The future of F1 in the USA - Derek Bell Column - December 2013

30th November 2013

Given Sebastian Vettel’s ownership of the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship, his victory in November’s US Grand Prix came as no great surprise. And, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t a classic race; certainly not in the same league as the inaugural running at the Circuit of the Americas held 12 months earlier, wherein Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren hunted down Vettel’s Red Bull to claim a well-deserved victory. This time around, Vettel strolled to his eighth win in succession. Just to rub it in, he also claimed pole position and the fastest lap of the race. Given his dominance en route to his fourth straight drivers’ title, the organisers could have insisted that he tow a caravan behind his car and it’s likely he would still have won.

However, while the race was a mite processional, the Grand Prix circus was made to feel very welcome in Austin, Texas. What’s more, there were rather fuller grandstands than can be found in races staged in countries that have no motor sport heritage to speak of. This, for me, goes to prove the naysayers wrong: not only is there interest in Formula 1 in the US, but also a future for the race. Those who claim that Americans are only interested in indigenous sports clearly weren’t in Austin.

For me, this isn’t exactly news. Grand Prix racing has a rich history in the US. The first race as a round of the Formula 1 World Championship appeared on the 1959 calendar. It was staged at Sebring before a move to Riverside a year later. F1 really found its feet, however, when it moved to Watkins Glen in 1962, the Upper State New York venue hosting a race until 1980. The ’Glen was popular with fans and drivers alike, and it has a particular resonance with me as I scored my sole World Championship point there in 1970. I had been trying to get my single-seater career back on track following my abrupt exit from Ferrari partway through the previous year, and finished second in the 1970 Formula 2 series, before being offered the F1 drive by Team Surtees for the penultimate round. I finished sixth, but had been on for third place until the car developed a few issues late in the race. It’s only a footnote in F1 history, but it matters to me.

Such was Formula 1’s popularity in the USA during the 1970s, there were two races on the schedule during the second half of the decade – the US Grand Prix East at the ’Glen and the Grand Prix West held on the popular Long Beach, California, street track. Unfortunately, the following decade saw a marked decline in both interest and venue, with the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas lasting just two years, and races in Dallas and Detroit also failing to go the distance.

The switch to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1989 saw fans turn away in droves despite, it has to be said, some quality racing – witness the celebrated Ayrton Senna/Jean Alesi duel in 1990. Sadly, the season opener was poorly attended for all three events held to ’91. I am reliably informed that one of these rounds resulted in a smaller attendance than that enjoyed by an ostrich race meeting held only a few miles away… It was no great surprise, therefore, that there was no further Grand Prix in the US of any kind until 2000, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway played host.

What seemed like a natural fit sadly fell flat. Who could forget Ferrari crassly staging the finish during the 2002 race at The Brickyard? Or the notorious 2005 running, where politics and a tyre-related cock-up meant that just three teams competed? Not the race fans, that’s for sure. They felt cheated, and with good reason. After three years off the F1 calendar, the US Grand Prix returned in 2012 and is here to stay. There is even talk of another US race being held in New Jersey in 2014, although the chances of it happening look increasingly slim as this column is written.

What impresses me most about the Circuit of the Americas is that it wasn’t funded with taxpayers’ money. Nor was cash wasted on needlessly flashy corporate buildings. Instead, it was spent on what mattered: the circuit itself, which is undulating and, as such, naturally makes for better spectator viewing.

But what would really cement the USA’s relationship with Formula 1 is American drivers not only competing, but running at the front. As it stands, there are none. The last Stateside player was Scott Speed, whose season-and-a-half with Scuderia Toro Rosso ended amid much acrimony in 2007. And his replacement? A 20-year-old German by the name of Sebastian Vettel…

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