Formula 1?s lost nations: USA

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Mario Andretti was world champion for Lotus in 1978
Mario Andretti was world champion for Lotus in 1978

Last world champion: Mario Andretti, Lotus, 1978
Last Grand Prix winner: Mario Andretti, Lotus, Zandvoort, 1978
Last Grand Prix starter: Scott Speed, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Nurburgring, 2007
Last Grand Prix: Indianapolis, 2007

Although F1 has never been hugely popular in America, and probably never will be, it has a small but dedicated following in the USA. Unfortunately the last period of F1 racing in America showcased some of the sport’s very worst moments.

America?s F1 history

As with many sports, America?s domestic motor racing series have always attracted more interest among home fans than their drivers? efforts to achieve success on the international stage. America has a long tradition of oval racing, from the once-great Indy Car series, which tore itself apart in the 1990s, to stock car racing which dominates the US racing scene today.

But Phil Hill was drawn to the international scene. He was the first American-born driver to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, and won the world championship for Ferrari in 1961. He left the team the year after, and retired from racing altogether in 1967. He died of Parkinson’s Disease last year.

Mario Andretti, whose family emigrated from Italy after World War Two and settled in Pennsylvania, took the title for Colin Chapman?s Lotus team in 1978. In a tragic parallel with Hill, he too won the championship on the day his team mate was killed.

Andretti last raced in F1 in 1982 and since then very few Americans have competed in the world championship. Once of them was Mario?s son Michael, whose 1993 effort was memorable only for being an unmitigated disaster.

Efforts to find a home for an American Grand Prix have been thwarted by more than just the public?s preference for Indy Car and NASCAR. F1?s promoters have shown no willingness to make concessions to secure a foothold in the world?s most lucrative market. Popular events at classic tracks such at Watkins Glen (1961-1980) and Long Beach (1976-1983) fell by the wayside for these reasons. But losing unloved venues like Las Vegas (1981-2) and Phoenix (1989-91) was easier to accept.

F1?s latest attempt to establish itself in America ended in 2007 and several of the manufacturer-backed teams voiced their displeasure that Bernie Ecclestone had been unable to agree terms with Indianapolis boss Tony George. Worse, F1 shot itself in the foot twice at the Brickyard: in 2002 the race ended in a contrived farce as the Ferrari drivers swapped positions on the final lap, and in 2005 only six cars took the start after Michelin discovered problems with its tyres.

America?s F1 future

America has never been short of good racing drivers ?ǣ the problem has usually been that they aren?t interested in Formula 1, or they are, but can?t find any sponsors who would rather be on an F1 airbox than a NASCAR fender.

Marco Andretti, son of Michael, had until recently been tipped for a future F1 drive. But the team that showed the most interest in him, Honda, is up for sale and Andretti?s efforts are now focused on his Indy Car career.

Another up-and-coming America driver to keep an eye out for in the future is Alexander Rossi. Rossi won the BMW World Final in Mexico at the end of last year (pictures here), aged 17. He beat Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, who won the F1-supporting Formula BMW Europe championship last year.

As for America returning to the F1 calendar, I hope it happens soon. But with NASCAR and Indy Car ticket prices so much lower than what is charged in F1 I can’t see how an American race promoter could afford Ecclestone’s prices. And although America has many fine road racing circuits – Road America, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta to name just three – few are up to F1’s safety and facilities standards.

Do you think we’ll see another American in F1 soon? Will F1 go back to the USA soon? Have your say in the comments.

American F1 driver biographies

Formula 1’s lost nations

Alexander Rossi in the BMW World Final 2008, Mexico
Alexander Rossi in the BMW World Final 2008, Mexico