A fair, All-American assessment of what Manor just did

Manor didn’t sign Alexander Rossi. They did sign Rio Haryanto. This is fine EVERYTHING IS FINE CALM DOWN R.J.

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Today, Manor Racing completed their driver lineup for the 2016 Formula 1 season. With new Mercedes power units, a revamped technical staff and management, and two new drivers, it’s expected to be a big year for both Manor and their drivers, the reigning DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein, and the American driver who impressed in his five race slate at the end of 2015, Alexander Rossi. They’re expected to surge up the running order this coming se-

Wait. Wait. Wait wait wait wait WAIT. Hold up. They signed WHO!? 

DAMNIT MANOR

OH GOD DAMNIT!

*taking deep breaths* Okay, this is fine. This is okay. That’s just wonderful! Perfect! Outstanding! *deep sigh* The other Manor driver is Rio Haryanto of Indonesia. It’s not American driver Alexander Rossi. (god damnit all why why why would you do this to me manor? why the fu- GUUUUUUHHHH!!! *pours a pint of apple cider, drinks half of it in one sitting, and drags nails across own face*)

If you’re like myself, today’s announcement really feels like a downer. Will Stevens, to his credit, did a pretty outstanding job as Manor’s lead driver for most of 2015 given how low the expectations were for him to succeed. Even I didn’t think he’d be any good. Then Rossi came in at Singapore and surpassed what Stevens had done in just a handful of starts.

Over five races Rossi outqualified Stevens 3-2, outraced him 3-1, he scored Manor’s joint-best finish of 2015 with a twelfth place at the United States GP. He came with some decent amount of backing, and brought in more sponsors to the Manor team than they had before his arrival. And given how much some drivers in recent past had done so poorly in jumping into a new car in the middle of the season (Jerome d’Ambrosio, 2012, and Bruno Senna, 2011, immediately come to mind), for Rossi to be immediately on the ball and impress the paddock in the slowest car on the grid was genuinely impressive.

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Alexander Rossi (foreground) racing Sergio Perez. Image Credit – © Manor Racing

If you’re like myself, you were excited about 2016. After all, Manor’s getting new engines, a new technical team made up mostly of people who have worked at top-flight organizations at Ferrari. They’re back on track when twelve months ago some of us thought they’d never race again. And you were probably thinking that Rossi could contribute to Manor’s even more improbable climb into the F1 midfield.

Instead, Rossi is looking at having to either take a reserve driver role at another team, which he’s done more than enough of over the last four years with Caterham and Marussia, or trying to patch together a last minute deal in another series and basically accept defeat of any future F1 ambitions before they ever got going, because the seat that, to many people, should have been his, goes instead to a driver who Rossi beat in GP2 last year, and who has infinitely less experience in actual F1 race scenarios.

I’m an American F1 fan who’s lived long enough to overlap three drivers racing in F1 ever: Rossi, Scott Speed, and Michael Andretti. They’ve combined for 46 Grand Prix starts, 7 points (all to Andretti), and only Speed had completed a full season between them. There hasn’t been an American race winner or champion since Mario Andretti, and for half of the 26 years that I’ve been alive, there hasn’t been an American round in the championship. And now they’re threatening to take the race away again!

I’m also one of those crazy progressive types who doesn’t feel an overwhelming sense of American Pride© with regards to income inequality, police brutality against people of colour, open and celebrated discrimination against the LGBTQA+ community, and other social and political issues in this country. International sporting events are the only time where I’ll ever really get behind the United States if only because very little else makes me proud to be from here.

And F1 is such an event. And just when I felt like I’d seen the start of something cool, when Rossi had worked for almost a decade through countless setbacks to finally reach the summit of his career and become the American face of Formula 1 the way that Andretti, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, and Mark Donohue were generations before me, it all gets pulled out from under the rug. Hell, even being a midfield fixture like Eddie Cheever would have been better for Rossi than the brief, unfulfilled careers of Andretti (the younger) and Speed before him.

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Image Credit – © Manor Racing

I’m upset. And a lot of my friends are upset about it too. Some have said they’ll never support Manor Racing, the F1 team, from this day forward. Some people will probably give up F1 altogether for a while. Very few things can alienate an entire country’s fanbase like teasing the arrival of a new star from your country, dangling the prospect of their success right in their face, and then yanking it away.

Because of that, Rio Haryanto won’t ever really get a fair shake until he does something to really impress the racing world. And speaking as an American, born and raised in the Good Ole U.S. of A™, who is SO DAMN MAD THAT IT’S BRINGING MY BLOOD TO AN OLD GLORY BOIL

….That’s really not fair to Rio Haryanto.

