When the traveling bazaar that is Formula One alighted in Florida this spring, there was a subtle but consistent feeling of otherness. Americans, perhaps more than any other people on earth, love auto racing. But the self-anointed highest level of the sport has historically had a chilly relationship with the United States. Its teams, drivers, and circuits are mostly from Europe and Asia; the races happen at inconvenient times for a North American audience; there are no ovals and relatively little contact and passing. F1 just never felt like part of the cultural landscape here.
That’s starting to change. Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive made Daniel Ricciardo and Guenther Steiner into reality TV stars; trendy sports fans are blowing up Twitter on Sunday mornings the same way they did for soccer 10 years ago; there could be a second American team on the grid in the next few years, helmed by and named for IndyCar legend Michael Andretti; and after abandoning the U.S. off and on in recent decades, F1 will race three times per season on American soil starting next year.
But there still isn’t an American driver on the grid. That fact came up frequently at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix: “It would be great to see an American driver in the sport,” Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll said in May. “I think it would definitely expand the American audience.” But the Canadian also admitted that “the ladder to Formula 1 is more simple when you come from Europe.”
If anything, Stroll is understating the issue: It’s been seven years since an American took part in an F1 race, 15 since an American had a full-time seat, 29 since an American raced for a contending team or stood on the podium, and a whopping 44 years since Mario Andretti became the last American to win a race and the F1 drivers’ title. Recently, conversation about getting an American on the F1 grid again has taken on the kind of persistent, misty-eyed tone typically used to talk about returning to the moon. And much like the Apollo program, it’s not a simple task to accomplish.
For the first time in a long time, there is both hunger for an American F1 driver, as well as multiple candidates on the verge of staking a claim to a seat. But breaking into F1 is a lot like going to the moon: It takes skill, luck, political adroitness, time—and lots and lots of money.
Logan Sargeant looks like an F1 driver—specifically like he just rolled off the assembly line at whatever factory produced George Russell and Charles Leclerc. He stands just under 6 feet tall, with a narrow build, and has hair styled like the wind is just taking hold of it. But Sargeant doesn’t just look the part; he’s also trying to break into F1 the orthodox way.
While Americans have been hard to find on the F1 grid in recent years, a few have used the same developmental ladder available to drivers from Europe and Asia: karting, then regional Formula 4, followed by Formula 3, Formula 2, and ultimately—after several years, hundreds of races, and millions of dollars—an F1 race seat. That’s how the last two Americans to start an F1 race (Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi) got there, and that’s the path Sargeant is following.
Born on New Year’s Eve, 2000, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Sargeant started his open-wheel racing career in Formula 4 at age 15. From there, he moved up the European single-seater ladder methodically, catching the attention of top junior teams like Carlin and Prema. He finished third at the 2019 Macau Grand Prix, the legendary Formula 3 exhibition race that launched the likes of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher to international fame. And the following year, he narrowly lost the Formula 3 title, retiring in the last race and finishing third behind Oscar Piastri and Théo Pourchaire—the crown jewels of the junior programs at Alpine and Alfa Romeo, respectively.
When I met Sargeant in Miami, he was just a few months into his role as a reserve driver for Williams Racing. He had a handful of Formula 2 races under his belt as well, and was a few months removed from his first outing in the previous year’s Williams, at the 2021 postseason tire test.
“[The F2 car is] definitely a tricky car to get your head around,” Sargeant said. “It’s obviously extremely heavy … to be completely honest, I enjoyed the F3 car a little bit more, just because it was a bit lighter.”
But the F1 car? “An absolute dream come true,” he said. “I mean, it’s probably 10 times better. Honestly, it’s not even in the same ballpark. It’s a different world.”
In the past three months, Sargeant’s odds of driving a Williams F1 car for real have skyrocketed. After failing to break into the top five in his first nine Formula 2 starts, he scored his first podium in the sprint race in Barcelona (each F2 race weekend features a sprint race and a longer feature race). Then he finished second, first, and first in three of the next four feature races at Baku, Silverstone, and the Red Bull Ring, respectively, in addition to taking pole position two weeks later at Circuit Paul Ricard in France. Sargeant now sits third in the F2 standings in his first full season at that level. And Williams has committed to giving Sargeant a practice outing in the current car at the U.S. Grand Prix in October, which will make him the first American to take part in a grand prix weekend since Rossi’s last race in 2015.
