The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

WTF is a Kilometer? Understanding Formula One’s relationship with the United States

Photo credit: Sofia Arango.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Well, maybe not for the November 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix. The race shut down the Strip, having drivers race past some of the most iconic landmarks in Vegas, such as the newly built Sphere and The Venetian. Despite criticism from Las Vegans leading up to the race, stemming from construction-induced traffic delays and increased noise pollution, the weekend was a success. According to Forbes, the race was voted by fans in a WTF1 poll as the second-best of the season, ranking it higher than classic tracks such as Silverstone in Great Britain and Monza in Italy. Part of the success of Vegas’ Grand Prix can be attributed to the riveting 99 overtakes, (when one car passes another on-track), that happened during the two-hour race, the most to occur in a race without rain since China in 2016.

Another key marker of Las Vegas’ success is the extension of its contract. Each race track has a contract with Formula One (F1) that determines the frequency of races at that venue. For example, the Monaco Grand Prix signed a contract in 2022 that maintains its position on the F1 calendar until at least 2025, meaning that F1 will go there annually until their contract expires. The Las Vegas Grand Prix cemented itself as a spectacle and race people should watch, as it will remain on the F1 calendar for the next ten years. 

F1 is inherently global — out of the 24 races in the 2024 season, 21 countries are being visited, including Monaco, Bahrain and Australia. However, the participants in the sport are less internationally diverse, with 6 out of the 10 teams based in the United Kingdom, and only one not based in Europe. In 2024, there will be three races in the United States, making it the country with the most races. However, the sport has not always been this American-friendly. 

Many of Formula One’s feeder series, such as Formula 2 (F2), Formula 3 (F3) and Formula 4 (F4), do not even have races in the United States. In 2021, there was only one F1 race in the United States: the United States Grand Prix (USGP) in Austin, Texas. In 2012, the USGP had its inaugural race, launching modern F1 through America’s door. Before the 2012 U.S. Grand Prix, there were many F1 races in the United States, including three in Phoenix, Arizona, 19 in Indianapolis, Indiana and eight in Riverside, California. 

   F1 is not new to the United States, however. Prior to the 2010s, the series was heavily criticized whenever it came stateside. One of the most famous races in the U.S. before the USGP in 2012 was the Phoenix Grand Prix, which happened annually from 1989 and 1991. The race, located on a street circuit in downtown Phoenix, had poor attendance as the event was held in the middle of a scorching summer and was described by the drivers as boring. Overall, the race lost a great deal of money. That catastrophe cast a shadow over F1 in the U.S. 

Inconsistency caused the sport to disappear from many Americans’ minds. There were lots of off-again, on-again races happening in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including a few races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but nothing stayed. However, the 2012 United States Grand Prix in Austin was a turning point for F1 in the U.S. It had been successful from the get-go — 265,000 people attended the three-day event in 2012. That number nearly doubled in ten years, with the USGP garnering an attendance of around 440,000 people in 2022, the same year F1 made its major U.S. expansion into Miami, Florida. 

The Miami Grand Prix was equally as successful— 250,000 people attended and tickets sold out before the event, paving the way for F1’s expansion into Las Vegas, Nevada. However, Miami’s specific expansion is thanks to Netflix’s series: “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.”

“Drive to Survive” is a docu-series produced by Netflix in collaboration with F1, giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the sport. The series interviews drivers, team principals and F1 journalists, providing a holistic understanding of how the sport operates and humanizes the drivers. “Drive to Survive” is more than just an interesting show — it has changed F1’s fan base demographics. 

A poll by Morning Consult in 2022 determined that out of around 1,900 self-identified adult American F1 fans, 53% said their interest in the sport stems from watching the docu-series. In 2019, when the series first premiered, 672,000 Americans watched Formula 1 on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2. That number has since grown to 1.21 million in 2022. The increase in American fans also shifted which age groups watch the sport. 

