SILVERSTONE, England – As Formula One expands its reach into the United States, there’s still a missing ingredient that could keep some fans away from the stands – an American driver on the grid.
There hasn’t been an American in Formula One since 2007 when Scott Speed drove for Toro Rosso. But the pressure is building for an American to make the jump now that the United States successfully hosted the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, last year and is set to hold a second grand prix in New Jersey as soon as 2014.
“It would be tremendous boost for Formula One to have an American driver,” Mario Andretti, the Formula One champion in 1978, told The Associated Press. “It would not only be good for America but also Formula One. No question about it. The U.S. is a very powerful nation from the standpoint of the financial situation. Every company in Formula One now does business in the Unites States.”
Scores of Americans have given F1 a try, but few have succeeded. Andretti was the last American to win a drivers’ championship title and before him it was Phil Hill in 1961. More common were the likes of Andretti’s son Michael, who raced 13 grand prix races for McLaren in 1993 with a third-place finish as his best result. Speed never scored a point in the two years he raced in F1.
There was talk in 2010 of creating an American team dubbed USF1, with strong backing from YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and featuring Danica Patrick and possibly Speed as drivers. But USF1 struggled to attract sponsors amid the global recession and ran afoul of F1 when it didn’t race in 2010.
The dearth of drivers – there only are Americans Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly in all the F1 feeders – is blamed on the a mix of cultural and financial factors. Among the biggest challenges is raising the millions needed to fund a team from American corporations that may have doubts about the benefits of investing in a sport that is not a major attraction in the U.S.
“It’s extremely difficult for an American mostly because there is no American support from companies,” said Speed, who now races in NASCAR and Global Rally Cross. “Why would an American company spend x amount of money in Formula One when they can get 10 times that exposure in America racing NASCAR? It makes zero sense financially.”
F1 drivers and executives said it also can be difficult for an American to make the transition to F1 since they are raised on tracks and a system that grooms them for IndyCar and NASCAR rather than the serpentine circuits of Europe. There also isn’t the kind of support system that European drivers can count on to provide mentoring and the occasional break as they attempt to rise through the ranks of the sport.
“Formula One has flirted with North America for many years, but Formula One hasn’t been seen as the pinnacle of the sport in the eyes of youngsters in North America. North America has evolved in a slightly different approach with things like NASCAR,” said McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, who heads the F1 teams’ association. “North America doesn’t have the karting program. Without exception, every single one of these (F1) drivers started at 8 or 9 in karting and went into competitive karting. Karting became the launch pad for their careers.”
In the short term, Whitmarsh said prospective American drivers will have to go to Europe early on in their careers. But Andretti said the addition of two American races should help in the long-term – by inspiring more youngsters to take up the sport, providing the facilities needed to develop that talent and convincing American companies to step up their sponsorship.
Rossi and Daly have beaten the odds partly because they are not your typical American drivers. Rossi is a reserve driver for Caterham and drives for them in the series GP2, which is a notch below F1. Daly drives in a lesser GP3 series with ART Grand Prix.
Both grew up on F1 – Rossi watching as a 6-year-old with his father – and Daly benefiting from the stories his father, Derek, who raced in F1 from 1978 to 1982. They also raced in Europe at a young age, which Whitmarsh and others recommend. Rossi moved to Italy at 16 to pursue his F1 dream, while the 21-year-old Daly first raced as a 16-year-old in Europe before moving there in 2011.
The duo also have the belief they will make it to F1 – emboldened by the success they have had so far. Daly won a race in Barcelona last year and again this year in Valencia and sits fifth in the GP3 standings. Rossi joined Caterham in 2011 as a test driver and was named a reserve driver this year. He then replaced Chinese reserve driver Ma Qing Hua in GP2 after the opening race in Malaysia and placed third place in Bahrain.
“When we were able to come over here and win races and qualify on pole, it justified that we can do it, too. That is what has been encouraging,” Daly said.
“Rossi has been great so far, and he has done an awesome job, and he has kind of gotten there with Caterham already,” he said. “It’s not just one American we want in F1. It’s as many as we can get. Right now, it’s just us two that at least have made it into Formula One cars and are kind of getting there.”
The two also understand the significance of becoming the next American on the grid. They already have witnessed a few flag-waving Americans at European races and the kind of support that comes across Twitter and Facebook when they win races. Doing that in Austin or New Jersey, they said, would be special.
“It would mean everything not only to be an American on the grid but to be an American on the grid as Formula One starts to rebuild an audience in America,” Rossi said. “The timing would be amazing.”
Noting the buzz he saw for Britton Lewis Hamilton at the British GP and Spaniard Fernando Alonso at the Spanish GP, Daly said an American race needs a homegrown driver.
“In America, we have a race. Any drivers? No. Was there a good crowd? Absolutely, it’s a great venue, Austin, and the track is incredible. But in reality, who do Americans have to cheer for?” he said. “It’s like the Olympics. When you watch the Olympics, you want to see Americans do well.”