Plus, it looks increasingly likely that Williams will have a seat available for 2023.
Earlier this summer, Williams seemed to have settled on a 2023 driver lineup: incumbent lead driver Alex Albon, and Piastri, on loan from Alpine. Now that Piastri has upset the F1 universe in pursuit of a drive at McLaren, there will be an open seat at Williams—assuming Nicholas Latifi, scoreless in his past 23 race starts, is not retained. Sargeant, thanks to his sudden breakout, is one of the top contenders for the seat. But he’s not the only American with one hand on an F1 racing gig.
Before the road to F1 opened up in front of Sargeant, Colton Herta was considered to be the top American prospect. Known for his blistering qualifying pace and near-psychokinetic car control, Herta has already won seven IndyCar races at the embryonic age of 22. If IndyCar has a Max Verstappen—a child prodigy with generational talent—Herta is it.
“The only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do was make it to IndyCar,” Herta told me over Zoom last month. “I played other sports: I played baseball, I played soccer. But during the games and practices, it was, ‘Oh, there’s a baseball game this weekend, but I could’ve taken my go-kart out testing.’ So I was never really interested in anything else.”
That talent has made him the centerpiece of Michael Andretti’s various efforts to get onto the F1 grid over the past year, and earned him a reserve and testing role with McLaren for this season.
Herta’s name made headlines during the Miami weekend when Lando Norris, Herta’s old Formula 4 teammate and current McLaren star, was asked about his experiences with American drivers in a Friday press conference.
“I grew up with Colton,” Norris said. “His nickname is Hooligan Herta. Because there’s one place he was extremely strong and that’s high-speed corners. … He would quite often go off because of it and maybe not crash, but just go through the gravel and you know, we’d have to clean his car after because of how much dirt there was on it.”
I asked Herta if he was worried about the nickname growing into a reputation among people who follow F1 but not IndyCar. He laughed and said, “The nickname actually came from a track called Thruxton in the U.K., where the last turn is a set of chicanes,” he said. “We were testing [in Formula 4]. … I broke a little bit too deep, and the curbs are massive in the chicane. So I jumped the curb and probably got the car about four feet off the ground, all four tires, just flying. The car was fine. Thankfully, it landed.”
Safely back on the ground, Herta raced one more year in various Formula 3 series, then returned to the IndyCar developmental ladder in 2017. Since then, he’s emerged as one of the sport’s most precocious talents. In just his third career IndyCar start, he became the youngest race winner in series history, earning a victory at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas—the site of the U.S. Grand Prix—a week before he turned 19.
The following year, Herta signed on with Andretti Autosport, one of the top teams in IndyCar. Auto racing is a family business everywhere, including the U.S., and the Andrettis and Hertas go way back. Colton’s father, Bryan, raced against Michael Andretti in CART for almost a decade, then raced for him in IndyCar for four years in the mid-2000s, winning two races over that span. When Rossi returned from Europe in 2016 and won the Indy 500 as a rookie, he did so in a car co-owned by Bryan Herta and Michael Andretti.
Rossi is one of two former F1 drivers, along with Romain Grosjean, who races alongside Herta at Andretti. And while the last American F1 driver is bullish on Sargeant and Red Bull Junior driver Jak Crawford’s chances of following in his footsteps, he thinks Herta has the goods.
“I’m pretty biased,” Rossi said in a phone interview. “He’s a very good friend of mine, and I’ve loved the opportunity to work with him. I think his talent is obvious to anyone who watches an IndyCar race.”
