he started his single-seater career as recently as 2004 in Formula BMW USA. He finished a reasonably impressive 3rd overall with 4 wins – ahead were Canadian James Hinchcliffe and 3 year FBMW veteran Andreas Wirth of Germany, and behind in 7th was a young Graham Rahal. Jon was then signed up by Team Rosberg for an assault on the ADAC FBMW title, but it didn’t go brilliantly – he finished 10th, with just a single podium at Spa to his name. Ahead were names such as Nico Hulkenberg, Sebastien Buemi, team mates Chris van der Drift and Markus Niemela and even Natacha Gachnang. To be fair, he obviously didn’t know the tracks, but neither did some of the other young starlets – Hulkenberg, who pipped Buemi to the title, was in his first year of single-seater racing, and so he didn’t know the tracks or the cars. I’m obviously not an expert on mid-2000s ADAC FBMW, but it doesn’t look good for Jon so far.
But regardless of that, he was snapped up by crack F3 Euroseries team Mucke Motorsport alongside Buemi, and he did surprisingly well. Not only did he beat the Red Bull-backed Swiss hotshot, but he took a win and 3 podiums en route to 9th overall, a point ahead of his team mate, and also finished 2nd behind Kamui Kobayashi in the Rookie of the Year standings. Only Kobayashi of the guys in front in the overall standings had no F3 experience – this included names such as di Resta, Vettel and Nakajima. And yet he was only 6 points of 5th-placed fellow American Richard Antinucci. Rookies don’t normally do brilliantly in the first year, so this is a good sign – the fact is he beat 2 current F1 drivers, Buemi and Grosjean, who were in their first full years in the Euroseries and went on to battle for the title in 2007. Suddenly things are looking a bit more impressive. Added to this, he also stepped into the other Team USA, taking a podium and a fastest lap in his first year in A1 GP. He continued in the series into the 2007/08 season and he improved further, taking the team’s first win at Shanghai and another 2 podiums on top. It was only good enough for 12th overall, though, as the team struggled for consistency, but although there are a number of idiots driving in that series, idiots don’t win races in it.
For 2008, he decided to head back across the Pond to race in the Atlantic Championship. He finished 3rd, just 4 points behind Jonathan Bomarito in 2nd and with 2 wins. The champion? His old team mate, Markus Niemela. This year has seen him continue in the Atlantics, and he currently lies 3rd with 2 wins behind the highly rated John Edwards and Simona de Silvestro. He also did a few races in the Indy Lights Series, taking a 2nd place in his first race in the championship at St Petersburg in his home state.
OK, so he’s not exactly a world-beater in the making, but he’s no slouch either. This is a driver who has consistently challenged for wins in any car he’s driven, and has beaten a current F1 driver in the same team. US F1 could do worse if they wanted to pick an American just for the sake of picking an American. The problem is I think they could also do better. I know that single-seater talent is thin on the ground due to the domination of NASCAR, but there are decent American drivers out there. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, in my opinion, are far better candidates for the drive. For starters, both have a famous name – I don’t think there’s much point in starting up an American F1 team to try and drum up interest in the US and then picking a no-name driver who has spent his career either driving in Europe or small American junior series unless he’s the next Gurney, which, to be fair, Jon probably isn’t. He could well be better than Rahal Jr and Andretti Jr Jr, but he’s just not as interesting. Interest brings sponsorship, which US F1 will need even with their big bucks investor Mr Hurley. But I do think Graham and Marco are good drivers. I know a lot of people don’t rate them, particularly Marco, but both are proven winners in the IRL, which, despite all the flak it takes, does have a few decent drivers. Although not as glamourous, Ryan Hunter-Reay is a proven winner in the American open wheel scene as well, and is probably better known than Summerton. You could even take a punt on a NASCAR driver with proven road course ability, like AJ Allemendinger or *gasp* ever Scott Speed.
I think I’d respect US F1 more if they took a gamble on someone instead of taking a safer, cheap option like Summerton. They are an ambitious outfit but you wouldn’t think that by looking at that choice or by Peter Windsor’s recent statement that Danica Patrick is “too big for them”. But perhaps it just comes down to cost. Summerton will essentially be a pay driver, only in because of his nationality. I’m not going to say that it’s silly of them to sign an American for the sake of it, because if they had 2 experienced non-American drivers, they would become a laughing stock back home. So I think they are right to go about it this way – by pairing a young American with an experienced campaigner like Wurz or Villeneuve or Klien. But they could have gone after someone bigger, and it disappoints me that they seemingly haven’t. Had they landed an Andretti or Rahal or Danica, it would’ve sent a few shockwaves through F1. If Summerton is chosen, it will only be a minor tremor.
But perhaps it is the right move. Who knows how a driver will perform in more powerful machinery? It can go both ways. Drivers who have been brilliant in lower categories have been useless in F1 – see Nelsinho Piquet. And vice versa – Mark Webber’s junior career was hardly stellar, and neither was Damon Hill’s. But I think there’s more to it than just simply about Jon. Money is clearly an issue – Windsor is probably right that Danica is too expensive, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Rahal and Andretti were too. Plus, as I said earlier, there were 5 drivers put through their paces by Windsor and driver trainer Rob Wilson earlier this year. These included 2008 FBMW World Final winner Alexander Rossi and Skip Barber Western Series champ Michael Ramies. Rossi is 17 and Ramies is 18, so both are presumably too young to dive straight into a race seat in 2010. But they would be ideal development drivers. A year or 2 testing and then they’d be ready to jump into the other seat alongside Summerton. With a couple of years of experience under his belt, Jon will be ready to take over as team leader, and US F1 have an all-American line-up.
So it’s not just about 2010 for US F1. They are thinking about the long-term, which is a good start for a team that has barely been around 5 minutes. Despite initially shunning them, things are coming together nicely now and I’d say they have a good chance of making the grid next year – what Windsor and Anderson have been saying lately seems a lot less like hot air than, say, Simon Gillett of Donington. But I’d still like to see a Rahal or Andretti in there. I guess Ken and Peter know something I don’t.