America has never lacked for self-confidence. Our unwavering belief in our national superiority bleeds through into our sports — baseball’s championship is the World Series, despite the fact that exactly two countries participate. And who needs a silly little World Cup when you already have a Super Bowl?
The problem for America is that the rest of the world’s sports fans and sporting organizations don’t share the same adulation for all things American. In most cases, that’s fine with American audiences — billions may play cricket around the world, but it’s microscopic in America. But with Formula 1 enjoying an American popularity bump to match its consistent worldwide popularity, Americans looking at the grid — filled with drivers from Europe and Asia — could be left wondering: Why are there no stars and stripes to be seen?
Formula 1 wheels back into the United States this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, making the latest of its increasingly frequent visits to American shores. With this year’s phenomenally successful Miami Grand Prix and next year’s Las Vegas Grand Prix joining the established Texas date, F1 is overloading America with European flair, style and controversy. So when will an American driver get in on the action?
“It’s an exciting time. Formula 1 is growing so much in popularity, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes advantageous for a team to have an American driver,” says Scott Speed, the last American to have a full-time Formula 1 seat. “It’ll be cool to watch, to have someone be representing us.”
“Drive to Survive,” which runs on Netflix and became a pandemic hit, turned Toto Wolff, Christian Horner and Daniel Ricciardo into household names and put the Formula 1 lifestyle — ridiculously wealthy teams, model-quality drivers, exotic locales — right on the screens of Americans and thrived as a result. It’s become so popular that other sports want their own “Drive to Survive,” with tennis, golf and NASCAR all creating their own versions.
The globe-dotting venues — Monaco, Azerbaijan, Singapore — are a selling point for “Drive to Survive,” but they also keep Formula 1 detached from the traditional American sports circuit. (That’s also why it’s so odd seeing Max Verstappen or Charles Leclerc in America, like seeing Santa Claus in the summertime.) The 20-driver grid is filled with Maxes and Lewises and Charles and Sergios, not a Bubba or a Kyle in sight. An American hasn’t even raced in F1 since Alexander Rossi in 2015 and hasn’t won a race in the series since Mario Andretti way back in 1978.
“The Formula 1 scene,” says NASCAR champion and IndyCar driver Jimmie Johnson, “could really use a competitive and current American driver in the lineup.”
If only saying could make it so. But it also could happen as soon as next season.
The talent: Can you handle an F1 car?
The obstacles for Americans are technical, geographic, logistical and financial. Start with the table stakes: You’ve got to be able to wheel an F1 car with a surgeon’s touch at 220 mph, and that’s not the kind of skill you can develop in a weekend of testing at the track. Most drivers start racing in go-karts well before they’re 10 years old; if you can’t beat fellow fifth-graders, there’s not much chance you’re going to belong on the track with Lewis Hamilton.
(The opposite holds true; Formula 1 drivers who have tried their hand at NASCAR have largely struggled, running mid-pack or later before strutting back off to their yachts. Ricciardo, who’s such a fan of Dale Earnhardt that he races under the number “3,” may be the one to change that ... or he may not.)
There’s an old sports-radio bit about how LeBron James could have been the best football player ever if he’d gone that direction instead of basketball. It’s in line with the America-centric thinking that believes we’d field a World Cup-winning men’s soccer team if our best athletes weren’t in the NBA and NFL. We’re so good at our sports, the reasoning goes, why wouldn’t we be good at others, too?
NASCAR champions Chase Elliott and Joey Logano — and before them, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty — are so good at maneuvering a stock car in traffic on high banks at 200 mph, so why wouldn’t they be able to do the same thing in Formula 1 if they dedicated themselves to it?
Johnson is a case study in the difficulty of jumping from one series to another. After winning seven Cup championships in NASCAR, tied with Earnhardt and Petty for the most all time, he hopped over to open-wheel racing in IndyCar last year and struggled to post anything better than back-of-the-pack finishes. Even the world’s best need years in the cockpit to get anywhere near a podium.
Money: Can you afford to drive an F1 car?
