A cursory scan of the Formula 1 record books will show just how much of McLaren’s competitive achievement has been achieved in America.
Before we delve into a more in-depth analysis of that association, let’s get over the considerable hurdle of just what the United States Grand Prix actually is. That might sound like an odd expression, but let’s consider the statistical and logistical quirks that underpin this most indefinable of grands prix.
Grand Prix racing’s association with North America has always been somewhat erratic. Unlike, say, races in the UK, in Italy, Japan or Australia – all of whom have either established a long-term venue or venues, the US Grand Prix has never really found a comfortable home.
Nor, would it be fair to say, has it even found long-term temporary rest at one particular circuit – it’s been an itinerant beast, wandering from coast to coast, and from state to state, in search of a permanent home.
Indeed, if we are to turn that cursory scan into a slightly deeper perusal, we’ll discover the unusual fact that the US GP hasn’t even had a permanent name, having also been variously known as the US Grand Prix West (at Long Beach), East (Watkins Glen), the Detroit Grand Prix (er, Detroit) and the Grand Prix of America (Austin).
Video: Spirit of McLaren
To add a further layer of confusion, grand prix races in the USA (let’s use that handy term of disambiguation) have been held at 10 circuits (Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Austin, Watkins Glen, Riverside and Sebring), eight of which (scrub Riverside and Sebring) have been contested by McLaren (the car, not the man, confusingly – who famously won his first F1 race at Sebring in 1959, aboard a Cooper).
So, recent news that Mexico and New Jersey may be added to 2014’s helter-skelter of a 22-race world championship schedule ought to please and disappoint in pretty much equal measure.
It’ll please all those F1 statisticians and trivia enthusiasts, who’d doubtless welcome more venues and more names to further muddy the already murky waters. But it will disappoint those who believe that the title chase is heaving at the seams, and is already way past bursting point.
However, the news has doubtless been welcomed by those who think that more races on the opposite side of the Atlantic is a commercial imperative that F1 ignores at its peril. After all, shouldn’t one expect the biggest consumer market on earth to lap up this grand prix business and, indeed, be panting for more?
Indeed, as we mentioned, company founder Bruce McLaren scored his first two career F1 victories on such distant shores. At the end of 1959, Bruce took his works Cooper-Climax to a decisive victory in the inaugural US Grand Prix on the bumpy Sebring aerodrome circuit in Florida, then opened 1960 on a similarly fruitful note with a win in the Argentine GP at Buenos Aires.
Truth be told, of course, from the 1960s through to the end of the end of the 20th century the F1 world championship could have staged its own self-contained secondary world championship within the geographic confines of the Americas, so numerous have been the race’s homes.
Those race fans with a sentimental view of the F1 business have always had their favourites amongst these venues. Personally, it’s hard to imagine anything more evocative than the US Grand Prix when it was held at Watkins Glen in upstate New York.
‘The Glen’, as it was affectionately known by my generation, was made all the more attractive by the onset of autumnal hues which added considerably to its allure and sense of occasion. And this was the venue, of course, where Emerson Fittipaldi clinched his 1974 world championship crown with a fourth place finish at the wheel of his distinctive red and white-liveried McLaren M23. It was also where James Hunt, desperately nailing points to the board in a bid to close the gap to leader Niki Lauda, bagged one of his most faultless wins – and was all the more impressive for his effortless ability under immense pressure.
Also in 1976, F1 at last had another street race on its annual schedule; the scramble through the streets of Long Beach being established by enterprising California-based UK expatriate Chris Pook, who saw past the retirement-home potential of this blue-rinse Pacific coast resort.
Clay Regazzoni won here for Ferrari on that inaugural occasion, but in 1982 Niki Lauda pretty much dominated the race in his McLaren-Ford, his first victory after being lured out of retirement. There was much speculation ahead of the race as to whether or not Niki would be able to step up to the plate, but Ron Dennis’s confidence in offering the famous Austrian a return ticket back onto the F1 starting grid was fully justified from the outset.
The dawn of the turbo age
Just 12 months after Niki’s surprise victory, McLaren won the race again – and in even more unexpected circumstances. Niki was actually beaten into second place by his own team-mate, Ulsterman John Watson – what made the race so unusual was the fact that Watson and Lauda had started that race in 22nd and 23rd places respectively – a legacy of the erratic tyre performance experienced that weekend.
Watson also memorably bagged victory in the 1982 Detroit street race with a similarly accomplished performance, this time ‘only’ starting from a lowly 17th! The Motor City was a race that Ayrton Senna was later to make his own, winning in 1986, ’87 and ’88 – that last time aboard the mighty MP4/4 McLaren-Honda.
Then, of course, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, joined the schedule in 1989. The race was again dominated by Ayrton, who won two of the race’s three editions, shaving the unyielding concrete barriers with all his practised precision.
Yet there were already signs of the cyclical nature of F1’s attempt to bond with the now-obviously transient love for European-style single seater racing. Although Indianapolis and Austin still lay in the future as far as F1’s US trailblazing was concerned, there were worries as far as the future of the Phoenix event, enterprising though its promoters and organisers had been. In 1991, Senna won for McLaren-Honda yet again, but there was a very cynical reaction to claims that 35,000 fans turned out to watch the event itself.
“If there were 35,000 paying spectators,” noted one cynical F1 wordsmith, “then all I can assume is that most of them came disguised as empty seats.” It may have been a faintly uncharitable verdict, but there was certainly more than a grain of truth in that assessment.
For Formula 1, retaining an enduring toehold in America continued to be a huge challenge.
Yet, the arrival last year of the stunning Circuit Of The Americas was a huge shot in the arm, with some citing the Austin race as the most impressive debut race they’d ever witnessed.
Indeed, the circuit has everything that’s needed to gain that vital market foothold: it has the fast sweeps and undulations that made the Glen so popular, a nearby city that proved hugely welcoming to the F1 community and an infrastructure that looks set to make the venue a popular and profitable motorsports venue all year round (it has already successfully hosted MotoGP and American Le Mans races).
So, even if the calendar doesn’t end up bulging to include 22 races in 2014, there’s still considerable hope that the Circuit Of The Americas will uphold, and hopefully spearhead, Formula 1’s growth in the United States.