The strange relationship of USA and F1 explained

Formula One and the United States have had a strange relationship over the years, with neither one every seeming to fully embrace the other, for a variety of reasons.

Nico Rosberg of Mercedes AMG Petronas drives during qualifying at the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday October 25, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Indianapolis 500 was a part of the F1 World Championship from its inaugural season in 1950 (a race won incidentally by America’s Johnnie Parsons – who would never enter a ‘proper’ Grand Prix but who by virtue of this victory would tie for the lead of the F1 World Championship with Juan Manuel Fangio and Giuseppe Farina after 3 rounds in 1950, after winning an F1 World Championship race at his first attempt!).

Indy stayed part of the calendar until 1960, although the race was by and large ignored by the F1 community and as such had no impact on the F1 championship, with the 40 laps managed by Alberto Ascari in a rare attempt by Ferrari in 1952 being the most significant attempt by one of the ‘real’ F1 teams. Ascari entered the race in a modified Ferrari 375 (the car having been raced in the 1950 and 1951 F1 championships).

Despite a host of problems for Ferrari in adapting to the unfamiliar conditions of oval racing, Ascari, who qualified 19th, had even managed to get as high as 8th position on the track before spinning off into retirement after 40 laps.

The first United States Grand Prix was held at Sebring in Florida in 1959, and with the Indy 500 still counting towards championship points this meant 2 out of 9 races on the calendar that year were in the US – statistically significant even though the main players ignoring Indy.

The US Grand Prix marked the final round of the F1 World Championship, and saw Bruce McLaren win his first Grand Prix for Cooper while Jack Brabham secured the world drivers crown, pushing his Cooper across the line to take fourth after it ran out of fuel while leading on the last lap.

Despite the title being on the line the Grand Prix wasn’t a commercial success, and so for 1960 Sebring was ditched in favour of a race at Riverside in California, which would again hold the season finale.

This time around the championship was already decided in Jack Brabham’s favour, and the race (won by Stirling Moss for Cooper) again struggled to attract local attention. The Indy 500 was dropped as a points scoring race from 1961 on, but for F1 in the United States things were actually looking up.

The US Grand Prix would be staged for the first time in Watkins Glen, a wonderful track in New York that would become the home of the United States Grand Prix from 1961 through to 1980, before losing it’s place on the calendar, money being the motivating factor for abandoning this wonderful Grand Prix venue.

The initial race in 1961 would be won by Innes Ireland in a Lotus Climax, the first win for Lotus and Ireland’s only career Grand Prix victory.

In addition to the US Grand Prix at ‘The Glen’, a second Grand Prix, called the US Grand Prix West, would be staged around the streets of Long Beach, California from 1976. The first US Grand Prix West was won by Clay Regazzoni for Ferrari, and the track would continue to host the Grand Prix until 1983 (a wonderful victory for John Watson from 22nd on the grid, leading home his McLaren team-mate Niki Lauda, who started 23rd!).

This was a wonderful street circuit which sadly passed from Formula One to CART in 1984 (as CART offered better financial terms)– a great loss for F1 (although we could still cast a sneaky glance at the fortunes of ex and future F1 drivers over the years – the pick of the bunch for me being the wonderful Alex Zanardi’s amazing drive to snatch victory here in 1998 after falling a lap behind early on after a traffic jam at the hairpin reduced it to an expensive car park).

While there was now a US Grand Prix West, the race at Watkins Glen was referred to as the US Grand Prix East. This would host it’s last Grand Prix in 1980 (a race won by already crowned world champion Alan Jones for Williams).

For 1981, ‘The Glen’ would be (and I use the word very loosely) replaced on the F1 calendar by the Las Vegas Grand Prix. A Grand Prix in the car park of Caesars Palace Casino…you just can’t make this stuff up! Alan Jones won the first Las Vegas Grand Prix with Nelson Piquet securing his first world championship title with a fifth place finish for Brabham, as his rivals faltered.