Beyond just the technical skill, racing is expensive as hell, and traveling to track after track with ever-more-costly equipment drains savings accounts and strains families. It’s the rare driver who has the financial backing to run in the sport long enough to draw the attention of a sponsor or a team who can alleviate some of the financial burden.
Moving up from karting to Formula 4, Formula 3 and Formula 2 grows increasingly more expensive with every rung of the ladder, from hundreds of thousands for a single karting season to millions for one of the higher Formula 2 or 3 series. Sponsorships and team backing are essential but rarely guaranteed; it’s why drivers with a direct pipeline to vast vaults of money — like, say, the sons of billionaires — always have an advantage over the talented, penny-pinching unknown.
Location: Can you move to Europe?
If you want to become a NASCAR driver, you generally need to find your way to North Carolina. If you want to become an F1 driver, you’ll need to start racing in Europe. And for a young driver, that’s a challenging culture shock.
“It’s easy to live here in America,” Speed says. “Living in Europe is not easy. Something as simple as having a store open on Sunday morning isn’t the same there.”
Speed, the last American driver to run Formula 1 full-time, moved to Europe as a 19-year-old, and began racing for Red Bull starting in 2005. He competed in Formula 1 through the 2007 season, when he switched over to NASCAR. To this day, he still marvels at the diverse experiences of the F1 paddock — yet another challenge for a young American to negotiate.
“All the other teams around you are all from different backgrounds. You’ve got your pit stall and your garage, and you might have German, French, Italian, all different cultures,” Speed says. “In a Cup race, everyone speaks English and comes from a similar background and culture. It’s a more accepting feeling, a family atmosphere.”
“There is not a lot of investment in America in terms of getting people into the series,” says Lily Herman, who hosts the “Choosing Sides: F1” podcast and writes “Engine Failure,” an F1 newsletter. “It’s a very European-based series, that’s where the infrastructure is.”
Licensing: Can you win the races you need to win?
Once you’ve got the money, the skill and the logistics nailed down, you need to start winning races. But not just any races — the right races. Drivers achieve eligibility to run in F1 by compiling a total of 40 Super License points, achieved by winning races and performing well in specific series. The FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), Formula 1’s organizing body, weights certain races and series heavier than others, and only counts performance on a rolling three-year scale, meaning a driver must have recent evidence of high-level performance.
On a broader scale, there’s also this: FIA welcomes American money and viewership, but doesn’t necessarily feel obligated to rush to sign American drivers. This isolationist approach isn’t anything new in the insular sport of racing. Back in the early days of the 20th century, open-wheel drivers around Indianapolis dismissed their stock car-driving colleagues from the South as hillbillies in taxicabs. NASCAR founder Bill France tried to defend his Daytona Beach turf against the tide of talented moonshiners from the hills of Georgia and North Carolina. Californian Jeff Gordon faced stiff resistance when he broke into — and eventually dominated — the entrenched Southern footprint of NASCAR. Talent alone isn’t nearly enough.
“The Europeans have an odd relationship with Americans in Formula 1, both fans and drivers. They’re very into the fact that Formula 1 is a Euro-founded sport,” Herman says. “Americans are used to being centered and prioritized in other sports.”
Colton Herta: Close, but not close enough
If there’s a driver who symbolizes both the hope and the frustration of Americans attempting to race into Formula 1 from the outside, it’s Colton Herta, a 22-year-old IndyCar driver who’s done everything right and still can’t break into the Formula 1 walled garden. The youngest winner in IndyCar history — he was just 18 when he won at Circuit of the Americas, site of this weekend’s F1 race — Herta has the money and the family connections to get within sight of the grid. What he doesn’t have are the points.
Herta races for Andretti Autosport in the IndyCar series, and Michael Andretti was close to purchasing an F1 team last year — which would have given Herta a clear pathway to the series. But in the last decade or so, opportunities for new teams to enter the series have vanished — no new teams have entered Formula 1 since 2017 — and driver seats are more precious than ever.