The Netflix series has also transformed the diversity of F1’s fanbase. “Drive to Survive” has increased the amount of women interested in motorsports, as well as increased the average affluence of a viewer. According to Nielsen Data, the sport has more female fans than other motorsport categories with 18.3% of F1’s fanbase identifying as female in 2021, up 10% from just four years prior in 2017. The series also shifted the socioeconomic demographics of F1’s audience— in the same set of data from Nielsen Data, 46% of all viewers who came from “Drive to Survive” were found to be younger than 34 years old, and 69% of that group earn more than $100,000 a year. 

With the addition of the Miami Grand Prix, 2022 was the first year since 1984 that there were two races in the United States. This expansion was enabled because of the influx of fans. Due to a high percentage of new American F1 fans being affluent, F1 was able to cater to that audience. The race was sponsored by, and many promotion events featured the sale of lucrative and expensive Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), catering to the affluent market brought in by “Drive to Survive.” The race was also higher priced than those internationally, with tickets averaging at around $785.

Success with the affluent American market solidified the security of an expansion into Las Vegas, a city home to large amounts of gambling, money-spending opportunities and general extravagance. If rich Americans were willing to attend Miami’s Grand Prix, what would deter them from going to Las Vegas?

F1 is governed and owned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), a French organization representing motorsport organizations’ interests. The FIA also sanctions feeder championships into F1, like F2, F3 and F4, and a bunch of regional F4 championships. These can be considered junior F1 competitions— an aspiring F1 driver traditionally progresses up through the ranks, progressing from F4 to F3 then F2 circuits, and can work towards attaining a seat in F1. These series’ are mostly held in Europe, making it hard for Americans to work towards F1. 

As well as changing who watches the sport, “Drive to Survive” has helped increase viewership of F1 races globally, positively affected ticket sales, attracted young and new viewers and brought more American sponsors into the sport. The show has also highlighted parts of the sport that are not necessarily surface-level. Depicting internal competition, displaying drivers’ dreams and showing the humanity of all who participate, “Drive to Survive” has altered how people understand F1. 

“I’ve been a fan [of F1] since 2020,” said Simon Bordoli ‘25. “My Grandpa is a big fan, so he got me into the sport when I was pretty young, but I really started watching myself because of ‘Drive to Survive.’”

“I feel like people are more interested in watching a reality show with their favorite drivers coming on, being dramatic and having all these little idiosyncrasies [rather] than just watching a normal race. ‘Drive to Survive’ can be more interesting at times,” said Annika Eriksson ‘25. “‘Drive to Survive’ allows you to get to know the drivers, making it easier to be introduced into the sport.”

“I think going behind the scenes and seeing what the sport is actually like is super powerful and drives excitement,” said Bordoli. 

Interest in “Drive to Survive” continues to grow; 570,000 people watched the fifth season in February 2023 within the first week of its premiere, a 40% increase from season four’s first-week viewership. Nielsen Data found that 570,000 viewers increased to 643,000 in just two months. Season five of “Drive to Survive” covers F1’s 2022 racing season, and season six, premiering in February 2024, will display the 2023 season. 

Being a fan of a sport sometimes ties into geographical affinity, just as San Franciscans are more likely to root for the Golden State Warriors or the San Francisco 49ers. This desire to see one’s home represented in F1 creates a potential disconnect between new American fans and their engagement with the sport. Motorsports in America is a vastly oversaturated market. Before the days of the internet, it was hard for people with no prior knowledge about F1 to find out about races if they did not receive robust marketing. With American viewers already debating between watching other forms of motorsport such as NASCAR and/or IndyCar, it was hard for F1 to make itself stick in the eyes of American viewers. There was also the element of feeling foreign — out of all 24 drivers in F1 in 1991, none were American. IndyCar and NASCAR are jam-packed full of Americans that people in the U.S. can root for, making it easier for those two divisions of motorsports to create an affinity with American viewers. 

As such, for Americans, there is not one clear-cut person to root for. Out of the 20 drivers in the 2024 season, there is only one American — Logan Sargeant, who is from Florida and is currently racing for Williams, an F1 team from the United Kingdom. 

