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The Frantic And Turbulent History Of F1 Racing In The United States

The Frantic And Turbulent History Of F1 Racing In The United States

Five years ago, Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo were asked what they hoped to see from the new F1 owners Liberty Media. Ricciardo was quick off the mark - a race in Vegas. Hamilton soon followed with his answer: a race in Miami.

Hamilton will get his wish first on Sunday May 8, when the Formula 1 circus visits Miami Gardens for the very first time. Next year, Ricciardo will get his, as the sport returns to Las Vegas for the first time since 1982.

 

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There will be three US Grands Prix in 2023, for the first time since that 1982 season, as F1 continues to experience a boom of popularity in the country off the back of the popularity of Drive to Survive.

But it's not long ago that F1 appeared doomed to fail Stateside. Years of poor tracks that weren't designed for Formula One, farcical venues, and a lack of interest from a fanbase enamoured with NASCAR and IndyCar seemed set to end F1's chances of cracking the American market.

Ahead of the first visit to Formula 1's 12th venue in the USA, we decided to take a look back at some of the most farcical incidents from the sport's early attempts to make it big Stateside. Read on to learn about the track that began to break up, drivers fainting at the finish line, the race in a Vegas carpark, and the Grand Prix with only six starters...

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The dotted history of Formula 1 in the US

In the opening years of the F1 championship, the iconic Indy 500 race at Indianapolis counted towards the world championship, despite most of the regular F1 teams and drivers choosing not to enter the race.

The decision to include the 500-mile race on the calendar was a strange one given the different regulations, and it was ultimately irrelevant to the championship in each of the 11 seasons it was part of the calendar between 1950 and 1960.

1958 through 1961 saw three venues host the US Grand Prix in four years, with Sebring and Riverside Raceways both coming and going before F1 settled at the iconic Watkins Glen Circuit.

Grands Prix would be held at Watkins Glen for 20 consecutive years, before the final race held in upstate New York took place in 1980, won by Alan Jones on his way to that year's world drivers' championship. The well-liked Long Beach Circuit in California was added in 1976, and stayed on the calendar until 1983.

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When Watkins Glen departed in 1980, things start to get a bit ridiculous for F1 in the USA.

Off the back of the global attention brought to the sport by James Hunt and Niki Lauda's 1976 title battle, F1 were attempting to break the American market, and decided to continue racing twice per season in the US. The 1981 season opened in Long Beach, before an inaugural visit to one of the sport's most loathed circuits - Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

On the surface of it, a race in Las Vegas seems perfectly and suitably glamorous for a sport of F1's nature. It's when you dig deeper and realise that this race was held on a miniscule, unremarkable, narrow track, in the car park behind one of Vegas' most iconic hotels, that the whole endeavour becomes completely ridiculous to comprehend.

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The track not only looked farcical, but produced dire racing. Incredibly, two consecutive drivers' championships were decided at the track, as it hosted the 1981 and 1982 title deciders. Nelson Piquet won in 1981, before Keke Rosberg (father of Nico) won the '82 title. By the standards of Caesars Palace, the Yas Marina Circuit becomes a lot more palatable as a modern day title decider venue.

The Caesars Palace Grand Prix was dropped after the 1982 season - a season in which F1 travelled Stateside three times, with further Grands Prix at Long Beach and Detroit. The Detroit Grand Prix posed a brutal physical test to the drivers, with the track crossing over a railway at one point, as well as taking in 17 corners in just four kilometres of track.

If Detroit was tough on the drivers, it was nothing compared to the Phoenix Street Circuit, which hosted the US Grand Prix between 1989 and 1991. Arizona is hot at the best of times, but running the GP in early June in 1989 ensured that the race was run in unbearable heat, with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius.

Formula One had made the exact same mistake on their only visit to Dallas in 1984. Conditions were so hot in Dallas that Nigel Mansell fainted pushing his car across the finish line, after it broke down metres away from the finish. Only eight cars managed to finish that 1984 race in Dallas, and Formula One did not return.

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Just as in Dallas and Detroit, the track began to crack and break up in Phoenix. Of the three failed street circuits, Phoenix produced the best racing action - but the heat, and the track conditions, made it a hugely unpopular circuit, and it was binned after the 1991 event.

That 1991 GP - the season opener - saw the debut of the Irish Jordan team.

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In the space of just over a decade after the departure of Watkins Glen, Formula 1 had now tried and failed to make an incredible five American circuits work for the world championship. The worst was yet to come for the sport's relationship with the American public.

In 2000, the sport returned to the United States for the first time in nine years, with the US Grand Prix taking place at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, however, the race took place on a specially constructed infield circuit, rather than running on the full oval course. The final corner of the track took in the first corner of the oval track - in reverse.

The race had a turbulent history. In 2002, a bizarre ending saw Michael Schumacher slow down approaching the finish line, in an apparent attempt to stage a dead heat with Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello. He said afterwards that he had done so in order to repay Barrichello for moving aside to allow Schumacher to win a race in Austria earlier that season.

The close finish between the pair saw them finish just one hundredth of a second apart at the finish line. It made for a dramatic still shot, but the second attempt from Ferrari to fix a race result in 2002 was not a popular move.

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In the end, however, Formula One hit the zenith of its relationship with the United States at the 2005 GP at Indianapolis.

The oval corner used to round off the lap had become a hazard, with massive crashes for Ralf Schumacher in successive years at the corner ringing alarm bells for the teams. The 2005 crash was caused by a failure of his tyre, and safety concerns were raised by Michelin. The corner was banked, and taken at incredibly high speed, putting strain on the Michelin tyres that they simply could not withstand.

This Grand Prix took place in an era in which teams could choose their own tyre manufacturers, and Michelin provided tyres for the vast majority of the grid. After several solutions to the safety issues were proposed and shot down, Michelin couldn't guarantee that drivers running their tyres would be safe and so, after the warm up lap, 14 of the 20 cars pulled in to the pitlane, leaving just six starters for the United States Grand Prix.

Fans booed, and understandably so. The race saw almost no action, with the two Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello finishing a full lap ahead of third placed Tiago Monteiro in the Jordan.

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Quaintly, Monteiro's P3 remains the only podium for a Portuguese driver in Formula One history - and it would go on to be the last podium ever taken by Jordan, as Dubliner Eddie Jordan would sell the team at the end of the 2005 season.

He seemed to be the only man enjoying the 2005 United States Grand Prix.

F1 would leave Indianapolis after the 2007 race, and it would be another five years before the sport found a new home in the USA - the purpose built Circuit of the Americas outside Austin.

"COTA", as it has become affectionately known, has stayed on the calendar for a decade now, only missing 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic. Its staying power can be attributed to several factors, but the most important is that the track was purpose built with Formula One cars in mind, and so has been perfectly suited to F1 racing since its arrival in 2012.

2021 saw the US Grand Prix draw 400,000 fans to COTA, the biggest attendance of the season, and the biggest in the history of the USGP. By next year, American fans will have three opportunities to see the likes of Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, and Charles Leclerc racing on US soil.

It's been a long and arduous road, but F1 finally appears to be casting a firm grip on the American market.

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