Monday, August 27, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: 40 Years and Counting

Two races remain in the IndyCar season and it will go to the wire. We will find out next week whether it will be two drivers or as many as five drivers going for the championship. Fernando Alonso took flight at La Source thanks to some help from Nico Hülkenberg and Charles Leclerc. NASCAR's top division had the weekend off but there was a pair of road course races and a familiar face keeps winning. Noah Gragson took out his teammate and himself in the final corner at Mosport. Suzuka hosted its first ten-hour race in place of the historic 1000km race. Supercars visited a new venue. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters ran at night and in the wet at Misano. The first race was rather exciting and the second race was somehow better. Alex Zanardi was a guest driver at Misano and he finished fifth in the second race of the weekend. MotoGP's weekend from Silverstone was rained out. None of the three series were able to race on Sunday. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

40 Years and Counting
On this day in 1978 Mario Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix and extended his championship lead to 12 points over Lotus teammate Ronnie Peterson. It was his 12th grand prix victory. It was his final grand prix victory. The stars and stripes have not hung over the top step of the podium of a Formula One race since.

What has gone wrong? Why has arguably the largest motorsports nation in the world not had a driver win a race at arguably the highest level for four decades?

Before Andretti's smashing results during the 1977 and 1978 seasons, American drivers had achieved a fair amount of Formula One success. Putting the Indianapolis 500 results from 1950 to 1960 asides, when it was apart of the World Drivers' Championship, five American drivers (including Andretti) had won 12 grand prix. Phil Hill won the 1961 World Drivers' Championship. Richie Ginther scored Honda's first grand prix victory at Mexico in 1965. Dan Gurney picked up four victories, including Porsche's only Formula One grand prix victory in the 1962 French Grand Prix and he scored another famous victory in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix in his Eagle chassis. Peter Revson won twice with McLaren in 1973. Andretti won on his Ferrari debut in the 1971 South African Grand Prix and picked up his second career victory in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix that famously decided the 1976 world championship.

While five Americans had won a grand prix in Formula One, Americans were quite common on the Formula One grid. Harry Schell was a regular on the grid throughout the 1950s. Master Gregory and Mark Donohue each finished on the podium on their respective Formula One debuts. George Follmer finished on the podium in his second start. Jim Hall, Walt Hansgen, Bob Bondurant and Ronnie Bucknum all scored points.

The last American to regularly compete in Formula One was Eddie Cheever, who spent just over a decade in the series. Cheever picked up nine podium finishes in 132 starts but could never find his way onto the top step. He finished second at Detroit in 1982 and at Montreal in 1983. His best championship finish was seventh in 1983.

Something happened at the turn of the 1980s. Andretti won the championship in 1978 and while you would think such a grand success would inspire many young drivers to follow in the footsteps of such an icon, only five American drivers have made a Formula One debut since the day Andretti clinched the championship.

Bobby Rahal ran the final two races of the 1978 season. Danny Sullivan ran the entire 1983 season and scored two points in the Monaco Grand Prix but it was his only season in Formula One. His son Michael Andretti had a disaster of a 1993 season with McLaren, one of the team's worst seasons, and his brief Formula One career ended on its highest note with a third place finish in the Italian Grand Prix. No American has stood on the podium in 25 years. Scott Speed was the great hope Red Bull promoted and it turned out he and Red Bull duped the American fan base. Alexander Rossi made five starts with Marussia, the worst team on the grid in 2015.

The five American drivers that made their Formula One debuts after Andretti's clinched the World Drivers' Championship made an average of 12.6 starts with a median of 13. The average length of a career for those five drivers with their first start being day one and their final start being the last day is 192.6 days. The total number of days those five drivers spent in Formula One is 963 days.

Why hasn't an American driver stuck in Formula One?

Part of it is America's ability to have a fully function and self-sustaining motorsport landscape. Think about the time period when Mario Andretti won the World Drivers' Championship. The year after his title CART was formed and NASCAR has the famed 1979 Daytona 500 broadcasted on live flag-to-flag on CBS and for 39 years we have been told that is the moment that put NASCAR on the national stage. Both series would grow for the next two decades and there was no need to venture over. American tobacco money was just as good as any tobacco money An American driver could make a career without ever having to leave the country. Why leave the comforts of home?

