Formula 1™’s love affair with the United States over the years has been a tempestuous and rather unpredictable ride ever since McLaren’s much-respected company founder Bruce McLaren drove a Cooper-Climax to victory in the 1959 US round of the world championship on the bumpy and punishing Sebring circuit.
Ironically, Bruce was given a bit of unintended help in achieving that success when his then-teammate Jack Brabham ran short of fuel and ended up having to push his car the last half-mile to the finish line where he claimed fourth in the final results.
It’s hard to imagine Lewis or Jenson - respectively victorious for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes in the final two races of the season just-finished, with Lewis of course winning his second US Grand Prix in fantastic style in Austin - having to rely on such a technique in order to achieve a Grand Prix victory. In any case, I think that Brabham’s antics in pushing his stricken car, foot-by-foot to the conclusion of this contest would today have attracted much censure from the stewards - so that memorable first US victory went down in the record books where it firmly remains to this day.
The US Grand Prix has seen a number of homes. In 2012 we saw the inaugural race in Austin at the highly acclaimed Circuit of the Americas. Looking back further, it moved to California’s Riverside track before switching again in 1961 when the inaugural race at the leafy enclave in Watkins Glen in upstate New York was staged for the first time. It would remain at the Glen for 20 seasons up to 1980. In many respects that 20 year stint mirrored an emergent enthusiasm for F1™ in North America.
And of course, a number of McLaren’s drivers have filled the pages of the US Grand Prix’s history books. Dan Gurney, who drove for the works McLaren team during those bruising days in the aftermath of Bruce’s fatal accident, was highly regarded as a stand-in. But by that point in his career he had come to realise that he had been through enough. After only a handful of races in the summer of 1970 he thereafter returned across the pond to concentrate on his own racing business. Yet Gurney never had the opportunity to win as a member of the McLaren squad.
The only American driver to win a Grand Prix for the team was the late Peter Revson – “champagne Peter” as he was affectionately nicknamed. Revson won the 1973 British and Canadian races before switching to the Shadow team in 1974 shortly afterwards being killed in a testing accident at Kyalami.
Of course, those at McLaren who recall the 1993 season will shudder slightly, depending on which side of the pit lane they were working. If they were working on Ayrton Senna’s McLaren Cosworth, then they were generally smiling broadly. Not so for the guys working on Michael Andretti’s sister car who would have been hard-pressed to see the funny side. The American faced a steep uphill struggle which overwhelmed him at the end.
Eventually the USA managed to tap into the F1™ magic, most notably through the streets of Long Beach, California. Niki Lauda and John Watson emerged victorious for McLaren in 1982 and 83 respectively. And suddenly the sport blossomed in the USA like never before with John Watson winning through the streets of Detroit in 1982, and Ayrton Senna book-ending his success by winning there for McLaren in 1987. Then, of course, the never-to-be forgotten sight of F1™ cars blasting along the Indianapolis banked oval in the early years of this century. In that connection, I must recall interviewing young American driver Scott Speed and recounting to him how the great Jimmy Clark missed the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix in order to contest - and win - the Indy 500.
Speed, who never actually lived up to his moniker, looked aghast. “Why would he do that? Pass up Monaco for the Indy 500?” I suddenly felt swamped by his personality. I might have missed something here. But I can’t quite think what.