The land of hope and dreams is built for storytelling – whether that’s road-trip Americana through the endless Midwest, urban escapades in California or widescreen adventures in upstate New York.
The United States may never have become a spiritual home for Formula 1, but it’s not for a lack of trying. And, actually, when you start to peer a little more closely, the vast country reveals itself as having more F1 heritage than you’d think.
We took time out from a hot dog, a large helping of ’slaw and a 32oz root beer to bring you McLaren’s best US Grand Prix tales.
1. A wandering soul
The US Grand Prix has been something of an itinerant race, held at no fewer than 10 venues, and under a variety of names. The Indy 500 – confusingly – joined the F1 calendar as a round of the world championship between 1950 and 1960. The first non-Indy US race was held at Sebring (1959), then Riverside (1960), Watkins Glen (1961-1980), Detroit (1982-1988), Phoenix (1989-1991), Indy’s road course (2000-2007) and the Circuit of the Americas (2012-). In addition, F1 also hosted short-lived races in Dallas (1984), Las Vegas (1981-82) and a popular race in Long Beach, California (1976-1983).
2. Youth over experience
The first ‘proper’ US Grand Prix joined the world championship calendar way back in 1959, at Sebring. It was at this race that a young Bruce McLaren, driving for Cooper, took his maiden grand prix win, aged a tender 22 years and 104 days. It made him the youngest GP winner in history, an achievement that stood for more than 40 years before being eclipsed by Fernando Alonso, who won his first F1 race aged 22 years and 26 days, in 2003.
3. Naked at the Seneca Lodge
With the odds stacked against him in the ’76 title battle, McLaren’s James Hunt won in both Canada and Watkins Glen to set up an unlikely title decider against Ferrari’s Niki Lauda in Fuji, Japan. It was a brilliant performance, prompting team manager Alastair Caldwell to recall, “After the race, I remember us partying late into the night. I ended up dancing on top of the hotel bar with no clothes on! I think my team shirt is still pinned-up behind the bar…”
4. Viva Las Vegas
Talk about a Las Vegas GP, and most people will think you’re speculating about a possible future F1 race along the famed Vegas strip. That’s because most people choose to forget F1’s two Vegas races held in the early ’80s. In the parking lot of the Caesars Palace casino. Our best result? Second, in 1982, courtesy of trusty old John Watson and the ground-effect MP4/1B. A grand prix in a car park? It wasn’t really F1’s finest hour…
5. Don’t Call It A Comeback!
The 1982 Long Beach GP was the location for Niki Lauda’s first victory since returning to F1 at the start of the ’82 season. The Austrian out-foxed race-leader Andrea de Cesaris to take the lead: “De Cesaris overtakes a slower car and shakes his fist at the driver. I say to myself: he should be changing gear now. I hear the ugly whine of his rev-limiter and I pull out past him, giving him a wide berth. After all, you have to watch yourself when you pass someone who is so busy shaking his fist that he forgets he has to change gear…”
6. Winning from the back
The most deserving winner of F1’s ‘you can’t get there from here’ award for winning from the least likeliest grid position? Try John Watson, who somewhat dejectedly lined up 22nd for the 1983 Long Beach GP, just ahead of team-mate Niki Lauda. Both had complained throughout practice about tyre woes that meant they simply couldn’t get the most from their cars. On Sunday, however, the pair found their cars miraculously transformed, and Watson led home an utterly unforgettable McLaren one-two.
7. A soap opera in Dallas
Formula 1’s sole outing to Dallas was another of the sport’s, erm… lesser successes in the USA. In blistering 100°F heat, the track surface started to break up during practice. In the race, no fewer than 12 drivers succumbed to the heat or the unforgiving track, spinning into retirement. Nigel Mansell attempted to push his damaged Lotus across the finish line and fainted in the heat. From the carnage, perennial hard-man Keke Rosberg took his sole win of the year, and was feted on the podium by stars of the famous ’80s’ soap opera, ‘Dallas’.
8. Put Your Hands Up For Detroit
When F1 moved to Detroit in the early 1980s, it stuck to form in adopting grid-like city streets to assemble the track. The Detroit circuit may not have got the pulse quickening, but it was tailor-made for Ayrton Senna’s balletic, dabbing, throttle style. Senna really made Detroit his own, winning in 1986, ’87 and ’88 – the latter for McLaren-Honda. McLaren also won the inaugural race, back in 1982 when John Watson triumphed over the turbo cars in his normally aspirated MP4/1B.
9. Raising Arizona
Few F1 fans have many good memories of the racetrack in Phoenix. Like many US street circuits of the era, it was largely comprised of 90-degree turns hemmed in by concrete walls. It was a race (once again) dominated by Senna - he would likely have won all three editions had he not retired from the lead of 1989’s inaugural event with a battery problem. He went on to dominate the two further editions of the race in 1990 and ’91.
10. Indy’s raider of the lost chance
Double world champ Mika Häkkinen won the final race of his F1 career in the US in 2001. Mika saw red after a qualifying infringement demoted him from second to fourth on the grid. How did it make the laconic Finn feel? “Very disappointed,” he said. With the bit between his teeth, he charged into the lead, overcoming the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello to claim a race he felt was rightly his. How did he feel now, people asked? “Very special indeed,” was his reply.
11. Lewis at the last
After the disastrous 2005 event, when only six cars started, it never looked likely that Formula 1 would cement a long-lasting relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Lewis Hamilton won Indy’s final race, in 2007. Fresh from triumphing in his first GP in Canada the previous week, the Brit was still on a high, engaging in a tight, wheel-to-wheel dice with team-mate Fernando Alonso after a long slipstreaming battle down the main straight to maintain his lead.
12. Lewis at the first
When Formula 1 returned to the States five years after leaving Indy, Lewis was determined to maintain his status as the most recent victor of the US Grand Prix. He lost out to pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel by a scant 0.109s, but was intent on making amends in the race. On lap 41, he got his opportunity, nailed the draft down the back straight and jinked out to pass the defensive German. On the podium he was the first to sport what has become a tradition: a unique Pirelli cowboy hat!
13. Lewis and NASCAR car at Watkins Glen
A bonus ‘McLaren in the USA’ special moment. In 2011, Lewis and three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart were able to perform a unique car swap. Lewis got snug in Stewart’s No 14 Chevy while Tony was just able to wriggle into Lewis’ title-winning 2008 car. The venue for the switch couldn’t have been more appropriate: the mighty Watkins Glen, itself a home for both F1 and NASCAR over the years. The drivers’ verdict? “It felt like being a kid again,” concluded Lewis.
And there we have it. 13 of our best adventures. By the way, Formula 1 isn't the only motorsport that McLaren has ventured in the US. You may remember our epic detour to the Indy 500 this year with Fernando. But that's a tale for another day....