Alex Pennington examines the history of US teams in Formula 1, the desire from F1 elites to generate a larger US audience, and whether the addition of a new American team on the Formula 1 grid would provide the following that is so sought after.
Rumours have surfaced in recent weeks that US-based Andretti Autosport is in talks to take over a majority stake in Sauber, which (despite the name) still owns the Alfa Romeo F1 team. Given the importance of the Andretti name in motorsport, and the fate of the last US name to make an appearance on the grid, it’s worth taking a look at them – and why, if the takeover happens, this time it will be different.
Let’s look at that surname. Haas entered F1 back in 2016, and after a couple of seasons spent establishing itself and its operation, they finished fifth in the constructors’ championship in 2018. P5 in the standings after only three years in F1 is no mean feat, and the signs looked good for a competitive US team in Formula 1. The team’s story since then is hardly as successful. Their farcical relationship with Rich Energy in 2019 compounded their performance issues in a season where they finished ninth, a result they replicated in 2020. So far in 2021, with an all-rookie driver line-up, they sit last, the only team yet to score any points.
The problem we want to focus on here though is marketing. When Haas entered F1, it was lauded as an opportunity to finally draw in the US audience F1 has craved for so long. Five years on, F1’s peak viewership for the entire season so far (1.2 million viewers in Silverstone) is still lower than the average viewership for the Mid-Ohio IndyCar race in July, at 1.38 million. The Indy500 this year peaked at over 7 million viewers. For an international racing series owned by a US company, with a US team competing, something isn’t quite working.
The first problem, at least recently, is that Haas just aren’t competitive. It’s difficult to draw supporters and viewers to a team that finishes 19th and 20th at almost every race weekend. And then there’s the sponsorship. At the risk of opening a whole other can of worms, a car with a white, blue and red flag on its engine cover and ‘Uralkali’ in the name doesn’t exactly play well in the US market. Money and performance struggles, combined with Russian sponsorship, have meant that Haas has not been – and won’t be, at least for the foreseeable future – the answer to F1’s struggle to finally break into the US.
What about races, then? This weekend’s US Grand Prix was first held at the Circuit of the Americas back in 2012, and has been every year since, except 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This followed a hiatus from 2007-2011, before which the race was held at Indianapolis. On the whole, it’s been a big success: close racing, title deciders, and Kimi Raikkonen’s hard-fought final victory for Ferrari have all been seen here. Holding it in the States’ motorsport-mad deep south only adds to the appeal. The growth F1 has seen in the US has been hugely aided by COTA’s success. Now, though, we have to talk about Miami.
The circuit confirmed a deal with F1 in 2020, with a provisional layout having been revealed back in late 2019. It’s a very all-American affair, taking place around the Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins. It’s touted as being all about the fans, with a big capacity, and entertainment in the stadium during the race weekend. This could be a big success. But the track itself – which looks like an oddly deformed version of F1’s Sao Paolo track – might pose a problem. There are big braking zones, which is a positive, but the combination of twiddly, slow-speed sections and flowing, medium-speed corners means that overtakes are likely to be under DRS, and prolonged side-by side battles are going to be tough. Of course, we won’t know for sure until the race is held for the first time, and it’s always best to be optimistic, but the fact is that if a track is boring, it’s unpopular. F1’s last race in the car park of a US landmark was hardly a resounding success, either. Looking at you, Caesar’s Palace.
Then there’s the issue of the calendar itself. It’s been confirmed that China, another big growth market for F1, is out for next year, whilst the US will now have two races. F1 says that they want to bring China back in the future, but with a 23-race schedule, and more and more tracks signing long-term deals, just how likely is that? Miami comes at a cost to the east Asian market, and has already raised questions over just why the US, as well as Italy, has two races. Campaign groups set up by local residents unhappy with the idea of an F1 race being held in their already busy backyard have also reinforced negative opinions.
So, with Haas a backmarker and Miami a somewhat controversial unknown quantity, how could Andretti be different? Firstly, it’s a bigger name than Haas. Haas is originally a NASCAR team and machine tools company, and even in the US, NASCAR is a regional sport. Andretti, on the other hand, is a name with F1 heritage, and huge brand exposure. Mario Andretti (current team owner Michael’s father) was 1978 F1 world champion, and Michael himself is an ex-F1 driver and IndyCar champion. Andretti Autosport is also one of the biggest names in IndyCar, and so should bring a lot of American excitement – and importantly, fans – to F1.
Of course, it’s easy to bring fans, but harder to keep them without performance; based on this year, Alfa Romeo might not seem like the most attractive candidate. That could very much change in coming seasons. The rule changes for 2022 are a completely blank slate for all the teams, and combined with the cost cap, they provide the best chance in years for those at the back to mix up the pecking order. Add to that an improved Ferrari engine, a newly committed Alfa Romeo, and the combined racing experience of Sauber and Andretti, and the ingredients for a competitive team start to come together. Then there is Valtteri Bottas, an experienced driver who on his day can challenge Lewis Hamilton.
Things, then, would be looking good for the Swiss-American outfit. But who would partner Bottas? Rumours have been around for a few months now that Guanyu Zhou is the most likely candidate, but negotiations have apparently hit a stumbling block over the fact that he wants a three-year deal which the team is unwilling to agree to. With the possibility of Andretti entering the sport, though, another name has been thrown into the ring in the form of Colton Herta. The young IndyCar driver has turned heads in that series, and it seems that Andretti are very keen to get him an F1 drive. An empty seat at an Andretti-controlled team would be the perfect opportunity for this, and has the added marketing value of an American driver with a new American-backed team.
Some readers will already be protesting that Herta only has 32 Super Licence points, out of the 40 required to drive in F1, and therefore shouldn’t be anywhere near the conversation for that second Alfa Romeo seat. He does have a way of getting in, though. The FIA can technically override the 40-point requirement for a driver whose season/s have been affected by “circumstances outside their control.”
In 2018, Herta competed in the IndyLights series, and his position should have earned him 12 points: instead it earned him zero due to the low number of competitors that year. The fact that fewer people than usual chose to participate hardly seems within Herta’s control, not to mention the two COVID-affected seasons since then. An exception like this would be unprecedented, but if it made commercial sense for F1, it is likely that the FIA would at the very least consider it.
All of this adds up to the potential for a new name on the F1 grid for next year, with huge US marketability, and even an American driver for the first time since 2007. Of course, rumours of new names entering F1 are hardly rare at the moment, and it could all come to nothing. But after the commercial failures of Haas, and the Miami GP yet to prove its worth, the sheer possibility is an exciting prospect for the future of the sport. So, among the excitement of this year’s title race, and the start of a new era for Formula 1 in 2022, remember to keep an eye on Andretti Autosport and the USA, because there are interesting times ahead.