Ranking the Top 10 US Drivers in F1 History

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2015

Ranking the Top 10 US Drivers in F1 History

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    The United States of America and Formula One should, in theory, be a match made in heaven, but relations between the two superpowers have rarely been healthy.

    In its attempts to make it big in America, F1 has traveled to a total of 10 circuits across the country, which tells you just as much about the sport's desperation to find popularity across the Atlantic as it does the United States' unwillingness to embrace it.

    Recently, however, there have been signs of a rapprochement.

    The state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas, the home of the U.S. GP since 2012, is the first purpose-built F1 track in the United States, with America set to have its very own team in 2016 when Gene Haas, the NASCAR team owner, arrives on the grid.

    And with Alexander Rossi currently knocking on the door, there is every chance that America will have an F1 star to be proud of in the coming years.

    Whether the Californian will turn out to be quite as good as some of the names listed here—the likes of world champions Mario Andretti and Phil Hill—however, remains to be seen.

    Here are the 10 best American drivers in F1 history, with our choices based on their achievements (where possible) and their general impact on the sport.

Honourable Mentions

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    Scott Speed, the last American to race in Formula One, graduated from the same Red Bull young driver program as four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo.

    The success achieved by the pair in recent years suggest that Speed did have the talent to live up to his surname, but a poor attitude—highlighted above and in the most cringeworthy fashion here—and his failure to score a single point in 28 races for Toro Rosso saw him replaced by Vettel midway through the 2007 season.

    Unlike Speed, George Follmer did score a point and did so in his very first race, with a sixth-place finish in the 1973 South African Grand Prix. The Phoenix-born driver went even better at the next round in Spain, securing his one and only podium finish in his one and only season in F1.

10. Mark Donohue

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    Driving a McLaren in a Penske livery, Mark Donohue secured a third-place finish on his debut in the wet Canadian Grand Prix of 1971, but it was hardly a sign of things to come.

    After failing to start the next race at Watkins Glen, the New Jersey native returned to his homeland and went on to win the 1972 Indy 500. 

    Donohue returned to F1 to contest the final two rounds of 1973 but couldn't recreate his heroics at Mosport Park and once again failed to have a clean run on home soil, retiring after 27 laps. 

    He embarked upon a full-time F1 campaign the following year, struggling for speed at first. However, fifth-place finishes in Sweden and Britain hinted at a mid-season improvement in form.

9. Jim Rathmann

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    Jim Rathmann wasn't a Formula One driver in the conventional sense, participating exclusively in the Indianapolis 500 when the event was a part of the F1 championship.

    The Californian was something of a specialist at the Brickyard, securing six top-10 finishes in his 10 appearances at the famous race.

    He took three second-place finishes in the 1952, '57 and '59 events, with his victory in the 1960 edition good enough for eighth in the F1 drivers' championship despite his failure to take part in any grands prix that season.

    Rathmann has the distinction of being the victor of the last Indy 500 to be classed as an F1 world championship event.

8. Bill Vukovich

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    Associated Press

    Like Rathmann, Bill Vukovich competed in Formula One solely via his Indy 500 activities.

    His two wins (1953 and 1954) in five visits to the Brickyard between 1950 and '55 means the Californian, of Yugoslavian descent, has one of the best win rates in the sport's history.

    With just five F1 starts under his belt, however, it would be unfair to position "Vuky"—who suffered a fatal crash while leading the 1955 Indy 500—any higher than eighth here.

7. Masten Gregory

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    Gregory alongside Jochen Rindt at Le Mans, 1965.
    Gregory alongside Jochen Rindt at Le Mans, 1965.Associated Press

    With a wealthy background, it would be easy to dismiss Masten Gregory as a rich bloke who raced cars as a hobby.

    The Kansas-born driver, however, did have plenty of talent and proved it in his very first race at Monaco, where he finished third behind the wheel of a Maserati. Two fourth-place finishes at Pescara and Monza were good enough for sixth in the 1957 championship, yet this proved to be his strongest year.

    Despite adding a further two podium finishes to his name in 1959, Gregory was known for his habit of crashing and thus failed to make an everlasting impression in F1, although his record in sports cars suggested just how good he might have been.

    Sharing a Ferrari with 1970 world champion Jochen Rindt and Ed Hugus, his compatriot, Gregory won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1965.

6. Eddie Cheever

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    Eddie Cheever has made more Formula One appearances than any other American driver, but his 132 starts were not rewarded with any significant success.

    Despite competing in 11 seasons between 1978 and 1989, the Arizona native racked up just nine podium finishes and 70 career points, with his best finishes of second place coming at Detriot in 1982 and Canada in 1983.

    1983—depending on how you view it—was either Cheever's best and worst season in F1. 

    Driving for the factory Renault team, he finished a career-best seventh in the standings and took to the podium on four occasions. Alongside Alain Prost, however, Cheever's achievements were made to look average, with the Frenchman missing out on the title by two points and winning more races than anyone.

    A tale of two careers followed: While Prost went on to create history with McLaren from 1984, Cheever never found himself in a competitive car again and took to the podium just twice more.