The lack of an American driver hasn't been because of a lack of talent. Not all of the hundreds of American drivers who debuted in IndyCar, NASCAR, sports cars and other forms of motorsports since 1979 were Formula One caliber but it would be foolish to think of those hundreds of American drivers who have made it to the highest levels in American motorsports in last four decades none of them were cut out for Formula One. There are easily at least a dozen or two dozen drivers who could have broken through had the focus been diverted abroad.

The hypothetical game of what if is pointless at this point. Rick Mears never went to Europe. Al Unser, Jr. never went to Europe (although he did get a test with Williams). Scott Pruett only ever got a test with Larrousse. Jeff Gordon decided to stay in NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsports and passed on BAR-Honda. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch aren't making a career change. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal stayed home. Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly came home. A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Hunter-Reay never had deep pockets. Joey Hand and Patrick Long quickly found careers in sports cars. Jonathan Summerton was a shooting star that burned out before you knew it was in the sky.

Besides the comfort of home, there are hurdles to attempting to run in the European ladder system. For starters, it requires money and while there have been those Americans who have spent their fair share to run in Formula Three, GP3 and GP2/Formula Two none have had the results (or the paycheck) to catch the eye of a Formula One team.

The United States isn't the only country to have a lengthy Formula One drought. The last French driver to win was Olivier Panis in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. France has won 79 grand prix, the fourth most and French drivers have regularly been on the grid for the last 22 years. It has been 12 years since the last Italian winner (Giancarlo Fisichella in the 2006 Malaysian Grand Prix). Italy has the sixth most victories at 43. It has been 37 years since an Argentine has won a grand prix. Ronnie Peterson won the race prior to Andretti's Dutch Grand Prix triumph. That is the most recent grand prix victory for a Swede. Switzerland hasn't had a grand prix winner in 39 years. New Zealand has a longer drought than the United States. Brazil is pushing nine years since it last saw a driver won a grand prix with Rubens Barrichello at Monza.

Plenty of countries have yet to have the stars align for one of their best drivers. Alexander Rossi might have the ability to be a top Formula One driver but his roll of the dice didn't pay out and there is no shame in that. Rossi was there for a brief moment, which is more than some get. Felix Rosenqvist may never get that opportunity and he might be the best Swedish driver since Stefan Johansson, another talented driver who drove for McLaren and Ferrari and didn't breakthrough and get a victory. Scott Dixon got one look from Williams but nobody else showed interest. Switzerland has had three different drivers win Le Mans overall in the last five years and the 29-year-old Sébastien Buemi is the only one of the three to get a crack at Formula One. Buemi's final grand prix was when he was 23 years old.

Since Mario Andretti's final grand prix victory, 53 different drivers have won a grand prix. Of those 53 drivers, 19 drivers have a double-digit number of victories. Those 53 drivers hailed from 18 different countries. Of those 18 countries, only half have had multiple winners. Eight of the 18 countries have won fewer than ten victories. Of the 679 races since the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix, the United Kingdom and Germany have combined for 49.189% of the victories. Twenty-two of the 53 winners are either from the United Kingdom, Germany or France. Ironically, since the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix, France has had the most different winners with nine and the United Kingdom is second with eight.

It is tough to break into Formula One for any driver, let alone an American even with an American team on the grid. For 40 years an American hasn't caught the eye of a manufacture or sponsor at the right time. Forty years. How much longer could it go? No end is in sight. What is another 40 years? There are no constellations in the Formula One sky. You cannot plan when the time will come for an American driver to be at the sharp end of the grid. So we wait and hope for that next comet to grab everyone's attention.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Will Power and what happened at Silverstone but did you know...

Ryan Norman won the Indy Lights race from Gateway, his first career victory. Rinus VeeKay won the Pro Mazda race.

Sebastian Vettel won the Belgian Grand Prix.

Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi split the Formula Two races from Spa-Francorchamps. David Beckmann and Nikita Mazepin split the GP3 Series races.

Justin Allgaier won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Road America. Justin Haley won the Truck race from Mosport.

Paul di Resta and Joel Erikson split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Misano. It was Erikson's first DTM victory.

The #888 GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG of Tristan Vautier, Raffaele Marciello and Maro Engel won the Suzuka 10 Hours. Marciello and Vautier took the Intercontinental GT Challenge championship lead with their victory.

Shane Van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup split the Supercars races from Tailem Bend.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar has its long awaited return to Portland.
Formula One will be at Monza.
NASCAR has the Southern 500.
The Pirelli World Challenge season closes at Watkins Glen.
The Blancpain Sprint Series will be at the Hungaroring.