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History of the United States Grand Prix


For nearly a decade before the first Formula One Grand Prix in the United States in 1959, points scored at the Indianapolis 500 race counted toward the Formula 1 drivers' title.

Few drivers passed between the leading U.S. open-wheel series and Formula 1, yet in a quirk of history, Formula 1 statistics books remain full of American drivers who never even raced in the elite series.

After that first U.S. Grand Prix, in Sebring, Florida, the race was moved to Riverside, California, in 1960. The following year it was run at Watkins Glen, in New York, which became a permanent venue until 1980. But Formula 1 also staged Grands Prix at other venues during that period, at one point holding three U.S. races in the same season.

There have been only two American Formula 1 drivers' champions: Phil Hill and Mario Andretti. But only Hill, who won the title in 1961, was born and raised in the United States. Andretti, who won in 1978, was born in Italy, where he was exposed to Formula One before he emigrated to the United States at age 15. Andretti is the only American driver to have won a Grand Prix in the United States, but it was the so-called U.S. West Grand Prix, in Long Beach, California, in 1977 -- not the U.S. Grand Prix.

Few American drivers have made much of an impression in the series, and few have seemed to care much about it. Andretti's son, Michael, who had won the IndyCar series, made a brief visit to Formula One at the McLaren team in 1993, but he was not committed enough to move to Europe.

Still, the United States has always had a large audience for racing, with extremely knowledgeable fans. The 2000 race at Indianapolis attracted what is unofficially the biggest Formula 1 attendance ever, with 225,000 spectators. Most of the races in Europe attract less than half that number. Given the population of the United States, however, that is a relatively small percentage.

Formula One history has often been made at the U.S. races. At Watkins Glen in 1973, there was a 0.6-second margin of victory for Ronnie Peterson over James Hunt. In 1966, Brabham won the title there, and Jochen Rindt became the series' only posthumous world champion after the U.S. Grand Prix in 1970. (The series leader, Rindt had died in a crash earlier in the season at the Italian Grand Prix.) Emerson Fittipaldi and McLaren won the titles at Watkins Glen in 1974, as did Niki Lauda and Ferrari in 1976, and Lauda again in 1977. François Cevert, a French driver, was killed there in 1973 and the Austrian driver Helmuth Koinigg died there in 1974.

In 1982, in Detroit, the British driver John Watson qualified 17th and won the race, while his McLaren teammate, Niki Lauda, qualified 10th, and nearly finished second until he crashed while trying to pass Keke Rosberg. Jean Alesi made a lasting impression at the start of his career by nearly winning the 1990 race in Phoenix, Arizona. After leading the race, he finished just 8 seconds behind Ayrton Senna, the winner. That was the last U.S. Grand Prix for nearly a decade.

When it returned in 2000, at the Indianapolis Speedway, a National Historic Landmark and the home of American auto sport, there were high hopes that it would finally succeed. But Indianapolis needed Formula One less than the series needed the United States, and the race could never compete with the Indianapolis 500 or other homegrown series. The circuit decided it was paying too much to stage the Grand Prix.

The elite series had also arrived at Indianapolis just as Nascar had grown to its highest level of popularity and represented a truly American form of racing, with almost no foreign drivers. The cars were easy for the public to recognize, as they looked and were named the same as the ones that they drove on the road, unlike the thoroughbred racing cars of Formula One designed only for the track.

Moreover, during its years at Indianapolis, Formula 1 did little to develop the show to suit the U.S. public. Worse, the cars themselves looked dwarfed in comparison to the huge circuit, which was made to race more than twice the number of the 18 to 22 cars running in Formula One.

Then came the disaster of 2005. The Formula 1 series was in the midst of a tire war between Bridgestone and Michelin that season. Michelin, which had been dominating the series, was then surprised by a resurfacing of the Indianapolis track and delivered tires that were not strong enough. The tires deflated, resulting in some potentially serious accidents during qualifying.

In a politically charged stalemate, the teams, promoter, tire manufacturers and the International Automobile Federation, or F.I.A., the series' governing body, were unable to find a solution or compromise. So it was that all but the three teams using Bridgestone tires withdrew from the race at the start. Fans paid a fortune and traveled from around the country to watch a six-car race, which resulted in the only victory by Ferrari that year.

The incident contributed to the demise of the series in the United States, which ended its deal with the series after the 2007 season.

The 2007 race in Indianapolis was won by Lewis Hamilton of the McLaren team in his rookie season, a week after he had triumphed in Canada.

''It's a race I still remember like yesterday,'' Hamilton said recently. ''The nervy anticipation as I drove into the Speedway for the very first time, the thousands of supportive fans, and the fantastic car I had beneath me that enabled me to take my second Grand Prix victory in the space of a week. For me, those were incredible, thrilling times.''

It has taken five years, but Formula 1 returned in 2012 with fresh hopes, at a purpose-built circuit in a location that has no previous major connection to auto racing. That, the promoters hope, will be the formula that works this time.

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