Talented American Drivers Have No Clear Pathway to Success in Formula 1

·7 min read
Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images
  • Cameron Das, a 21-year-old from Baltimore won all three races of the Euroformula Open Championship at Portimao this past weekend.

  • The FIA Formula 2 championship has 16 nationalities in the 24-driver series. But there are no Americans.

  • Logan Sargeant, 20, finished third in the FIA Formula 3 Series last year. His main rivals moved to Formula 2 this season, but Sargeant didn’t have the money and didn’t make a big enough impression to get the financial support he needed.

At Portimao in Portugal they played "The Star-Spangled Banner" three times during the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend.

It was most unusual.

Cameron Das, a 21-year-old from Baltimore won all three races of the Euroformula Open Championship, which was supporting the Formula 1 race. Das, pictured above, is just warming up for the FIA Formula 3 Championship, which will kick off next weekend in Barcelona. Although he has been around in Europe for four years, he hasn’t really made much of an impression— and time is running out.

The racing world in Europe is unforgiving and tough. There aren’t many second chances. It is a different mentality and some find it brutal.

Photo credit: Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Formula 1 - Getty Images

The entry list for FIA Formula 2 this year includes drivers from 16 nationalities in the 24-driver series. But there are no Americans.

In FIA Formula 3 there are three: the Florida-based Ecuadorian-American Juan Manuel Correa (21), who is returning from serious injury, Jak Crawford (16) from North Carolina, who is a Red Bull driver, and Maryland’s Kaylen Frederick (18), who won the British Formula 3 title in 2020.

Being integrated into European racing is seen in F1 as being the right way to do it and trying to jump into F1 directly from IndyCar is not easy. It has been a very long time since anyone did it successfully.

In recent days, there has been a lot chat about IndyCar drivers who might be able to make it in Formula 1, with Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward being mentioned. On paper, this seems sensible. There are quite a few IndyCar drivers who have raced in Formula 1, including Alex Rossi, Sebastien Bourdais, Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean, Max Chilton and Takuma Sato all arrived in America from Europe, but Rossi is the only American. None of them were winners in F1.

Conor Daly and Santino Ferrucci both raced in Europe but couldn’t get a break into F1, and that was true to for Danica Patrick and Townsend Bell. Scott Speed did make it to F1, thanks to Red Bull, but he didn’t last long.

It’s rather shocking to think that the last American driver to win an F1 race was Mario Andretti, now 81 years old, who scored his last Grand Prix victory at the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. Forty-three years ago.

Photo credit: Hoch Zwei - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hoch Zwei - Getty Images

Today in Formula 1, we have the Haas F1 team which races under the American flag. Three teams are led by American team principals. So why do they think that there are no American drivers in Formula 1?

Aston Martin’s Otmar Szafnauer, the American with the most experience as an F1 team principal, says that he thinks U.S. drivers have to go to Europe to learn the ropes.

“I think you have to spend time in the junior formulae in Europe,” he says. “I don’t know what he’s doing now but there was an American last year, a kid from Florida. He did all of his junior racing in Europe, but I don’t know what he’s doing now.”

Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem. Szafnauer cannot remember Logan Sargeant’s name. F1 team principals don’t have a lot of time to watch the juniors racing, unless they have a specific interest in the driver concerned.

Sargeant, 20, finished third in the FIA Formula 3 Series last year. His main rivals moved to Formula 2 this season, but Sargeant didn’t have the money and he didn’t quite make a big enough impression to get the support he needed. And now he’s gone from the European scene.

It has been a common problem for Americans dating back more than a generation. And it’s not a uniquely American problem, a lot of other drivers go to the U.S (or Japan) because they haven’t got the backing to climb the F1 ladder.

The last American to race in F1 was Rossi, who did five races back in 2015—six years ago. He went back to the U.S. after that and became a star of IndyCar, as did Danica Patrick before him. The U.S. racing scene is a place where a top driver can earn a good living, without needing to speak different languages or to understand the different cultures in Europe and around the world. In addition, there is more money in NASCAR and so some of the best young American talents move out of open-wheelers early in their careers.

There is also the fear of failure. Michael Andretti was a terrific racing driver, but he couldn’t make it in Formula 1, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because he tried to live in the U.S. and commute back and forth. It didn’t work.

Photo credit: Paul-Henri Cahier - Getty Images
Photo credit: Paul-Henri Cahier - Getty Images

There have been some disastrous failures in the past as well, although not specifically Americans. One thinks of France’s Sébastien Bourdais, who won the Champ Car title four times, but who made absolutely no impression in F1. Or Alex Zanardi, a two-time CART champion who joined Williams in F1 and lasted only a short time before returning to the U.S. again.

Haas team boss Gunther Steiner, who has been an American citizen for 10 years, thinks it is more complicated than just being a good racing driver.

“My view is that if somebody wants to make the career decision to do it, then it is possible,” he says. “I rate Colton Herta very highly and he can get a Super Licence, but he has to go through the system. What I always say is that racing in America is quite a good life and so it is not only a racing decision, it is a life decision. It is about what you want to do. Being an American driver and basing yourself in the U.S. is very difficult. I do it, but I’m not a driver and I spend time each summer based in Europe.

“Whoever wants to do it cannot just think: ‘I’ll drive in America and then I’ll go to Formula 1’ because there is the licence issue, you need to adapt and you need to learn. It’s a different style of racing. It’s a different lifestyle. You see it when F1 drivers go to NASCAR or to IndyCar. It is not as easy as it looks. If an American decides to do it then it is possible, but it’s tough.”

McLaren’s Zak Brown, an American who raced in Europe back in the early 1990s, thinks it is easier than people imagine.

“I think they can do it,” Brown says. “They just need enough testing. If you look at the guys who came over from IndyCar you have Jacques Villeneuve and Juan-Pablo Montoya. OK, Zanardi went back again, but I think it is about the drivers needing seat time.”

Brown does not make the point that both Villeneuve and Montoya had experience in European racing before they went to the United States.

Colton Herta raced in Britain in 2015 and then switched to the the Euroformula Open Championship in 2016, so he at least knows some of the F1 tracks: Spa, Paul Ricard, Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, Monza and Barcelona.

But there are still a lot of circuits that would be new.

"Pato O'Ward is good enough for sure, but they just need testing time,” Brown says, forgetting that O’Ward is not an American. “Do I think that everyone on the IndyCar grid could be in Formula 1? Obviously not, but I think Colton, Pato, Scott Dixon, Alex Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist could be.”

This is perhaps why Brown is quietly campaigning to get more testing time in F1. Getting an American driver would help McLaren’s road cars sales in the U.S., which is why the team has got involved in IndyCar in recent years.

But in the end, it comes down to who you know and how much money you have in your back pocket.

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