Formula 1 will return from its second multiyear U.S. hiatus with a Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, next November. The first track in the nation that was built specifically to F1 specifications and amenity standards has invested $300 million in the facility and must pay a huge sanctioning fee -- estimated at $25 million -- to put the world's highest priced and most technologically advanced race cars on the track.
History has shown making a profit with an F1 event in America will be difficult. Indianapolis made money from 2000 to 2004, was severely damaged by a tire fiasco in 2005 and lost money in its final two years. It had been the first track to hold an F1 race in the U.S. since 1991, when Phoenix's street event folded after three years. Phoenix never made money.
For F1 to become successful in America, it must be sustainable long term and that requires profits. Those will come from American drivers, who will build the television audience and the fan base. It needs another Dan Gurney or Mario Andretti and it needs them both in F1 at the same time. One won't do it.
With the Austin race in 2012 and the announced race in New Jersey, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, for 2013, the opportunity to lift F1's profile and bring American drivers into the fold is greatly enhanced. F1 won't ever equal the popularity of NASCAR and the two events will never grow larger than the Indianapolis 500, but it can prosper into a premier international sporting event in the States. Think Olympics. Think soccer's World Cup. F1 plays on that stage every year, delivering the world's largest television viewership.
There aren't any American drivers in F1. Scott Speed was the last, driving in 28 races in the 2006 and 2007 seasons before switching to Sprint Cup. He was the first since Michael Andretti, who was released with three races remaining in his sole season of 1993.
Are there Americans interested in driving in F1? Absolutely. Established talent like Kyle Busch, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal are among those who would jump at the chance. Talented youngsters Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Michael Lewis are pursuing it by racing in the European development series.
The challenge is getting hired by an F1 team and proving they have the ability to compete with the best road racing drivers in the world. There's been a stigma that has kept American IndyCar drivers from being considered since Andretti, who was a victim of adverse circumstances, and those who have gone the European route, which the F1 teams prefer, have run out of financial support before getting the opportunities they needed. Speed was the exception. He was funded by Red Bull's program to develop an American driver for F1, but it gave up on him quickly when he got there. Sebastian Vettel, who replaced Speed, has won the F1 world championship the past two years.
"I don't think Formula 1 can be successful in America without an American driver, but there are a lot of Ferrari fans who follow the sport everywhere and there are American Formula 1 fans," Eddie Cheever, who started 132 F1 races between 1978 and 1989 before switching to IndyCars, said. "There would be a lot more success with American drivers.
"We were doing well at Indianapolis until they dropped the ball with the tire fiasco in 2005. The fans are very fickle and they didn't come back."
Certainly, the 2005 race at Indianapolis was a blow to the event. Michelin, which supplied 14 of the 20 cars, brought a tire that failed in the Friday practice on Ralf Schumacher's car, putting him into the wall and out of the event. After taking the parade laps, the Michelin cars pulled into the pits and six cars running on Bridgestone tires raced. But even before that the event had seen steady declining attendance.
Cheever says there needs to be more Americans in the talent pool pursuing F1 and corporations to back them.
"Just having one driver won't do it," Cheever said. "Maybe having one in F1 would galvanize F1 in America so more young drivers wanted [to get involved]. It [multiple drivers] is a process that is going to take a long time, a five-year plan [backed] by a corporation or a car manufacturer to develop talent.
"Almost all of the young drivers in America want to be in NASCAR and we need more to want to get to F1."
Jonathan Summerton raced in Europe for several seasons trying to make it to F1. He won a race in the prestigious Euro Formula 3 championship in 2006, but his funding ran out. He won races in Formula Atlantic and has raced in Firestone Indy Lights since returning to America. The 23-year-old from Kissimmee, Fla., also had a major victory for A1 Team USA in the disbanded A1GP Series; the only driver to win for the team out of a group that included Speed, Marco Andretti and Bryan Herta.
"I'd still love to get to F1," Summerton said. "But IndyCar is a great option and I'm working on that for next year ."
Rossi, a 20-year-old from Nevada City, Calif., is the American furthest along in the European development series. He won two races in World Series by Renault, a top-level development series in Europe, this year and tested with Team Lotus (renamed Caterham this week) in the F1 Young Driver's test at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi in November. He won three races in GP3 in 2010 and was the Formula BMW world champion in 2008. Rossi will likely spend next season in the Renault or GP2 series, the final development steps on the climb into F1. It's possible, if he continues to win races, that he could reach F1 by 2013.
Indianapolis-based Just Marketing International founder Zak Brown, who has done sponsorship deals with McLaren, Red Bull, Williams, Mercedes and F1 series organizer Bernie Ecclestone, believes F1 can succeed without an American driver.
"I think F1 can be successful in the U.S. without an American driver," Brown said. "America is a pretty diverse place and many of its athletes aren't American. That being said, an American driver would definitely help as would two successful races and more network television."
Is it possible to build a successful F1 event in the U.S. without an American driver? Maybe, but not likely. Next year's event in Austin will undoubtedly be well attended and publicized. Indianapolis started out in 2000 with a crowd of 225,000, the largest ever to see an F1 event, but it was down in the 150,000-range the next year and continued to fall. Austin will suffer the same fate without American drivers.