Since taking the younger Herta under his tutelage, Andretti has made him a crucial part of his bid to expand his racing empire—which includes teams in IndyCar, Formula E, and the Australian Supercars series—to F1. An Andretti-led consortium came within inches of purchasing Sauber last year, which runs the Alfa Romeo F1 team, before talks collapsed at the last minute. Undeterred, Andretti is now attempting to start a new team from scratch, at a cost of some $1 billion in fees and startup costs. In either case, Herta would be first on Andretti’s list of driver candidates.
In the meantime, Herta has signed a reserve driver deal with McLaren—the team for which Michael Andretti took the last American F1 podium in 1993—and was considered a contender for a race seat until Piastri came into the picture. He isn’t on the calendar for a practice appearance yet, but last month he went to Portugal for a two-day test session in the 2021 McLaren.
“It was quite a different car [compared to IndyCar],” he said. “There were some similarities, but as the overall car went, it was quite a different system. Hybrid engine. The braking force was really strong, a lot of downforce, and quite a bit more power than what I’m used to in IndyCar. … But overall, an amazing experience for me. I loved it.”
Sargeant and Herta are the two most likely American candidates for an F1 seat in the near future, but they merely represent the cream of a growing pipeline. Six Americans have raced in Formula 3 this season, led by the 17-year-old Crawford, who’s taken two sprint victories and four podiums in 12 starts this season. And Ugo Ugochukwu, age 15, has two wins in British Formula 4 this season and recently signed with the McLaren junior team.
But given the immensity of the American population and racing heritage, and the high standards and visibility of IndyCar, how did it come to be that just getting an American onto the F1 grid became a once-in-a-decade thing?
This wasn’t always the case. For the first 11 years of the Formula 1 World Championship, the Indy 500 was sanctioned as an F1 race—though this turned out to be a historical curiosity. In the days before reliable intercontinental jet travel, few if any top European teams bothered to turn up, and most of the Americans who dominated the race never entered any other F1 events. Of the 15 official American F1 race winners, 10 won the Indy 500 and no other races.
The other five—Mario Andretti, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson, and Richie Ginther—came to F1 maturity between the late 1950s and early 1970s, when the top racers in the world raced everything, all the time. Gurney and Andretti famously flitted from NASCAR to endurance racing to Indy cars from week to week. British F1 champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill both came across the Atlantic to try their hand at the Indy 500, winning in 1965 and 1966, respectively.
F1 and American open-wheel racing drifted apart in the 1970s and stayed that way until 1984, when two-time F1 world champion Emerson Fittipaldi came out of retirement to race in CART, the predecessor of the current IndyCar series. What at first looked like a post-retirement lark turned into a 12-season career that featured 22 race wins—including two at the Indy 500—and a championship in 1989.
With Fittipaldi’s imprimatur, the prestige of the Indy 500, and brawny cars that could rival the best of F1 for speed, CART exploded in international popularity to the point that F1’s birdlike Svengali, Bernie Ecclestone, considered CART a legitimate commercial threat. In the winter of 1992, CART poached world champion Nigel Mansell and threatened to poach Senna, while in the years that followed Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya went the other direction and immediately became F1 title contenders.
That open-door policy changed around the turn of the century, because of catastrophic bag-fumbling on the part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George. Unsatisfied with the direction of the series—too many foreigners, too many road courses, not enough money for his company—George split off in 1996 and formed Indy Racing League (later named IndyCar). CART got the best drivers and better racing, IndyCar had the name recognition and the marquee race. Both series, once on the verge of national commercial dominance over NASCAR and competitive parity with F1, either went or nearly went bankrupt. The infighting diluted the talent pool and economic reach of the sport. And by the time the two sides reconciled in 2008, NASCAR had become the only American racing series worth knowing. The current series is only just now starting to recover from its civil war.
In the meantime, F1 has become more insular than ever. What was until recently a collage of manufacturer-backed juggernauts and fly-by-night privateers is now smaller and more stable than it’s been in its entire 73-year history. The same 10 teams have populated the F1 grid since 2017, seats are few and far between—even for European drivers—and the startups that might take a flier on an IndyCar standout just don’t exist anymore.
