Formula One has always struggled to catch on in North America, which considering its massive motorsport infatuation, is a great shame.
This weekend Alexander Rossi is the latest man from across the pond to try to drum up some support for himself and the sport in the most northern of the Americas, making his Formula One debut in FP1 at the Canadian Grand Prix on Friday. He certainly isn’t the first, but he’s in some illustrious company…
It’s impossible not to start with this man. Considered by many to be the do-all and end-all of making a car go quickly around a track, Gilles Villeneuve’s short career in Formula One has become the stuff of legends – hence his name baring the Circuit Île Notre-Dame/Gilles Villeneuve.
Born in 1950, the Canadian lived for just 32 years, yet still managed to amass a total of 6 wins from 104 starts. It’s quite possible that had Gilles avoided his untimely death at the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix, he may well have gone on to win that year’s drivers’ title.
The last weeks of his career will be remembered for his ongoing feud with Ferrari teammate Didier Peroni following the Frenchman’s move to pass Villeneuve at the preceding San Marino Grand Prix. A tragic end, for one the sports all-time fastest racing drivers.
His son wasn’t too shabby in a F1 car either.
Philip Toll Hill: America’s other F1 Champion, the other Hill, and the only American-born World Champion to date.
Yet no one really remembers ole’ Philip. Why?
Well, his championship was far from a celebration of triumph; rather a sense of tradgedy, as Hill inherited the title from teammate from Wolfgang von Trips in 1961, who was killed at Monza along with 14 spectators.
Despite being described by paddock-dwellers of the time as a quiet and gentle man, Hill battled for years with inter-team politics at Ferrari, eventually leaving the Prancing Horse to join newcomers ATS at the end of 1962, along with a host of former Ferrari employees who boycotted the team, and Enzo Ferrari’s iron fist, in the early 60’s. Edgy.
Gurney, to many, was the North-American Stirling Moss. The “three-quarters eaten deep pan pizza” to the “half-drank cup of tea”. The Superbowl runners-up to the F.A Cup Final losers. Or, in simpler terms, one of the finest F1 drivers to never win the title.
In an era immediately after that of Phil Hill’s, Gurney was America’s next best thing in F1. The New York-born racer racked up 4 wins over twelve seasons of racing, including the 1970 British Grand Prix.
Despite being best-of-the-rest for much of his life though, it’s Gurney’s 1967 machinery that many remember most about the American, the Eagle MK1. Certainly no needlessly pointy noses there, that’s for sure.
Not in the list on merit, but nonetheless the last North American driver to grace the sport was Scott Speed. Besides the absolute best name to ever grace the sport, Speed was a part of the Red Bull Development programme, making his F1 debut in 2005 as Red Bull Racing’s 3rd driver, before walking into a race seat the following year following the birth of Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Speed’s time in Formula One was very, very underwhelming. However his faulty F1 career helped launch that an eventual 4-time world champion called Sebastian Vettel, following Speeds’ dismissal prior to the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Not the brightest light in Formula One then, Speed failed to impress or catch the imagination of his home continent even with the backing of Red Bull. With backing like that, is there any hope?
Speak of Americans in motorsport and one name will recur time after time: Andretti. And it was a Mario Andretti who to this day remains the only man to truly immerse his home nation in F1 following his World Championship in 1978.
Okay, before you say it – yes, he’s strictly an Italian-American. Kind of like a stereotypical New York gangster. Despite this, Mario was, and still is, a hugely likeable character in motor racing, having appeared in Stock Cars, Indy Car and various other American categories before going full-time in Formula One between the years of 1975 and 1981, after a number of sporadic and highly impressive outings for the likes of Ferrari, March, and Lotus.
It was 1978 though that stands tall above his illustrious career, making full use of Colin Chapman’s ground effect Lotus 79 to clinch the title with six wins. Following ’78, Andretti never won another grand prix, and so in 1981 returned to America to do a spot of Indy Car again.
Gilles Villeneuve won the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978, but to this day Mario Andretti is the only American to win his home grand prix. It’s a record that would appear to be safe for a the foreseeable future as North America continues to grapple with success in Formula One.