    His longevity, though, means he is more than worth his inclusion in sixth.

5. Peter Revson

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    Associated Press

    Described as  a "very fine" and "ultra-consistent, rather than ultra-quick" driver by Motor Sport Magazine's Nigel Roebuck, Peter Revson made a good impression among F1 folk in the early 1970s.

    The New York-born competitor took part in a handful of races in 1964 behind the wheel of a Lotus and didn't return to the sport until the final round of the 1971 campaign at Watkins Glen, after which he gained the attention of McLaren.

    Revson took his first podium finish in the second race of the '72 campaign in South Africa and added three more to his tally by season's end, with his consistency across his nine GP starts rewarded with fifth place in the championship.

    He retained that spot the following year, resisting the challenge of Ronnie Peterson to take his first race win at Silverstone—becoming the 50th winner of a world championship grand prix—before triumphing again in wet conditions at the penultimate round in Canada.

    Revson switched to Shadow for 1974 but retired from the opening two races and was killed in testing ahead of the South African Grand Prix having scored eight podiums and 61 career points.

4. Richie Ginther

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    CWH/Associated Press

    Richie Ginther raced in the shadows of Phil Hill and Dan Gurney in the 1960s, but was a highly accomplished grand prix driver.

    The Californian secured his maiden podium finish at Monza in just his third F1 start at Monza in 1960 and began the following year by hounding Stirling Moss to the chequered flag in Monaco.

    Ginther was a consistent performer and these qualities were best highlighted in the 1963 campaign, which saw the BRM driver reach the top five in every race he finished. He was rewarded with joint-second in the championship alongside Graham Hill, albeit 25 points adrift of champion Jim Clark.

    Despite his frequent top-three finishes, he was forced to wait until the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix for his first win, which was also Honda's maiden victory.

    It proved to be the last of 14 visits to the podium, with Ginther quitting racing in '67.

3. Phil Hill

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Phil Hill was America's first world champion, recording three race wins in an F1 career of eight seasons. 

    The introverted Miami-born star ended his debut campaign with two successive podium finishes in Italy and Morocco, although his first victory continued to elude him until Monza 1960, the penultimate round of that season.

    It was the perfect springboard for '61, which saw Hill finish in the top-three in all but one race he competed in to claim the drivers' crown and Ferrari's first constructors' title. However, their success was marred by the death of Wolfgang von Trips, the American's team-mate, at Monza on the day that Hill won the championship.

    Hill finished in the top-three in each of the opening three races of 1962 but endured a limp title defence before making a disastrous switch to ATS, where his F1 career went downhill, although he enjoyed success at Le Mans and Sebring.

    Despite being the only US-born title-winner, the fact that Hill is tied with Britain's Mike Hawthorn for the fewest career victories of any world champion sees him listed third here.

2. Dan Gurney

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    Dan Gurney never became world champion—the closest he came was fourth place in 1961 and '65—but he is frequently mentioned alongside Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve as the finest F1 driver never to secure the crown.

    Without a title to his name, a true measure of his talent is found in a famous anecdote from 1968.

    According to Motor Sport Magazine's David Tremayne, Jim Clark's father approached Gurney at the Scot's funeral and informed him that the American was the only driver whom his son, a two-time title winner, had "truly feared."

    A podium finisher in his very first race for Ferrari and a grand prix winner for Porsche and Brabham, Gurney's greatest triumph came in the 1967 Belgian GP at Spa, which saw the New York-born star win behind the wheel of his own car. It proved to be the last of his four F1 victories. 

    A winner in NASCAR and at the Le Mans 24 Hours as well as a frequent Indianapolis 500 competitor, Gurney was also a trendsetter.

    According to Autosport, the 83-year-old was the founder of the Gurney Flap, the aerodynamic device, and was the first man to spray champagne on the podium. Gurney was also the first man to wear a full-face helmet at the 1968 German Grand Prix.

1. Mario Andretti

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    The Italian-born Mario Andretti is the most successful American driver in Formula One history, winning 12 grands prix and one world championship.

    Andretti caught the eye from the moment he arrived in F1, setting pole position for Lotus in his debut grand prix at Watkins Glen. 

    His retirement from the race, however, almost summed up the first half of his career, with Andretti showing flashes of potential—including his first win for Ferrari in South Africa 1971—but achieving limited success.

    That all changed upon his return to Lotus in 1976, with Andretti returning to winning ways at the final round in Japan before taking four victories en route to third in the championship the following year.

    He stepped up another gear in '78, winning on six occasions to claim the title, although his triumph was soured due to the death of Ronnie Peterson, his title rival and team-mate.

    Andretti failed to win another race as his F1 career yet again entered a famine, but he achieved astronomical success in American single-seaters, endurance racing and NASCAR.

    The 74-year-old isn't just an iconic name in F1—he is one of the biggest names in motor sport, a racer in the truest sense of the word.

    All statistics in this article, unless stated, have been taken from Wikipedia, ESPN F1 the official Formula One website.