Time was, an F1 aspirant could just create a new team. If Andretti had wanted to do that 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have literally been as easy as building a car and fronting an entry fee, but it wouldn’t have been much more difficult than that. Instead, one of history’s most decorated racing drivers and owners spent the Miami Grand Prix weekend skulking around the paddock, begging his would-be competitors to sign a petition that might grant his team a chance to race in 2024.
Andretti’s struggles to gain entry are an instructive metaphor. If someone who’s created a hugely successful team in other racing disciplines—including IndyCar and Formula E—can’t get a foot in the door, imagine how hard it must be for an up-and-coming IndyCar driver to get a chance.
Going through the European feeder series, like Sargeant has done, isn’t much easier. Just ask Josef Newgarden, a ludicrously telegenic 31-year-old from Nashville who won the IndyCar title in 2017 and 2019. Newgarden spoke to Jack Benyon and J.R. Hildebrand of The Race IndyCar Podcast in February about his experience in the European junior formulae and whether it’s possible to make the jump from IndyCar to F1.
“You still have to find the political posture and the backing on the European side to make it to Formula 1. You’re not going to do it through IndyCar unless there’s a special circumstance,” Newgarden said. “If you’re talking about 99 percent of the time outside of that situation, you still have to go through Europe. … And you have to find an incredible amount of money these days. That’s only gotten harder. That’s only gone up.”
The political posture Newgarden refers to isn’t anti-American bias as such—American drivers can only turn left, stereotypes like that. Both Herta and Rossi said they never encountered any snobbery while racing in the U.K. But there are structural factors that weigh against IndyCar drivers.
One is simple geography. North American junior drivers have to move to Europe in order to race above Formula 4. That means leaving friends and family behind to live in an unfamiliar country at an age when most kids aren’t completely comfortable moving out of state to go to college.
“It’s definitely a big commitment, a big sacrifice. You move away from your family and friends, and your home, from a very, very young age,” Latifi, a Canadian, said in Miami. But “any driver that’s not European-based … I’m sure if they want to make that step, it’s something they’ll be happy to do, because this is the pinnacle.”
While F1 hopefuls accept that this is part of the deal, though, it’s not always easy. “When you move to Europe at 12 years old, you’re still a kid. You’re still growing, maturing, and it’s not an easy decision,” Sargeant said. “I’ve never regretted it, but there were definitely painful times.”
Another issue to consider is team affiliation: F1 racing outfits are likely to hand testing sessions and race seats to drivers who are already within their developmental stable, not only in F1 itself but in the lower categories; that’s why it was such a big deal when Williams signed Sargent.
Current F1 Drivers By Academy Affiliation
|Red Bull||Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz Jr., Alexander Albon, Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda|
|Ferrari||Charles Leclerc, Sergio Pérez, Mick Schumacher|
|McLaren||Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris, Kevin Magnussen|
|Williams||Lance Stroll, Nicholas Latifi|
|Mercedes||George Russell, Esteban Ocon|
|None||Fernando Alonso, Valtteri Bottas|
Seven of the 10 current F1 teams have driver development programs with at least one affiliated racer in F2 or F3. (Haas and Aston Martin don’t have academies, McLaren’s is just getting back off the ground after a three-year hiatus, and the Red Bull Junior Team feeds both Red Bull and Alpha Tauri.) Only McLaren, which is the lone outfit to run teams in both F1 and IndyCar, counts IndyCar drivers as part of its farm team: Herta, Pato O’Ward, and (possibly, depending on the results of his Piastri-like contract fiasco) reigning series champion Álex Palou.
And in order to be eligible to race in F1, drivers must earn what’s known as a Super License from the FIA, the governing body of global motorsport. Drivers must earn 40 points over a three-year period to be eligible. Winning either the F2 or IndyCar title is worth 40 points, but while only the top driver in IndyCar earns that many points, F2 awards 40 points to the top three finishers. The fourth-place F2 driver gets 30 points, while IndyCar’s fourth-place finisher gets only 10 points, less than the fifth-place finisher in Formula 3.
