When it comes to motorsport, no other country does it quite like the United States. But why is this powerhouse of a nation, which boasts some of the most iconic races in the world, still not always completely ready to accept Formula 1 into its arms?
The lack of top American drivers is one reason, of course. Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi have had some exposure but nowhere near the level of success needed to generate real excitement Stateside, as Mario Andretti once did. There’s also this perception among fans that Formula 1 has an elitist image where drivers are kept away from the public, with high ticket prices and too much abstract technology compared to NASCAR, Indycar and IMSA: the backbones of American motorsport.
The good news is that all this is about to change. Liberty Media, Formula 1’s American promoters, have made cracking their home country a priority, with initiatives such as the F1 Festival in Los Angeles this week designed to bring the sport right to the people. The next big step though would be to find a star American driver. But who?
One man who has been talked about is double Indycar champion Josef Newgarden. He’s on top of his game, both on and off track. The former GP3 Series driver had been firmly on the F1 career ladder until running out of budget and moving back home to compete in Indycar’s feeder series, Indy Lights. The progression up those ranks landed him two Indy titles in the last three years, in 2017 and 2019. As reigning champion, the 28-year-old’s stock has never been higher.
While a bold F1 switch isn't going to happen for him next year, who knows for the future? It could be all change from 2021, as here’s an incredible fact: Racing Point’s Sergio Perez is the only driver on the F1 grid who is currently contractually committed beyond the end of 2020 (leaving aside options). Every single other seat is up for grabs. So there’s probably never been a better time for a star American driver to come into the sport, with the technical rules about to change as well and (maybe) ensure a more level playing field.
There are also a number of promising young American drivers knocking on the door in Formula 2. Patricio O’Ward has been talked about a lot and is backed by Red Bull, while Juan Manuel Correa – currently recovering from the horrific injuries he sustained at Spa earlier this year – is a member of the Sauber Junior Team. Then there’s Rossi, who has already driven an F1 car on several occasions.
Formula 1’s struggle to find a permanent US Grand Prix venue were demonstrated during the 1980s, with six different circuits in 10 years. As well as Watkins Glen, there were races in Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit, Long Beach and Phoenix before embarking on a spell at Indianapolis. Since 2012, the Circuit of the Americas has established itself as the home of the US Grand Prix, but a country as big and important as the USA needs a second or even a third race for F1 to really take off – and that’s what the promoters are working on right now.
For 2021, the plan is to go to Miami at a new venue in the Miami Gardens district, close to the Dolphins stadium, to make use of the surrounding infrastructure. It may not be as glamorous as the original waterfront concept, but it should be easier to manage in terms of logistics and bureaucracy – although there is still some local opposition.
It might not be a coincidence that this year’s F1 Fan Festival is taking place on the west coast in Los Angeles as well (having been held at Miami in the past). Because there’s also talk of a Californian race in future, with discussions sporadically held about Long Beach (used eight times for F1 previously and still used now in Indycar).
It could make even more sense though to explore an entirely new west coast venue. Last year, Red Bull released a video of Daniel Ricciardo driving a demo run (and making a pit stop) on San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate bridge. The backdrop was stunning.
In the past, it’s fair to say that F1 never really delivered what American race fans live and breathe for, but the signs in recent years have been positive: a US team (Haas F1), a permanent (for now) fixture on the calendar and owners (Liberty Media) who understand and are genuinely passionate about the huge potential of the American market. Whether or not it pays off depends very much on the next steps.
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