Formula 1 Needs to Get Its Act Together in the United States

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2015

Storm clouds are gathering over the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Storm clouds are gathering over the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Just as Formula One is finally, possibly clawing its way into the collective American sporting consciousness, it is all set to go bust.

Again.

In 2016, the Haas F1 Team will make its debut as the first American entry since 1977, Alexander Rossi could be behind the wheel of a Mercedes-powered (read: competitive) Manor car and Americans will be able to watch it all thanks to a broadcast deal with NBC. And of course, the stunning Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, is set to host its fifth U.S. Grand Prix.

Maybe.

After this year's race, Eric Dexheimer of the Austin American-Statesman reported that the state was cutting its funding for the grand prix by more than 20 percent.

"To use a technical term," COTA chairman Bobby Epstein told the Statesman, "I think we're screwed."

When the FIA, F1's governing body, released the 2016 race calendar earlier in December, the U.S. Grand Prix was included, subject to an agreement being signed with the promoter.

"Forecasts are difficult," F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone told German magazine Auto Motor und Sport (h/t Reuters) last week when asked about the future of the popular race in Austin. "They knew exactly what it would cost when they signed the contract with us. They knew that they would have to build a race track and what it costs to put on a grand prix."

In the end, the F1 bigwigs need to decide whether they want to be players in the U.S. or not and, if they do, then amateur hour needs to end.

In 2005, an avoidable tyre fiasco led to all but six cars withdrawing at the start of the race in Indianapolis. Three years later, the race was gone. Now, another avoidable disaster beckons—avoidable because COTA's financial problems could be eased if Ecclestone agreed to reduce the excessive race hosting fee paid by the circuit.

As Ecclestone said, they signed a contract, but desperate times and all that...

And it's not like Ecclestone doesn't already have sweetheart deals with other grands prix—most notably Monaco—that are deemed irreplaceable on the calendar. It's just a matter of how important the U.S. race really is.

You would think that a race in the largest consumer market in the world would be desirable, but recent years have demonstrated that Ecclestone might see fewer races as untouchable than most F1 fans.

Just 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable not to have a French race—the original grand prix—on the calendar. But funding problems have kept the race on indefinite hiatus since 2008. Likewise, the German Grand Prix was dropped from the 2015 calendar, despite its rich history and the current crop of German drivers on the grid (not to mention back-to-back champion, Mercedes-Benz).

Unfortunately, problems with the U.S. race date back further than the Indianapolis race. "The United States Grand Prix, a rousing financial flop at Sebring, Florida, in 1959 and at Riverside, California, in 1960, probably will be run at Miami this year," wrote Robert Daley in the New York Times in 1961. Of course, the grand prix never went to Miami, instead decamping to Watkins Glen in upstate New York, where it had a successful run for 20 years.

That Miami rumour sounds like the ongoing promises fans have heard about F1 in New York City (or, um, New Jersey). A race at the nonexistent Port Imperial Street Circuit has been touted for years, but will it ever actually happen?

These unfulfilled promises—a New York race, a 10-year deal in Austin—are not conducive to building a fanbase.

The beautiful new COTA facility seemed like the answer to F1's American problems, and the success and popularity of the first races there likely played a large role in convincing NASCAR team owner Gene Haas to make the jump to F1. How will he feel if his team doesn't even have a home race for its first year in the sport?

"I think the fanbase is growing," said Rossi, the first American F1 driver since Scott Speed in 2007, of his home country when I spoke to him last year in Montreal, "but I don't think it will become a household topic of discussion until not only is there an American driver or an American team, but until there is a successful American driver or American team."

Alexander Rossi
Alexander RossiMark Thompson/Getty Images

But all of this bait-and-switch will not play well to an American audience already spoilt for choice with NASCAR and IndyCar races almost every weekend—all of them taking place at reasonable hours and within the country.

If F1 wants a piece of the American market, it can't just take, take, take. There has to be at least one race (and probably two or more) in the U.S. each year, so American fans and potential fans can see Haas and Rossi and any other American teams or drivers in person.

If those running F1 continue to treat the U.S. as a sideshow or an afterthought, that's how the American population will see it and the sport will have about as much traction in the country's sporting landscape as a set of Pirelli slick tyres in an Austin 2015-style deluge.

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