(by Sean Kelly speedtv.com 2-24-09)
The United States has a long and storied history in the Formula 1 World Championship.
This great nation has produced two world champions, bankrolled the most important engine in the sport’s history, produced the tires on which drivers have won more than half the races ever held, given more racetracks to F1 than any other country, and seen the biggest ever raceday attendance in modern F1 history.
The association was there from the beginning. Harry Schell was the first American to start a Formula 1 race at Monaco in 1950 – the day the great Juan-Manuel Fangio took his maiden championship victory. Initially, the USA was considered so important that for the first 11 years, the World Championship included the Indianapolis 500 – even though it wasn’t even run to Formula 1 regulations. Great names like Billy Vukovich and Rodger Ward can still be found in the history books as race winners.
By 1957, Americans were finishing regularly on the F1 podium – Masten Gregory at Monaco, Schell again at Pescara. The great Enzo Ferrari recognized the talent that America could offer his team, and in consecutive seasons he would sign up two young drivers that became legends of the sport.
1958 saw Phil Hill make his bow with Ferrari, delighting the tifosi with a podium finish at Monza, while in 1959, the Commendatore gave a Formula 1 debut to Dan Gurney, who repaid his boss' faith by finishing on the podium in just his second race start.
However, it was Hill who became synonymous with Ferrari in that era, becoming the first American driver to win a Formula 1 World Championship event at the 1960 Italian Grand Prix – and becoming the last man ever to win a race using a front-engined car. Just 12 months later, Hill would be crowned as America’s first world champion driver, in the legendary sharknose 156.
As history left Hill’s greatest achievement behind, it was Gurney who would keep the US flag flying at the pinnacle of motorsport. His versatility was proven when he joined Stirling Moss as one of only two drivers to take the maiden victories for three different constructors – driving the air-cooled Porsche 804 to victory at the daunting Rouen track in 1962, repeating the triumph in 1964 for Jack Brabham’s eponymous team, and then at Spa in 1967, arguably the crowning achievement for national pride, a victory at Spa in his own All-American Racers Eagle.
Despite being the only driver whose ability Jim Clark truly feared, the world title would elude Gurney, but by this time, he was not the only American representative. Californian Richie Ginther would drive to victory at Mexico in 1965, giving the Honda team their first ever F1 win, but it was also the first ever success for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber company.
The most important engine ever built for Formula 1 was only made possible by American involvement. The Cosworth DFV V8 engine would never have happened if it wasn’t for the investment from the Ford Motor Company in Detroit.
The engine won first time out with Jim Clark at Zandvoort in 1967, and went on to power the world champions in 12 of the next 15 seasons, racking up a massive 155 wins along the way, the most ever for a single series of engine.
It was in the late sixties that a new wave of American drivers flooded the F1 market. Mario Andretti may have won the 1967 Daytona 500 and the 1969 Indy 500, but in between he took time out to take pole position for the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen – one of only three drivers ever to start his F1 debut from the pole. By 1971 he was racing and winning for Enzo Ferrari.
He was joined in F1 by New York playboy Peter Revson, who in 1973 had the distinction of winning two races for an American team boss, using an American engine, on American tires.
The team was Mclaren, and the boss was Teddy Mayer. Under his stewardship in the aftermath of Bruce Mclaren’s death, Mayer was instrumental in the world championship success of both Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974, and James Hunt in 1976. He was the team boss who would sell his share of the team to an up-and-coming Formula 2 team principal called Ron Dennis, laying the foundations for the team that Lewis Hamilton will defend his world title with in 2009.
Mayer was not the only American to be found on the pitwall during this time. Parnelli Jones’ eponymous entry was first seen in 1974, driven by none other than former rival Mario Andretti. The Torrance, CA based team were never able to score a win, with a solitary fastest lap being their major claim to fame.
(John Watson and the Penske machine in Austria 1976)
However, further down the pitlane, the Pennsylvania-based Roger Penske was soon to make the breakthrough that Parnelli couldn’t achieve, when Northern Ireland’s John Watson took a famous victory at the Osterreichring in 1976.
1978 would be a banner year for American F1 involvement, as Mario Andretti took full advantage of Colin Chapman’s ground-effect Lotus 79 to win the world championship, with some major contributions from both Ford engines and Goodyear tires.
Andretti was in the latter stages of his F1 career by then, but made a dramatic return to Formula 1 in 1982, replacing the injured Didier Pironi at Ferrari, as the Commendatore once again staked his fortunes on American talent. He would not be disappointed, as a 42-year-old Andretti took pole on his Ferrari return at Monza, and finished on the podium.
The 80s were a fallow time for American drivers, with Arizona’s Eddie Cheever providing the only success story, scoring regular podium finishes as teammate to Alain Prost at Renault in 1983, and even racing for Carl Haas’ FORCE Lola F1 team at Detroit in 1986, with Teddy Mayer as his team boss. He would finish on the podium in his home country on three different occasions.
Cheever certainly had plenty of opportunities to race in front of a home crowd, as the USA has provided nine different venues for Formula 1 races, more than any other country. They include such legendary circuits as Watkins Glen, Long Beach, and of course Indianapolis Motor Speedway. America has hosted 51 Formula 1 events, beaten only by marquee nations in F1 history – Britain, France, Monaco and Belgium, all of whom held races in the inaugural season of 1950 – alongside Germany, with it’s famed Nurburgring and Hockenheim circuits.
1993 saw the appearance of IndyCar champion Michael Andretti as teammate to three-time world champion Ayrton Senna at the Mclaren team. Seemingly a perfect platform for his undoubted talent, Andretti’s move to F1 didn’t work out, but he did provide a brief display of what might have been by finishing third at Monza, 15 years after his father Mario clinched the world championship at the same circuit, and a track synonymous with American F1 achievements. To this day, it remains the last time an American has climbed onto an F1 podium.
The late 80s and early 90s saw America’s technical achievements rule the world. In a ten-year period, Goodyear tires won 177 out of 178 races, and when they finally withdrew from the sport in 1998 they had recorded 368 victories, more than double the wins of any other tire supplier. Throw in the 49 wins recorded by the rivals Firestone, and more than half the races in the history of Formula 1 have been won by drivers on American tires.
The era of Ford customer teams was drawing to a close during this time, but the company proved that they were still capable of competing with the very best. In 1994 Germany’s Michael Schumacher clinched the first of what would prove to be a record-breaking seven world championships, using a Benetton powered by a Ford engine.
(the 2000 USGP at Indianapolis)
Despite these technical successes, the US had been without any driver representation since 1993, but any notion that Americans were losing interest in Formula 1 was debunked in September 2000, when the sport returned to the USA after a nine-year absence. More than 225,000 people filled the stands at Indianapolis, making it the largest raceday crowd in the modern era of F1 racing.
In recent years, American F1 fans may have looked back on all this successes, these great moments in the history of global motorsport, and wondered…. when will our next chapter be written, and what will it say? The answer is finally here.