Haryanto Pirelli Test
Image Credit – © Manor Racing

Sure, Haryanto’s pre-F1 credentials aren’t the best. He’s the dreaded “fourth-year fun ruiner” from GP2, who never won a race, and never finished in the top ten in the standings, until this past season when he won three sprint races and finished 4th in the championship for Campos. He hasn’t won a championship in single-seaters since 2009 when he was crowned Formula BMW champion of the Pacific. Did I mention that he finished behind Rossi in the GP2 championship last year? And again in 2013? And again in 2010 when they were both in the GP3 series?

To many, Haryanto’s appointment is strictly about money over talent. And Haryanto’s bringing about €5 million EUR to Manor through his country’s state-owned oil giant, Pertamina. They’ve been stepping up to make their presence known in racing, not only as a sponsor of Haryanto, but elsewhere in the racing world – they’re one of the primary sponsors of Lamborghini’s global sports car racing programme.

If the appointment of a driver to an F1 team primarily due to their “financial considerations” is somehow a suprise, a shock, or a trigger to induce frothing-at-the-mouth rage, welcome to your first day as a racing fan.

Wehrlein’s driving for Manor because Mercedes-AMG were willing to cut a deal for the team that surely included some exchange of money from Mercedes to Manor. Rossi had money with him to get his drive at Manor. So did Stevens. So did Max Chilton and the late Jules Bianchi before them. Niki Lauda took out loans on himself to pay for his first F1 drives. Mercedes handed Eddie Jordan £150,000 to stick some kid named Michael Schumacher in his car for the ’91 Belgian Grand Prix. There’s a “pay-driver epidemic” in IndyCar and in NASCAR, which have been long propped up as safe havens where talent gets rewarded over money, by people who really are naïve enough to believe that there’s no such thing as pay-drivers over there.

The reality is that this isn’t even close to the most cynical “money-over-talent” decision that a cash-strapped F1 team has made in my lifetime. Let me share a few examples from just the late 1990s alone. A time that we believe, thanks to Nostalgia Goggles, that money never won out over talent. In fact, not only did it win some times, it played damn dirty.

In 1996, Minardi were on the verge of fielding a team of Pedro Lamy and… Taki Inoue. Yep. This was seriously a thing the team were going to do, even after Inoue completely made a nuisance of himself on the track all of last year at Footwork, because Inoue was bringing a cool $3 million USD to Minardi that year that they really needed. Except one of his main sponsors backed out, and Inoue left the team with just a week to go before the start of the season. Somewhat reluctantly, Minardi promoted their third driver to the second seat.

fisichella monaco 96
Image Credit – © Minardi

That third driver was Giancarlo Fisichella, who promptly outqualified the experienced Lamy 6-2 over eight of the next ten races, scored Minardi’s best finish of the ’96 season by finishing eighth at Canada, and went on to win three F1 Grands Prix in a career that spanned fourteen seasons, while also becoming a two-time GTE class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But because Minardi were still short on funding, they parked Fisichella for the remaining six races of the season in favour of Giovanni Lavaggi, aged 38, who already demonstrated that he was so slow in 1995, that the FIA had to create the 107% rule in response to how dangerously slow he was. Lavaggi promptly failed to qualify for three of his six races and failed to finish two of the three that he actually was quick enough to qualify for.

Just two years later, Tyrrell Racing, now under the ownership of British American Tobacco, were having a miserable time in the last season before Tyrrell changed over to BAR. In particular, Ricardo Rosset wasn’t doing very well. Six races in and Rosset had failed to qualify for two races, and at Monaco he had a comically atrocious effort in trying to get on the grid that involved a failed spin-turn and reversing onto the track. Ken Tyrrell didn’t really want him on the team, and he hadn’t been particularly impressive at Footwork in ’96.

After Monaco, they had a decision to make. They could keep Rosset, who brought quite a bit of money to a team that probably didn’t need it under the ownership of a multi-national tobacco giant, or promote their test driver. A driver who’d won Formula 3 titles in Germany and Japan, who’d won races in single-seaters and in touring cars, and who just the year before, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright driving for Porsche in his first-ever trip to the race.

tk tyrrell

Rather than give Tom Kristensen, now a nine-time Le Mans champion and one of the greatest racing drivers of this or any generation, his chance to make an F1 debut for the betterment of the team from a results standpoint, they kept Rosset. Rosset never scored a point, and later racked up three more DNQs before the end of the season.

