When Will Formula 1 See an American Driver?

Sports

The global motorsport is rapidly expanding in the United States. But when will we see an American driver?

When Liberty Media, an American company, purchased Formula 1 in 2017, it made no secret of its ambition to increase the sport’s popularity in the United States.

So far, so good. Races drew record ratings last season on ESPN, “Drive to Survive,” the Netflix documentary series about Formula 1 is one of the streaming platform’s most popular shows, and the Miami Grand Prix is set to debut in May, joining the United States Grand Prix near Austin, Texas, as the second American race on the calendar. Las Vegas will stage a race on the city’s famous Strip in November 2023.

But for fans who are becoming acquainted with the global motorsport as it increases its footprint in the U.S., there is one puzzling question: Why are there no American-born drivers?

“Now that’s a really complex question,” said Will Buxton, a longtime Formula 1 broadcaster and journalist. “The last American champion was Mario Andretti, so that tells you how long it’s been.”

Although drivers from the United States have had occasional Formula 1 success, including two world championships — Andretti, a naturalized American citizen, in 1978 and Phil Hill in 1961 — they have been virtually absent from the series over the past two decades. The last American to race in the series was Alexander Rossi, who drove in five unremarkable races for the now-defunct Marussia team in 2015 before moving full time to IndyCar, the top open-wheel racing series based in North America.

According to Buxton, there have been two major hurdles facing young American drivers: The path to Formula 1 traditionally runs through European junior karting leagues, and sponsors have rarely provided racers from the U.S. with financial backing overseas.

“If you’re an American who chooses to take that European route, you’re almost seen as a pariah, that you have rejected your American homeland in search of this dream,” said Buxton, who notes that Americans have popular racing alternatives domestically, like NASCAR and IndyCar.

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In the early 1980s, Danny Sullivan was one of those American drivers hoping to strike it big in Formula 1. He spent years in Europe working his way up the ladder, eventually landing a seat with the Tyrell Formula 1 team in 1983.

But despite the series’ glamour, the path to Formula 1, especially for Americans, Sullivan said, can be a grueling experience.

“A lot of guys didn’t like the food, the weather, the travel, and they didn’t like being so far away from their families,” Sullivan said. “And there’s also a national pride — a national favoritism — toward your own country over there. They simply preferred their own drivers.”

After one decent season in Formula 1, including a fifth-place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix, Sullivan left the series and abandoned Europe, unable to secure enough sponsorship money to continue. He went on to enjoy a successful racing career at home, winning the 1985 Indianapolis 500 and the 1988 CART Championship, a precursor to IndyCar.

Then, in the early 2000s, Sullivan served as a talent scout for Formula 1’s Red Bull Racing team and found that most young Americans and their families were turned off by the long and winding path to Formula 1.

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“A major issue for these younger American kids is that their parents have to decide if they want to pick up and move overseas with them,” Sullivan said. “And remember, there are only 20 seats in Formula 1. It’s cutthroat to get one, and even the most talented kids can get passed over. Do you really want to uproot your life for a few years, with no guarantee that you’ll even reach your goal?”

But fans hoping to see a Formula 1 driver from the U.S. may not have to wait much longer. Michael Andretti, one of Mario’s sons and a former Formula 1 driver, announced in February that his racing organization, Andretti Autosports, had formally launched a bid to create a Formula 1 team by 2024.

Andretti made it clear that the team would prioritize signing an American driver, something that Haas F1 Team — currently the only American-owned Formula 1 team on the grid — has never entertained.

“Imagine an American team that speaks to an American audience, with a household name like Andretti,” Buxton said. “If the entry gets approved, I think it’d be a hugely exciting time for America and for Formula 1.”

Colton Herta, a 22-year-old Andretti IndyCar driver with six career race wins, would likely be tapped to fill one of Andretti’s Formula 1 seats. Herta announced in March that he had signed on as a testing driver for the British Formula 1 team McLaren in order to get some much-needed experience behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car.

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“Colton is super exciting,” Buxton said. “Anyone who has ever worked with him will tell you that he’s one of the best. He can clearly do the job if he comes to Formula 1.”

There are a few other American hopefuls working their way through the Formula 1 pipeline. Logan Sargeant, a 21-year-old Florida native, is racing in Formula 2, a series that often feeds talent to Formula 1. And last year, the teenage karting sensation Ugo Ugochukwu, from New York City, signed a long-term development contract with McLaren.

“I do not for a second believe that Americans can’t compete to win in Formula 1,” Sullivan said. “Our kids are just as talented as any across the world.”

According to Andrew Kline, founder and managing director of the sports investment firm Park Lane, an American driver seems like an inevitability for Formula 1, partly because it makes good business sense. He has noticed a significant increase in American investment money directed toward the global motorsport — both from corporations and high-net-worth individuals — and believes the age-old issue of American drivers lacking sponsorship funds will soon be a thing of the past.

“It’s clear that a successful American driver would be such a huge catalyst for growth, similar to Lance Armstrong in the traditionally European sport of cycling,” he said. “The amount of Americans who ride and follow cycling to this day because of Lance is just enormous. If a driver could come around with that type of personality and have success, it would be a major hit for Formula 1.”

Buxton, though, remains on the fence about whether an American driver would necessarily impact Formula 1’s popularity. Today’s potential drivers, he said, do not carry the same type of name recognition as some of the United States’ previous motorsports heroes.

“I think back to the late ’90s, when there was a very real possibility that NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon would join Formula 1,” Buxton said.

He added: “Jeff was a mega star, and then you’ve got a story. Jeff was on cereal boxes.”

Sullivan is hopeful that the Andretti Formula 1 team will come to fruition and that more support systems will be put in place to help young Americans reach Formula 1. And he is convinced that a competitive American driver — whether it be Herta or another hopeful — is the final step Formula 1 needs to cement its United States expansion.

“Everybody wants to cheer for their nationality,” he said. “And with all of Formula 1’s momentum right now, I have no doubt that a competitive American driver would launch it to even greater heights.”

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