McLaren’s pursuit of Piastri would seem to close the door on an F1 seat for Herta and O’Ward there for the immediate future. (O’Ward, for one, is not happy about that state of affairs.) But even if McLaren did want to sign one of its two North American IndyCar stars for F1, neither would be eligible based on Super License points. Herta is currently on pace to have 29 points by the end of the season; it’s almost mathematically impossible for him to get the third-place championship finish he needs to get to 40, and he told me there is currently no contingency planned for him to make up the difference by racing in another series.
The last, and perhaps most challenging aspect of all of this, is money. Becoming an F1-quality driver takes a lifetime of specialized experience that is shockingly expensive to acquire. The drivers who qualify as rags-to-riches stories by the standards of the sport—Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon—come from middle-class backgrounds. And the rest of the grid includes three sons of Formula 1 drivers (Max Verstappen, Mick Schumacher, Kevin Magnussen), the son of a World Rally champion (Carlos Sainz Jr.), and three drivers whose fathers are worth at least $100 million (Latifi, Lance Stroll, Lando Norris).
“It’s the only sport on Earth where you can buy your way in,” Rossi said. “You can’t be a good college quarterback and just buy your way onto the Rams.”
A young athlete seeking to break into high-level go-kart racing needs to spend thousands and thousands of dollars in equipment and thousands more in fees and operating costs. (Hamilton’s legendary ability to manage his tires is said to come from not being able to afford new tires as a young go-kart racer.) And anyone with aspirations of racing a single-seater needs to pony up lots more. When I brought up the issue of funding to Herta, he rattled off budget figures like I’d just asked him about Sgt. Raymond Shaw.
“In Europe, you’re talking an F4 season costing $400,000, an F3 season costing close to $1 million, and F2 is $2 million plus,” he said. “Even for very, very wealthy people, it’s hard to justify, ‘Hey, let’s go spend $1 million on a F3 season.’”
So drivers, more than other athletes, have to hustle, have to be salesmen, in order to attract sponsors. It’s not enough to win, it’s about getting investment from people who want to be a part of racing.
“I think it’s very difficult,” Sargeant said. “In this day and age with social media, [companies] can literally just publish or post what they want, or get social media influencers and get a lot of engagement for that. So you really have to give them a reason. They have to like you as a person. They need to enjoy racing, to want to come to the races. And I think that’s the way you can attract a sponsor.”
Rossi worked as a test driver for the now-defunct Caterham team for the three seasons before he made his F1 debut, but in the years previous, he was funded by a syndicate of investors. “We weren’t going off to companies and trying to sell a sticker on a car,” he said. “We were going to friends and acquaintances that had a passion for motorsports, as we did as a family, and wanted to be involved in the story. Some of those original investors still come to races to this day.”
It was those investors who allowed Rossi to expand beyond karting—which he said itself was a six-figure enterprise—and get into car racing.
“Where we were really able to make it work for us is, around the same time I started karting, my dad started racing in what was called at the time the Jim Russell Racing School in Northern California,” Rossi said. “That was a bunch of gentleman drivers, if you will. Instead of golf, they’d show up for the weekend and race cars. So my dad did that for a couple years and was, like, ‘Oh come check out my son. He’s racing at the go-kart track up the hill.’ And four of the 10 main investors were all guys that my dad met through this racing organization.”
Relationships between driver and investor can last a lifetime; if you’ve seen Sergio Pérez in an F1 press conference, you’ll know he always wears a cap with the logo of Mexican telecom company Telcel. This is all because his father, a driver agent, arranged for a sponsorship deal with the son of billionaire Carlos Slim when Checo was in grade school. So even though F1 drivers fly private jets and live in penthouses in Monte Carlo, it takes a lot of money to get rich and famous.
“There’s three phases to being a racing driver,” Rossi says. “It’s pay-to-race. Then, your racing is paid for. Then, hopefully, you get to the point where you actually get a paycheck to drive a race car.”