“When it comes to Logan [Sargeant], I’m pretty indifferent,” Eriksson said. “He’s not someone who actively stands out to me. I feel bad for him because I know many people don’t like him. I wouldn’t not root for him, but he doesn’t actively stand out to me as more than just ‘the one American driver.’”

If Americans do not want to root for Sargeant but want to maintain some sense of patriotism with whom they align themselves, there is the MoneyGram Haas F1 Team, based in North Carolina. Founded by Gene Haas and based in North Carolina, Haas F1 entered the sport in 2016. The team established a second base of operations in England to help speed up car turnaround between races, another geographical barrier that American teams face. The majority of races in a season happen in Europe, so Haas’ second base helps expedite their maintenance processes throughout the season. 

However, having an operations base in North Carolina and an American flag on the cars might not be enough for American F1 fans to align themselves with. “With Haas, I used to pay more attention to the team when I first got into F1 and was watching ‘Drive to Survive,’” said Eriksson. “Regarding my personal exposure to the drivers, [the Haas drivers] and Logan [Sargeant] don’t really have the charm and pull other drivers have. They get less attention because their teams haven’t been doing very well, and people care a lot more about the popular drivers.”

Currently, both Haas and Sargeant are not doing well statistically. In 2023, Haas finished last place in the Constructors’ Championship, and Sargeant finished 21st out of the 22 drivers who were eligible to receive points in the 2023 season. 

The under-representation of Americans can be attributed to the lack of established F1 feeder series in the United States. Sargeant moved to Europe at 12 to pursue an F1 career. He competed in F4 in the United Arab Emirates, England and Formula Renault in Europe, a regional series between F4 and F3. 

Jak Crawford, currently racing in F2, is from Texas and started racing karts there before he was five. At age 10, Crawford finished second in one of the biggest international karting championships, located in Italy. In 2018, he competed in Mexico for F4 at age 13. There is no clear-cut way to progress into F1 from the United States, but one thing is clear: moving out of the U.S. is the only way to advance into higher formulas. 

In addition to the difficulty American drivers face when trying to enter F1, many teams and racing organizations from the U.S. face the same situation. The MoneyGram Haas F1 team is an example of an overall successful American organization in the sport. Despite their difficult past year, Haas has finished as high as fifth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2018. In January 2024, they fired their team principal in an effort to restructure and set their sights on higher statistical success.  

Currently, one other American team is vying for a spot in F1: Andretti Autosport. However, Andretti is entering F1 through a more complex route than Haas did. Every car in F1 has a power unit (PU) in their car, and they can either outsource to a manufacturer or make it themselves. For example, McLaren outsources to Mercedes for their PU, while Mercedes supplies their own. Andretti is partnered with Cadillac to build their PU for their future F1 car if they get approved to enter the sport. Because Cadillac would be a new entrant, they need to submit to F1 that they want to build a PU and go through the correct procedural tunnels to achieve the necessary approval to then join F1. 

However, joining F1 means adding another team to the sport, increasing the number of cars on track. This inherently changes the sport — qualifying, the process in which drivers set lap times to earn their starting order for each Grand Prix, would need to change its process as right now it’s only fit for 20 drivers. Additionally, another garage for Andretti would need to be erected at each track if there isn’t a space, causing a mass need for retrofitting which is expensive. 

No change is happening presently, but Andretti Cadillac’s entry would be in 2028, meaning that for the number of drivers to remain the same, a team would have to leave F1 (which is unlikely), or F1 would need to approve the addition of a new team. Adding an American team, with a CEO who is adamant about supporting and hiring American drivers, could be the kick through the F1 door that America needs. 

Evolution is a natural part of aging, and F1 is growing up. Operating like a business, it is trying to reach as many people as it can to maximize viewership, which means expanding into the United States via three races, more drivers, manufacturers and teams. Expansion is a natural part of business operations, and F1 has set out to have as many fans as possible. 

About the Contributor
Sofia Arango
Sofia Arango, Managing Editor, Online