F1: America
on the road

F1: America on the road

Approaching the end of its 68th season, Formula 1 now visits its 57th grand prix in the United States this weekend. That’s not bad for a discipline that is meant to be very European (at least in its origins). But the most startling statistic of all is the number of times that this race has moved around. Leaving aside the 11 editions of the Indy 500 that were also valid for the Formula 1 World Championship between 1950 and 1960, the 55 United States grands prix to be held up to now have been distributed over 10 different circuits. No other race has adopted such a gypsy lifestyle. But America is well-known for road movies, so it’s logical enough for this trend to be continued even in the rarefied world of F1. And with all these different venues, there are many fascinating and colourful stories to be told.

More than a third of the races hosted in the United States (20 out of 57, including the forthcoming race in Texas this weekend) were held in Watkins Glen. The Atlantic coast circuit, close to New York, was extremely fast. The key points to note were rapid corners and plenty of changes of elevation: even in 1970 Jackie Ickx set the fastest lap with Ferrari at an astonishing average of more than 210kph. Unfortunately, there was not always the safety to go with the speed: In 1973 Frenchman Francois Cevert slid under the guard rail in his Tyrrell and was killed on the spot, practically decapitated by the barrier that was meant to protect him. The following year, another race at the Glen was firmly in the spotlight. It was the final grand prix of the 1974 championship and the two title protagonists were Clay Regazzoni for Ferrari and Brazil’s Emerson Fittipaldi for McLaren. Ferrari’s legendary technical director Mauro Forghieri arrived at the circuit late after missing his plane. By the time he got there it was already Saturday and he found a Ferrari riddled with a number of technical problems. Even Forghieri could not magic a solution out of the ether, so in the crucial race Regazzoni was outclassed by Fittipaldi, who secured his second world title two years after he won his first with Lotus.

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The United States Grand Prix has often set records, witnessed something unusual, or provided a key debut. In 1959 Bruce McLaren sealed the first of his four F1 victories as a driver. The race was at Sebring in the heat of Florida’s mild winter, even though it was already mid-December. Jack Brabham needed just a fourth place to be sure of sealing the first of his eventual three titles.

In 1976, Formula 1 landed in Long Beach. It seemed like the sport had finally found its American spiritual home in the glamorous state of California, just down the road from the glittering ‘city of angels’. The Pacific coast circuit had a number of specific characteristics: a series of 90-degree corners and a long straight that eventually led to a wide hairpin. The unique backdrop was the cityscape of Long Beach: characterised by street furniture, hanging traffic lights over every junction, and the unmistakable profile of the Queen Mary Cruise liner. That first race was all about Ferrari. Reigning world champion Niki Lauda came off the back of two race wins at the start of the season, in Brazil and South Africa. His march to a second world title seemed inexorable. And Ferrari dominated in Long Beach once again, but this time it was his team mate Clay Regazzoni who tasted the victory Champagne, with an advantage of more than 40 seconds over Lauda at the end. Those three points that Lauda lost would turn out to be absolutely vital at the end the season, following the Austrian’s terrifying shunt at the Nurburgring, his recovery in record time from devastating injuries, and the apocalyptic finale in the rain at Fuji. James Hunt eventually won the title by just one point that year.

There are so many other curiosities to the United States Grand Prix that it’s impossible to mention them all here. But one absolutely unforgettable venue was the 1981 United States Grand Prix, held in Las Vegas. There was no permanent circuit in the city: in fact not even in the whole state of Nevada. So in the end the race was run on a bizarre temporary track laid out with concrete Armco blocks (safety standards were different back then) in the car park of the Caesar’s Palace hotel: one of the most important gambling venues in Las Vegas.  
The Las Vegas Grand Prix was actually run twice.  In 1981 Alan Jones won with Williams while Brabham’s Nelson Piquet needed only a reasonably anonymous fifth place to deprive Carlos Reutemann of the title, who endured a weekend to forget in the other Williams. In 1982 Michele Alboreto was the winner for Tyrrell, where he was congratulated on the podium by none other than American Motown sensation Diana Ross.

The 1984 season witnessed the one and only USA Grand Prix held in Dallas. So long before Austin came round in 2012 there was already an American race in Texas... The difference was though that in 1984 it was held in the summer, under the sort of baking temperatures typical of southern Texas at that time of year. As a result, free practice, qualifying and the race were all held at a much earlier time of day than usual, to try and escape the worst of the suffocating heat. But even those precautions couldn’t prevent a dramatic finish to the grand prix, when British hero Nigel Mansell theatrically collapsed on live television as he was pushing his stricken Lotus over the finish line…

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