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At U.S. Grand Prix, It’s Clear F1 Has Its Foot on the Gas in the States

An increasing number of races in the U.S. and a likely new American driver are feeding a steadily growing fanbase in the country.

AUSTIN—The ruckus of Formula One fans within the grandstands at Circuit of the Americas threatened to overpower the roar of the cars as they readied for the start of the 2022 U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday,

As the lights went out, the cars sped off, tight battles for positions forming as the 20 drivers barreled up a massive hill to Turn 1. A massive American flag loomed overhead as George Russell spun Carlos Sainz, groans echoing from spectators as the Ferrari driver’s day came to an end. Given the environment around the 3.4-mile track, it’s hard to imagine that the drivers’ championship was decided the prior race in Japan.

A record-breaking 440,000 fans flooded the complex throughout the four-day weekend, marking the highest attendance this season—The Australian Grand Prix was the closest in 2022 with 420,000 spectators, and while the race day attendance numbers have not been confirmed yet at COTA, it’s likely to have exceeded Silverstone’s 142,000. The likes of Ed Sheeran, Serena Williams, Shaq and Brad Pitt (who is starring in an upcoming F1-themed movie) were among the star-studded names in the COTA paddock this weekend.

It’s hard to believe that just a few seasons ago only 265,000 fans filled COTA during 2018’s race weekend. But Lewis Hamilton feels F1 has “finally tapped into the country.”

“At the end of the day, there’s 20 drivers that are athletes, that are putting their life on the line, weekend in, weekend out,” Hamilton said. “And unlike the other sports, which are also exciting, there's a lot of players … In terms of athletes, there’s only 20 of us so it’s a very, very small group of us that get to drive these rockets basically around so we’re as close to NASA, I guess, as we can be.”

Formula One moved the United States Grand Prix to Circuit of the Americas beginning in 2012 and only missed a single season in the last decade, which was because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite being at the pinnacle of their sport, drivers remember walking around in the U.S. and going largely unnoticed. That is until F1’s big boom happened.

Netflix’s Drive to Survive was first released in March 2019, and it gained even more momentum during the pandemic lockdown. Even Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who has been critical of the show in the past, acknowledged its importance, saying, “Up until a few years ago, the sport was very closed. You couldn’t really get close to the teams. Everything is opening up a little bit more. And then, because of Netflix giving a bit more insight, you start to understand a little bit more of what’s going on and you don’t just see the cars driving around. That’s why people are a lot more excited about Formula One now.”

Coupled with the rise of TikTok and F1 content creators as well as a broadcast deal with ESPN, there’s more access to the sport for American viewers than ever before, and it’s coincided with the increase in popularity.

“It’s incredible to see the progression from the first year I’ve been here, in 2018, to now. The sport has grown massively in the U.S., so much more people in Austin, much more difficult to go around the city easily,” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said after a third-place finish. “But it’s a good sign. And I think there’s a culture in the U.S. also to make the sport a show. And this is really the way I see it now. And there’s a challenge of keeping the DNA of the sport, adding the show, and I think this has been done extremely well. I can’t wait to see what was going to happen in Vegas next year, which will probably be crazy.”

The sport added the Miami Grand Prix to the schedule this season, and beginning next year, there will be three United States-based races with the Las Vegas Grand Prix taking place in November 2023. There’s no doubt the sport is booming in the States, but the question is whether it’s a flash-in-the-pan moment or a new era of sports for American fans.

The introduction of a home driver could only add to the growing excitement. Williams team boss Jost Capito confirmed on Saturday that as long as Logan Sargeant has the necessary points for his Super License, the Florida native will be the team’s second F1 driver in 2023.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained Saturday how critical a move like this is for the sport.

“I think we see the growth in the U.S., we see the excitement that there is. I came from Vegas earlier in the week and seeing the plans there for that race as well, which looks to be an epic event, you can see the American public are really engaged in Formula One, and I think we need an American driver,” Horner said. “Not only just a driver, we need a successful driver in there competing as well. It shouldn't just be Brad Pitt. So I think that, it’s exciting for Formula One, it's exciting times and the sport’s growing and developing. And I think we'll see more American talent developing and emerging. Certainly we’ve got some interesting candidates on our junior program that we’re investing in.”

American Forumla Two driver Logan Sargent poses during an interview.

Sargeant could be the current face of Formula One in the U.S.

Sargeant is third in the standings with one round left on the F2 calendar, but two more F1 practice sessions with Williams this season could help soften the buffer. Drivers get an extra point for exceeding 100 km, which he did during first practice in Texas this weekend.

If it all goes to plan after Abu Dhabi, Sergeant will be the first American on the F1 grid since Alexander Rossi in 2015.

Sergeant got his start with karting at just six years old, but he describes that it was a “hobby” at the time, something fun during the weekends. However, after that, “everything just escalated very quickly.” Although there are options like NASCAR and IndyCar here in the States, Sergeant decided to dive into European racing, making the move across the pond at 12 years old.

“I was still young at the time. So I had a push from behind as well, which is sometimes what you need,” Sergeant says as he reflects on that major decision to move to Europe. “And you’re also a bit ... oblivious to how big of a jump it is and how big of a deal [and] commitment it is. But I think that was the best way it could be. And yeah, I think to get to Formula One you needed to make that jump to Europe. The path through America to get to F1 is extremely difficult.”

He’s lived on his own since 17, now residing in London as he competes for Carlin in F2. At first, the British city “was not quite to [his] taste,” but it has grown on him over the years. Just not so much the weather.

Although the announcement of his tentative F1 debut came a day after his first practice session, Sergeant says that moment had been months in the works. He won back-to-back F2 feature races at Silverstone and Spielberg, Austria, and midseason is when he realized his F1 dream could be a reality.

“[In] the middle of season, we started to really pick up on some good results, start getting some wins, some pole positions, and everything was just flowing very nicely,” he says. “The performance was obviously there, and that's sort of where my expectations sort of shifted—to constantly be at the front and fighting for wins and podiums. And that's sort of where it took a turn.”

Watching Sargeant during Friday’s first practice, it is hard to tell that he is just in his rookie F2 season. He may have finished 19th, but he recorded 23 trouble-free laps. And he says the session “was everything I expected, plus a lot more.” The 21-year-old did anticipate “everything to be extremely quick.

“The high-speed sector one was definitely an eye opener, how much speed that the cars are capable of carrying as well as how effective the brakes are, compared to what I’m used to in Formula Two,” Sargeant said. “And I just didn't think that the gap between the two series would be quite as big as it was.”

Sergeant remembers watching the battle between Felipe Massa and Hamilton for the title in 2008, and while watching the F1 greats of the years, he asks, “Who doesn't want to be one of them?” He’s noticed the shift within America as Formula One became more popular in recent years, adding that his friends showed little interest years ago, but now constantly pepper him with questions.

America does have a home team in Haas, but adding a U.S. native driver signifies the growth that continues to come for F1. 

“For America, I think they need a driver to root for,” Sargeant says. “And I will do my best to, hopefully, be someone they all like and appreciate. But I feel like from an American driver’s point of view, I hope it just gives young drivers that belief to make that step to Europe and to make that sacrifice, that if you do work hard that it all will work out.”

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