But until a driver gets to Phase 3, the dream can dry up as soon as the money runs out. Sargeant, now knocking on the door of an F1 seat, was almost out of the F1 picture as recently as last winter when couldn’t find the backing for the coming F2 season. He was on the verge of returning to the U.S. to race in IndyCar when Williams signed him.
“It was everything,” Sargeant said of the deal. “It reignited my chance of getting into Formula 1. Before they came along I was dead in the water, to be honest, and I got saved.”
The bottom line is that between the cost, the distance, and the pressure of pursuing an F1 career, most U.S.-based drivers would be better off staying home. Rossi, the most successful American F1 aspirant of the past 15 years, had just a cup of coffee in F1 but has thrived since returning to the U.S.: He’s won the Indy 500, finished top-three in the IndyCar standings twice, and won the 24 Hours of Daytona.
“It’s pretty miserable to know that every time you show up at a Grand Prix, regardless of what you do or the performance you have, that 12th place is a miracle if that happens,” he said. “I think that weighs heavy on a lot of guys.”
Even NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon told the F1 Beyond the Grid podcast that, during the prime of his career, he was recruited for an F1 drive, first by Villeneuve for BAR in the late 1990s, then again in 2003 after he’d swapped cars with Montoya for an afternoon at Indy. “We had a lot of discussions,” Gordon said. “But the discussions were, ‘You’ve got to test in IndyCar. Then you’re going to go test in Formula 3.’ … I had just won my third championship, so a lot of things were hot for me in NASCAR. I’m with the best team, winning races, winning championships. And I’m going to have to leave this and learn how to be a road racer in an open-wheel, rear-engine car. Man, that’s fun to talk about, but that just doesn’t seem realistic.”
But those other series just don’t interest Sargeant—not while his F1 dream is alive and kicking. “There are loads of other options,” Sargeant said. “But at the end of the day, Formula 1 is by far the pinnacle of motorsport, and the most competitive series in the world. So that’s where I want to be. That’s the type of person I am.”
As much as the deck is stacked against Herta and Sargeant—or any individual driver—there is a newfound appetite for an American driver that should work in their favor. The commercial incentives of using a driver to break into a new national market are not new to F1. Rossi noted that one reason he lost his seat at Marussia in 2016 was funding from the Indonesian tourism board, which wanted Rio Haryanto on the grid. Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu is attractive to sponsors as the only Chinese driver to race in F1. And despite all the obstacles Americans face, there’s never been a better financial reason to put one in an F1 race seat.
Interest in the sport is exploding, as evidenced by ESPN’s F1 ratings increasing by half since last year and more than doubling since 2020. Whether it’s McLaren or a startup Andretti team—or Haas, which despite being American-owned and headquartered in the heart of NASCAR country has never so much as sniffed around hiring an American driver—someone is going to put an American on the grid sooner or later. And there’s never been a deeper talent pool to tap into.
“When I was over there, it was really just me,” Rossi said. “So if there was someone that wanted an American in a car they didn’t have much to choose from. Now they have potentially three guys to choose from.”
“[F1] just seems like a crazy series that’s popping off a lot in the U.S. right now,” Herta said. “There’s a lot of U.S. interest, and it just seems to keep growing, particularly in that 18-to-49 demographic that everybody always wants to hit.”
But as close as he’s come to breaking into that elite club, between the various attempts by Andretti to break into the drama over the McLaren seat, Herta knows he can’t get his hopes up.
“I’m just taking it as it comes,” he said. “If I never make it to F1, I’m not going to be sour about it. I have a great opportunity here in the States racing IndyCar, and I love what I do. But the thing about F1 is, I would like to try to do it. … If I don’t get there next year, that’s not a problem. I think I’ll have a few more years to be able to do it.”
Sargeant, asked about the significance of getting an American into F1, waved off the question, preferring to focus on what’s in front of him now.
“At the end of the day, I just want to race in F1,” he said. “I just try to stay in the moment now. There’s no reason to think about the future when it’s so uncertain.”
Perhaps Sargeant’s future is uncertain, but the sport’s is less so. There will be an American on the F1 grid sooner or later. And though we don’t know who that will be, we finally know where to look.