Formula 1 Coming to America Big Time

United States Grand Prix USA flags

When the United States Grand Prix returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 2012, in Texas of all places, the world’s highest class of international motor racing was taking a big leap in a country it had abandoned five years earlier.

A decade later, F1 is very much here to stay in the USA.

The United States Grand Prix on Sunday will fulfil F1’s original 10-year contract with the Circuit of the Americas, and the series has a new 10-year agreement for the Miami Grand Prix beginning next season. New American fans have been drawn to F1 by the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive.”

It’s taken a decade for F1 to establish its foothold, even without an American driver many have insisted the series needs to survive long term in the United States. The thrilling championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen has been captivating and the sold-out crowd Sunday is anticipated to be the largest in race history.

“Huge, huge F1 fan,” NASCAR reigning champion Chase Elliott told reporters Thursday while wearing a shirt supporting McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo. “You know, it’s, it’s super fun to watch and they’ve got a lot of traction right now.”

The addition of Miami to the schedule beginning next May is expected to boost F1’s presence in North America to four stops: Montreal and Mexico City both return to the 2022 calendar, and Austin is among the 23 dates announced even as track President Bobby Epstein seeks a new multi-year contract.

“I’m pretty optimistic we’ll reach a new deal going forward,” Epstein said. “The track has become the global brand we wanted it to be. The architects who designed it have been proven right, the city as a destination has been validated. There were a lot of people who doubted and didn’t see why it would work in Austin. We’ve proven it’s succeeded.”

Epstein even believes there’s enough interest for more stops in the U.S. Liberty Media, a U.S.-based investment firm, has run F1 since 2017 and president Stefano Domenicali acknowledged the country is a “key growth market.”

Few would have expected the series to take off as it has.

The Circuit of the Americas was just rolling scrubland outside the Texas capital when F1 said it was returning to the United States five years after its eight-year run ended at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It seemed risky to build a $300 million facility for the purpose of hosting F1 and its open-wheel teams in a country where the NASCAR stock car series is king.

Texas lawmakers sweetened the deal by allowing Epstein and race promoters to tap into state money to cover F1’s rights fees — a tab that runs more than $25 million per year. Organizers applied for $35 million in state funds for this year’s race.

Epstein turned race weekends into full festivals with star-studded concerts that have featured Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Pink. Billy Joel is Saturday night’s headliner in the track’s massive infield.

NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, complained about the sparse crowd at last week’s playoff race in Fort Worth. He suggested NASCAR copy the U.S. Grand Prix’s party approach to attract more fans.

“I would love to see us kind of have more of an F1-style approach to a race weekend and how we host hospitalities, parties, just all those things,” Hamlin said. “There’s just got to be more to it then showing up and racing like we’re doing now.”

F1 drivers have praised the Austin track itself and seize every opportunity to enjoy the U.S. while promoting the race. Sergio Perez kicked off the festivities last weekend with a demonstration in his Red Bull in downtown Dallas that drew more than 10,000 spectators. Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri sat courtside for the NBA season-opener in Milwaukee, and Mick Schumacher, son of F1 legend Michael Schumacher and driver for the American-owned Haas team, was on the pit stand for Stewart-Haas Racing at Sunday’s NASCAR race.

“I can see the passion for the sport is growing here, which is great,” Perez said. “Even five years ago, it wasn’t as popular as you see now. I think F1 is only going to get bigger stateside.”

What the American market is still missing is a victory — or even a podium — from an American driver or team.

There hasn’t been an American driver in F1 since Alexander Rossi’s limited run with Sauber ended in 2015. He moved to IndyCar, won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, and hasn’t returned to F1.

American businessman Gene Haas expanded into F1 in 2016 as the means to grow his machine tool building company internationally. He’s so far declined to develop an American driver and currently fields cars for Schumacher, a German, and Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.

Haas has chosen drivers with experience and financial backing, though the result is five winless seasons without a single podium. Even worse, Haas has collapsed from a middle-of-the-pack team in 2018 to last place this season.

Michael Andretti, son of former F1 champion Mario Andretti, has openly said he’d like to expand the Andretti brand into F1 and is reportedly in discussions to take control of Sauber. The American even made inquiries about getting Colton Herta in an F1 car for Friday’s first practice session.

The 21-year-old Andretti star is currently in IndyCar and would be expected to move to F1 if Andretti gets a team. Herta tried the F1 development route and moved to London alone at 15, but was back in the U.S. two years later when opportunities didn’t materialize. He landed in IndyCar and became the series’ youngest winner at 19 — at the Circuit of the Americas — in 2019.

The pursuit of one of the 20 seats on the F1 grid is expensive and requires a massive commitment from drivers at very young ages. Perez was a teenager when the left Mexico for Europe to prepare for F1.

“(An American driver) would be nice to have, but from my perspective it is very hard to make it in F1,” Perez said. “We are the ones who have to go out of our homes and we have to do that at a very young age.” (Report by Jim Vertuno with input from Jenna Fryer)

United States Grand Prix Facts & Stats

Formula 1 statistics for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The race is the 17th round of the 22-race world championship:

  • Lap distance: 5.513km. Total distance: 308.405km (56 laps)
  • 2019 pole position: Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes one minute 32.029 seconds.
  • 2019 winner: Bottas
  • Race lap record: Charles Leclerc (Monaco) Ferrari one minute 36.169 seconds, 2019
  • Start time: 1900GMT/1400 local
  • NOTE: No race in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

United States Grand Prix

  • Austin is hosting a race for the ninth time and the anti-clockwise track is the only U.S. round on the calendar.
  • Hamilton, Bottas, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are the only current drivers to have won previously in the United States. Hamilton is the most successful driver in U.S. GP history with six victories.
  • Hamilton has won five times in Austin, while starting three times on pole there. Vettel won in Austin in 2013 with Red Bull and Raikkonen in 2018 with Ferrari.
  • Hamilton clinched his third title at the track in 2015 and sixth title in 2019.
  • All the races in Austin have been won from the front row of the grid.
  • Mercedes have started on pole position for the last six races in Austin and throughout the current V6 turbo hybrid era that started in 2014.
  • There are no U.S. drivers in F1.

Race Victories

  • Hamilton has a record 100 career victories, of which 79 have been with Mercedes, from 282 starts. He has been on the podium 176 times.
  • Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen has won seven times this year to Hamilton’s five. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Bottas have each won once.
  • Ferrari have won 238 races since 1950, McLaren 183, Mercedes 121, Williams 114 and Red Bull 72.

Pole Position

  • Hamilton has a record 101 career poles and has won 59 times from pole. He has had three poles so far in 2021.
  • Verstappen has been on pole eight times, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was fastest in Azerbaijan and Monaco qualifying. Bottas was on pole in Portugal and Turkey, McLaren’s Lando Norris in Russia.

2021 World Championship

  • Verstappen is six points ahead of Hamilton. Mercedes lead Red Bull by 36 points.
  • The championship lead has not exceeded eight points for seven races in a row. (Compiled by Reuters)