And then just two years after that, Arrows made their contribution. After a strong 2000 season that saw the team just miss out on podiums with Jos Verstappen and Pedro de la Rosa. De la Rosa had outperformed Verstappen over the course of the season except in the points standings, but they were sure that the team was going to keep the same driver lineup for 2001.

Instead, Arrows brought in Red Bull junior Enrique Bernoldi, and booted De la Rosa out with two months before the start of the season. A move that looks worse in retrospect, given that Verstappen had been found guilty of assaulting an elderly man at a karting circuit in October 2000. Turns out, it was a blessing for De la Rosa – he joined Jaguar later in the 2001 season, Arrows were miserable all season long, and they were already extinct by the end of 2002. Bernoldi never scored a single F1 championship point.

But back to Haryanto, who was only average in GP2 until last season, who hasn’t won a single-seater title since the BBC was the new broadcaster for F1 in Great Britain, who with the backing of Indonesia’s largest energy company just pushed America’s most promising F1 hopeful out of a seat that he’d earned on merit in both GP2 and Formula 1.

He’s not that bad of a driver. Yes, he didn’t win a title in GP2, GP3, or Auto GP (before it collapsed in on itself) – but he did win races in those series, in fact he’s won in every level of single-seater racing he’s entered in. There were times over his second and third GP2 seasons (right around the time I started following the feeder series) that I thought he could have won his first race a lot sooner than he ended up doing. He’s something of a wet-weather specialist, as seen in these highlights from his 2011 GP3 campaign where he was often getting the better of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas:

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Rio Haryanto may not become the next Ayrton Senna, but compared to the pay-drivers of yesterday, his prior track record looks closer to Senna’s than that of a Taki Inoue or an Enrique Bernoldi. And in wet conditions, he certainly looks a lot closer to Senna than many experienced F1 racers.

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Image Credit – © GP2 Series

If he wasn’t racing in F1, Rio Haryanto could easily excel in another series like IndyCar, Super Formula, WEC, DTM, IMSA, Blancpain GT, Super GT – the list goes on. And it would be unfair for me to dismiss Haryanto as an F1 driver before he even starts his first race in Australia next month.

Haryanto seems like a genuinely kind young man, visiting the local orphanage in his home town of Solo, Indonesia, to share his stories of racing and motivating young people to pursue their dreams. He represents a country that’s trying to establish itself as a growing motorsport nation, with fellow Indonesian drivers Sean Gelael and Philo Paz Patric Armand racing in GP2 this year, and KFC’s Indonesian brand, Jagonya Ayam, stepping up to support the European Formula 3 championship, and other GP2 drivers like Mitch Evans, Gelael’s teammate, and Antonio Giovinazzi, Gelael’s friend since they started their racing careers.

He’ll be the only driver from Asia on the grid next year, a region that’s horrifically denounced by the motorsport community of North America and Europe as it is – where everything outside of Japan is unfairly viewed as a third-world slum despite years of evidence to suggest otherwise. Hell, even the many Japanese drivers in F1 get stereotyped and stigmatized from the day they arrive, and then to these same basic goofs, everywhere else might as well be North Korea.

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Image Credit – © GP2 Series

Haryanto is racing for the pride of a country that’s got a fair bit of hardship and strife to deal with back home, and as much as we’re bent up – as much as I’m bent up – in the States that Rossi lost out on the drive to Haryanto, there’s a good percentage of the over 250 million people living in Indonesia who are really, really excited about today. Haryanto is racing for national pride as much as Rossi is, and it would be totally unfair, and against what I believe to be the true American spirit, to hold that against him just because he took the seat that “our guy” was supposed to get.

Sure, he could end up drowning in the F1 ocean the way Yuji Ide did ten years ago. And yes, there is still a large part of me that thinks in a few years time, we’ll be thinking back to this day and saying “Well, Manor could have kept Alexander Rossi for 2016, but instead they went with Haryanto” at some point because today I feel like I’ve taken a kick square in the star-spangled junk.

But he could turn out to be alright. And if he does, I’m hoping that he gets the support of everyone around the world. Yes, that includes the fans in America. Because we shouldn’t be rooting for a seemingly good person to fail. Because we should be better than base-level, xenophobic clods. Because we shouldn’t be holding grudges against a young man who’s worked his ass off to get to this point as another young man who’s worked his ass off to get to where he’s gotten. That’s not the American way.

…okay, maybe I feel a little better now!

-R.J.

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