Las Vegas would return to the calendar again in 1982 (won by Michele Alboreto for Tyrrell, with Keke Rosberg clinching the driver’s title by coming home in fifth) before the race was thankfully taken over by CART (going someway to make up for the theft of Long Beach the following year!).

If driving Formula One cars around a car park wasn’t enough to put American’s off Formula One they were given an added incentive in 1982, when the Detroit Grand Prix was added to the calendar.

In 1982 then the United States had 3 Grand Prix (Detroit, Las Vegas and Long Beach) all actively contested by the Formula One Grid in a championship of only 16 races. Detroit was a slow, bumpy street circuit that was very unpopular with the drivers and fans alike.

John Watson took the first victory in 1982 for McLaren (another storming drive from Watson on US streets, this time starting from 17th on the grid!), with Ayrton Senna taking the final three Detroit Grand Prix from 1986-1988, before Detroit went the way of Las Vegas and Long Beach, and swapped over to CART, with lack of funding to upgrade the facilities to a level demanded by Formula One being ultimately responsible for the demise of the event.

With Las Vegas demise the next port of call in America was the Dallas Grand Prix of 1984. The race had plenty of drama, a breaking up track surface, plenty of crashes (Ayrton Senna retired his Toleman after crashing into a wall – a wall which Senna claimed had to have moved during the race – something Toleman chief engineer Pat Symonds would later be forced to concede was true after having walked to the wall after the race to placate Senna!) and searing temperatures (the race made famous for Nigel Mansell passing out as he attempted to push his car across the finish line in the searing heat).

Keke Rosberg kept his cool (courtesy of a water-cooled skull cap) that day to win the race for Williams – his only win of the season, but the Dallas Grand Prix was to be one and done, consigned to the history books after this one eventful race.

The next track to try its luck with the American public was another street race, this time in Phoenix, Arizona. This would stage the US Grand Prix from 1989 to 1991, with Alain Prost winning in 1989 for McLaren and Ayrton Senna taking the other two editions for McLaren.

This was the scene of a great tussle between a young Jean Alesi for Tyrrell and Senna in 1990, with Senna emerging victories but a stirring second place for Alesi cementing his status as a rising star. The race was very poorly attended however, and was cancelled after 1991, leaving no Grand Prix in America until 2000, when the Unite States Grand Prix would be held at Indianapolis, a new road course built in the infield of the famous track, and using part of the famous speedway.

The first race at Indianapolis was won by Michael Schumacher for Ferrari, and he would go on to dominate at the track, winning five times in total, including a farcical ‘race’ in 2005 when the Michelin runners were unable to compete due to their tyres failing on the track, the tyres unable to cope with the banking, leaving a six car field of Bridgestone runners to fight each other, Schumacher leading Ferrari team mate Rubens Barichello home for a 1-2 with Tiago Monteiro recording his only career podium for Jordan!

Indianapolis would continue to stage a US Grand Prix until 2007 (a race won by rookie Lewis Hamilton for McLaren), but the race dropped from the calendar amid a commercial dispute (yet again, the asking price for the honour of holding an F1Grand Prix was too much).

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Sahara Force India F1.
United States Grand Prix, Sunday 2nd November 2014. Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, USA.

So the United States was left without a Grand Prix again. While there was some talk of getting a Grand Prix to be staged in New York, the Circuit of Americas came to the rescue, the site of a brand new Hermann Tilke designed track in Austin Texas winning the rights to stage the US Grand Prix from 2012 onwards.

The track itself has been a huge success, even if the venue has struggled to attract the crowds it will require to remain viable (the return of the Mexican Grand Prix to the calendar not helping matters), but after financial worries following the rain soaked race in 2015, the organisers reported an increase in attendance last year, so hopefully the race can continue to develop. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) won the first Grand Prix a COTA after a wonderful race long duel with Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull).


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