America's Legacy At Formula One- Engines, Not Drivers
Now that Formula One is in the hands of American billionaire John Malone, it remains to be seen whether the media mogul can ignite interest among Americans in the world's premier auto race.
It’s not a surprise that the 2018 Formula One season is roaring into high gear without a single U.S. driver. The last American to sit behind the wheel of an F1 car was Alexander Rossi in 2015 and the last to conquer a Grand Prix was Mario Andretti in 1978.
On the pecking order of the elite, single-seat open-wheel motor race, the U.S. ranks 10th, or one level below Argentina, with 33 driver championships. The UK leads the pack with 266 first place finishes.
A year after zooming into 12th place at the United States Grand Prix, Rossi circled back home to win the 2016 Indianapolis 500. The problem is that America’s oldest and most prestigious high-speed chase is not part of the F1 tour. It belongs to the IndyCar racing series, the stars & stripes version of F1.
But the Indy500 did count in F1’s point system during the early years. From 1950-’60, Americans ruled the Indy track but still failed to win the European circuits. Not withstanding, few foreigners also competed in the U.S. back then.
Florida native Phil Hill was the first Yank to be crowned F1’s Driver World Champion in 1961. The only other American to hoist the coveted trophy was the Italian-born Mario Andretti, who clinched six Grand Prix races in 1978.
Since the Euro-centric competition officially debuted in 1950, Hill and Andretti have been the only Americans to pilot an F1 vehicle to the world champion's circle. Germany’s Michael Schumacher holds the record for the most at seven, followed by Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio at five.
But the magic of Formula One goes beyond the drivers. The ear-piecing, motor-shrieking contest is also about the makers of cars, engines and tires who vie for global prestige and marketing power.
America’s greatest legacy at F1 might just be Ford’s contribution under the hood, which started in 1966 and came to an end in 2004 when the company made a strategic decision to exit the elite sport.
The Detroit-based auto giant had a significant impact in sponsoring the Cosworth Double Four Valve (DFV) engine, which became F1’s dominant power unit for a number of years. From 1967-'85, DFV-powered cars claimed 155 victories, or more than half of all the races on F1's program.
And therein also lies one of the reasons why the pinnacle of racing hasn’t latched on to a U.S. fan base. This highly complex motor pursuit is overwhelmingly about precision, detail and engineering.
Formula One is simply not the top flight of America’s four-wheel entertainment. It is the ultimate sport for geeks and technicians who search for the tiniest advantage in a wing, a battery, or an engine.
In contrast, NASCAR is simple to follow and provides more thrills as cars pass, bump and occasionally crash, delivering an extra layer of drama to viewers.
Malone purchased Formula One in 2017 through his Liberty Media holdings, which include assets such as Sirius XM radio, premium cable channel Starz, QVC, and the Atlanta Braves.
If he can't bring the race to American viewers, then few people can.
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