Formula 1 – the American connection

With excitement starting to build towards the new F1 season, we take a look at American involvement in Formula 1.

Traditionally, Formula 1 was a European based activity, dominated at first by Italian teams. The so called “World Championship” started in 1950, although in the 1930s Grand Prix were fought over the “European Championship”, which sometimes included races in Tripoli in what was then Italian Libya.

Mercedes returned to Formula 1 in 1954 for two years domination, before the British came onto the scene towards the end of the decade with Vanwall, and then started to dominate with what the Italians dismissively called “Garagistes” – the likes of Cooper, Lotus and BRM.

The first United States Grand Prix that was a round of the World Championship was held at Sebring in 1959, won by a very young New Zealander called Bruce McLaren, driving a Cooper. The US Grand Prix has continued as a round of the championship, with races at a wide variety of circuits, including Riverside, Long Beach, Detroit, Watkins Glen, Phoenix, Dallas, Indianapolis and even in a car park in Las Vegas. Some years there have been two races on different tracks. It seems that the US Grand Prix has finally found a regular home in Austin, Texas at the Circuit of the Americas, and this year a second race is planned on a street circuit in Miami. (8th May).

In 1974 and 1976 Mario Andretti raced a Vels Parnelli Cosworth, got a few points finishes, and Penske built a Cosworth engined car which actually won the Austrian Grand prix in 1976 with John Watson at the wheel. Penske pulled out at the end of the year, selling the cars to ATS. (ATS is another story altogether!!). The Vels Parnelli team gave up after just 3 races of the 76 season.

The Austrian GP win is actually the last time an American constructor won a GP – even though the cars were built in Poole England at the Penske facility.

Surprisingly, only five US drivers have managed to see the chequered flag in the history of the World Championship – and two of those were crowned World Champion. In 1961 Phil Hill won the Championship with Ferrari, and in 1978 Mario Andretti had a dominant season on the ground effect Lotus 79. Who were the other three Americans to win Grand Prix? Ritchie Ginther won the last race of the 1.5 litre era in a Honda (Honda’s first win!), Dan Gurney won twice for Brabham and then famously in his own Eagle at Spa in 1967. This is the only American car to have won a Grand Prix – even though Dan built the Eagle in the UK, and the Weslake engine was also built in the UK! The other American winner was Peter Revson, who won twice for McLaren in the early 70s.

Many others have tried, but until recently Formula 1 has not been able to attract a lot of interest with the American audience. Strong national series NASCAR and Indycar have dominated TV and media coverage. Formula 1 has always been a bit of a minority series to most casual American race fans.

The arrival of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” has changed that – witness the huge crowd at the Circuit of the Americas for last season’s Grand Prix. American interest in Formula 1 has never been higher – hence the arrival of the Miami GP this year. Of course Formula 1 is owned by the American Liberty Media organisation, and we do have American owned teams competing – Haas, although it has struggled in recent seasons, and ironically is largely financed with Russian money! Williams is now US owned as well. Andretti Autosport tried to buy the Alfa Romeo (nee Sauber) F1 team last year, the deal fell through, but it is reflection of the huge interest in Formula 1 in the US that they tried – and it is likely they will be back.

What we lack now are some American drivers. A new crop of super quick Indycar drivers is coming through, and we can expect some of these to try Formula 1 in the next few seasons. Keep a look out for the likes of Alex Palou, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward and possibly Scott McLaughlin. Liberty would dearly love to have an American competing at the highest level, and with the level of interest in F1 in the States so high, it will happen sooner rather than later.