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Why are there no American drivers in F1?

Jake Nichol October 22, 2021
F1 Grand Prix of USA
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

20 Formula One drivers will rock up to the United States this weekend, but not one American will be among them, why are there no American drivers in F1?

F1’s search for an American driver goes on, and on

The United States is an enigma F1 has been trying to crack ever since the world championship was started in 1950.

Back in the early days, America’s most famous race – the Indianapolis 500 was the only event held outside of Europe – not that the F1 drivers were overly bothered about it.

Races have been held right across the country – from Watkins Glen in the east to Phoenix and Las Vegas in the west.

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F1 2021 | October Free Content Updates Trailer

But F1 could never find a home in the United States – and the shambolic race at Indianapolis in 2005 did nothing to help things either.

Until 2012, that is.

For the first time F1 would have a purpose-built facility from which it could begin to put roots down and grow its base.

The track was Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas – and it quickly became a hit.

But there was still just one thing missing. Perhaps the biggest ingredient of them all: an American F1 driver.

Since the start of 2000, there have been just two American F1 drivers – Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi.

Speed left F1 in 2006 and Rossi only did a handful of races in 2015. That’s a whole generation of fans growing up without an American on the grid.

But why? Why are American drivers such a rarity in F1?

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

F1 a world away from American roots

One of the major reasons behind the absence of an American F1 driver is the commitment it takes.

Most F1 drivers have come up through the European Junior single-seater route.

The likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Lando Norris and George Russell all cut their teeth around Europe and its myriad race tracks.

They were climbing the ladder as children and adolescents, with their family around to support them.

For a young American driver hoping to crack the case, they’d have to uproot and move across the Atlantic.

Even then, as IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden found in his 2010 GP3 (now FIA Formula 3) campaign, that does not mean success will be found.

Photo by Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

This culture-shock can be something difficult to overcome.

Newgarden struggled badly living in Oxford, England and after a disappointing GP3 campaign, flew west back over the Atlantic to IndyLights.

F1 demands instant results

Such is the nature of F1 that teams will generally only put drivers on their junior programmes anywhere near a car.

These drivers, European have been groomed on racetracks around the continent and know them like the back of their hand – say Spa-Francorchamps or Silverstone.

F1 teams are not going to put someone near a car simply because they are American.

They work with junior racing squads to find the best talent, whose transition to F1 could be seamless – e.g: Norris who McLaren placed with Carlin in the junior ranks.

Photo by Zak Mauger\Formula 1 via Getty Images

Let’s say our hypothetical American driver is doing well and has settled in ok and is hauling some decent results in their debut season.

There is still the biggest hurdle to overcome, one that even their European cousins can fail in.

The biggest hurdle to an American F1 driver

Any racing driver, including even Hamilton, will tell you the biggest challenge they face in their junior career is money.

If you don’t have a budget to pay for your junior race seat, someone else will.

It is all about survival, and on some occasions just trying to get to the next race.

Why would an American company want to sponsor a driver over in Europe who is trying to reach F1?

Their exposure would be limited to say the least.

The race might be at the Norisring, the Red Bull Ring, or at Pau, or some other really obscure circuit somewhere in Europe.

Why would you want to funnel money to this driver or sponsor some kid wanting to reach IndyCar or NASCAR – where that exposure is all but guaranteed?

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

IndyCar and NASCAR offer American drivers something F1 can’t

Only two F1 teams have won the championship since 2010, and just three drivers.

Should things all go well in an F1 race, only two teams have a realistic hope of winning a race – Mercedes and Red Bull.

That’s just four seats, and two of them are locked in by Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

Whereas, over in IndyCar, the driver makes more of a difference.

Take Romain Grosjean as exhibit A.

He scored just 10 points in his final two F1 seasons, before leaving at the end of 2020.

Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

His reputation took a battering at the wheel of the uncompetitive Haas team.

Fast forward to his IndyCar switch, and Grosjean is a new man.

He took a pole and three podiums in 2021 and now has a seat at the Andretti Autosport powerhouse for 2022.

NASCAR too. There are enough quality seats through the three main series on tour to go around for young drivers.

Why would a driver want to throw away a championship chance in IndyCar or NASCAR to trundle around in F1?

What is the point in just making up the numbers and snatching a occasional podium?

The answer to America’s F1 driver shortage?

There is one name which has continued to pop up as being the answer to F1s America problem with drivers.

He is a star of IndyCar and already has experience of the European Junior single-seater scene.

Colton Herta.

Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Herta has heavily been linked with a switch to F1 after his IndyCar boss Michael Andretti was linked with a buyout of Sauber/Alfa Romeo.

There is no question that Herta has the talent and commitment to make it in F1.

Furthermore, should he make the switch to F1 in 2022 or 2023, and it doesn’t work out, he has a seat safe at Andretti in IndyCar.

Could the wait be about to end?

For all F1’s remarkable growth in the United States since Liberty Media took control, it has not solved the ultimate conundrum.

As we know, American people are a patriotic bunch.

It’s all good and well having Verstappen or Hamilton as popular drivers, but an American in F1 could take the series to the next level.

America’s last GP winner was Mario Andretti in 1978.

The last podium and points finisher was Michael Andretti in 1993 with McLaren.

Herta could be the answer to why there are no American F1 drivers.

F1 is on the up in America.

Drive to Survive has been the best marketing F1 has done – despite its flaws.

The boom F1 is experiencing in the States is long overdue, and doesn’t appear to be waning anytime soon.

The only thing the series now needs is an American driver in competitive machinery.

If it is Herta or someone else, it’ll be a big moment for F1 when it gets a driver and its eternal chase of the American prize.

And, like London buses, where you wait ages for one, another always follows close behind.

Photo by Peter J Fox/Getty Images

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.