It is an often discussed fact that few drivers from the USA have shown much in the way of success in Formula One. Take into account that Finland, a country of less than six million people, has provided three world champions and the USA just two, and you begin to wonder.
Of course, part of this lies in the fact that the US has – and always has had – popular domestic race series, and traditionally they tend to be the home for American drivers.
The Unser’s, Andretti’s and Foyt’s of this world were always destined to remain largely home grown, with a couple of exceptions.
Curiously, for the first few years of the F1 World Championship the annual Indy 500 was included as part of the calendar. As few – or usually none – of the European teams entered, we will ignore the winners of these races in this discussion.
The first USF1 champion, and a driver often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, was Phil Hill, with Ferrari, in 1961. These were the days, of course, when drivers took part in more than one category, and Hill became part of the program thanks to his inclusion in the Ferrari sports car team.
Hill’s title is often referred to as being somewhat fortuitous, for his team mate – the aristocratic Wolfgang von Trips – was his closest rival, and was killed in a tragic accident close to the end of the season. Nevertheless, Hill deserved his title, and drove beautifully all season. The USA would have to wait until 1978 until the next champion from its shores.
Mario Andretti, that 1978 World Champion in the revolutionary Lotus 79, remains one of the greats of motor sport, and can boast considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most popular men in the world of racing, it was hope that his success would inspire others from US series to take the trip across the pond. Oddly, it didn’t happen. That’s not to say the sport has been bereft of US drivers since.
The US driver with the record for the most Grand Prix starts is Eddie Cheever who, like Andretti, is of Italian ancestry.
A more than capable driver, he never got his hands on machinery that was worthy of his talent. Going back to the 1960’s and we have Dan Gurney, a man who the great Jim Clark rated as perhaps his closest rival – fine praise indeed. Gurney was indeed one of the finest of his era, but again was a man who never had a consistent shot at the title. Unlike Cheever, he did win races.
Peter Revson was far better than his ‘rich playboy’ image deserved, and would most likely have gone on to better things but for his tragic fatal testing accident in 1974 when on the verge of a career at the emergent Shadow team, while Richie Ginther is another who won a Grand Prix, for Honda in 1965.
We couldn’t provide a comprehensive list here but the late, great Mark Donohue should not be omitted, for he was a talent that was never fully realized in the category. It’s a notable footnote that the last F1 driver from the USA was the aptly named Scott Speed, who achieved very little.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel with the advent of Gene Haas’s F1 team, set to make its debut in 2016. Will it include an American driver? At the time of writing it is said that talks are in progress with the young and promising Alex Rossi, so let’s wait and see.
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