Herta had drawn the interest of multiple teams. He tested for McLaren earlier this year. As of September, Red Bull thought enough of Herta that it considered signing him to replace Pierre Gasly at AlphaTauri. But the FIA determined that Herta had not amassed enough Super License points to qualify to race in Formula 1.
“The FIA confirms that an enquiry was made via the appropriate channels that led to the FIA confirming that the driver Colton Herta does not have the required number of points to be granted an FIA Super License,” an FIA spokesperson said in a September statement.
“The FIA continuously reviews its regulations and procedures, including with respect to Super License eligibility, with the main factors being considered with respect to this topic being safety, experience and performance in the context of the pathway.”
Herta’s denial is particularly galling to those who understand the degree of difficulty involved in IndyCar racing. “I’m hopeful behind the scenes that everybody involved recognizes how stout the field is in the IndyCar series,” Johnson added. “The best example is when you watch successful Formula 1 drivers come over and run IndyCar, and you see how difficult it is for them to win a race and run at the front of the field. I think that alone shows just how much talent there is in the IndyCar series, and just how capable the drivers are.”
“It seems like the F1 thing has run its course, and seems as if there won’t be an opportunity, which I’m fine with,” Herta told RACER earlier this month. “It was something that I was honestly looking forward to trying, and I still might be able to try in the future.”
“Colton is more than ready to go,” Johnson says, “and it’s unfortunate that a technicality based on Super License points would keep the kid from living his dream.”
Logan Sargeant: In line for a seat at Williams in 2023
At the moment, the best hope for an American F1 driver in the 2023 season is Logan Sargeant, who’s following Speed’s route of working upward through the Formula 4-3-2 ranks. He currently sits third in the Formula 2 rankings, which would grant him the 40 Super License points he needs outright.
There’s only one seat available on the grid next year, at Williams following the departure of Nicholas Latifi, and it looks like Sargeant's ride to lose. On Saturday, Williams' Jost Capito said Sargeant would drive for the team next year if he has enough points.
"After Abu Dhabi, he will be our second driver next year"
Jost Capito says @LoganSargeant will race in F1 for @WilliamsRacing next season if he gets enough super license points pic.twitter.com/lg4OePgSkT
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 22, 2022
In addition to running in Formula 2 — check off that geographic box — he’s a member of Williams Driver Academy — check off the “connections” box — and he comes from an incredibly wealthy — and also highly litigious, apparently — family, checking that “money” box. He made his first practice run in a Formula 1 car this weekend at the U.S. Grand Prix.
All that remains now is for him to gain that Super License qualification. With one race remaining, he’s 11 points ahead of three other drivers. He must finish no lower than fifth in the series to gain the 20 points he needs for his Super License, meaning he has no room to relax.
But fortunately for Sargeant, he’s running in F2 rather than in IndyCar. Critics say FIA’s Super License points system doesn’t give sufficient weight to IndyCar races. The champions IndyCar and Formula 2 races each get 40 points outright, but IndyCar’s points drop off quickly from there. While the second- and third-place finishers in Formula 2 also receive 40 points, IndyCar’s receive 30 and 20 points, respectively.
“I, like many others, really scratch my head over the fact that an IndyCar driver, especially one running toward the front of the field and winning races, does not have the points to earn a Super License,” Johnson said. (NASCAR’s Cup series champion, by comparison, gains only 15 points.)
The problem for any young driver not yet locked into a ride is that the window to Formula 1 is narrow and closes rapidly. As the series locks down younger drivers for longer periods of time, and as increasingly talented teenage drivers fight their way up the pipeline, the series doesn’t stand still for anyone.
“The younger generation that’s coming up, at 14, 15, 16, they’re pretty incredible,” Speed says. “They have more information, more experience at a younger age. They’re killers.”
Eventually, an American driver will clear all the financial, logistical and licensing hurdles and reach the grid again. When that happens — assuming the “Drive to Survive”-inspired popularity still exists — that driver will instantly become a marquee American athlete. And given how much he'll have to sacrifice and endure to get there, he'll have earned it.
“If you want something, in this day and age, and with how connected the world is, it’s always down to how much you want it,” Speed says. “When does your desire fall short of how much work’s required?”