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Into the Chaotic World of the American F1 Boom

Every step of the American Formula One journey has been right on time, and the Miami Grand Prix was another perfect step

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Formula One is an American sport. I do not mean it belongs to Americans: The heartbeat of the schedule will always be races at the crown jewel European tracks. The drivers will always be majority European. The guys who work at Ferrari will always look unbelievably Italian and take long smoke breaks. F1 is an American sport because it dovetails so well with what Americans value: superstars, fast cars, bingeable streaming shows, hot people, the ability to change a tire, and drinking outdoors. In the past four years, Netflix has delivered most of these things to millions of young Americans, and young Americans have, in turn, learned the difference between soft and medium tyres. (Yes, tyres.) In doing so, they have made overnight American stars of middle-aged team principals who say “wanker” and an Australian who never buttons his top buttons. The United States and F1 were waiting for each other. This is not the first time they’ve met—there’s been an American Formula One race in most years, beginning regularly in the 1950s; there have been Monaco races with Americans driving two Ferraris; and there were three races in the U.S. in 1982, a year with only 16 races total—but this is the most significant step. Part car race, part fandom convention, part Met Gala.

Here’s a secret: Going to an F1 race is a really bad way to follow an F1 race. There is a very long list of things you can do at a Formula One race—drink champagne, sweat, see Bad Bunny walking around, and watch the fastest cars in the world zip through your line of vision 57 times each—but knowing exactly what’s going on is not one of those things. Formula One in person is about nuance. You rarely see the most important action in front of you, unless you get very lucky with the one or two turns you can see, the rest hidden by tents, walls, and temporary lounges that cost more to get into than your annual mortgage payment. And fake marinas. But it was obvious what happened at the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday: Max Verstappen once again established himself as the best driver in the world at the moment and American F1 had its high-water mark of the modern era. The long-term significance of either of those things very much remains to be seen. Verstappen is now within 20 points of championship leader Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, and F1 in America is on the brink of either peaking or exploding. After Sunday, I’m betting on the latter. I’m also not ruling out the former.

This weekend had some of the most chaotic, frenetic energy I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event, and I’m an Orlando Magic fan. Almost everyone who was important in their realm was here: Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams. There were so many celebrities that it became a fun parlor game to see who would get swarmed by fans and who wouldn’t. You could guess after a while: DJ Khaled couldn’t walk 2 feet without someone asking him to shout them out for an Instagram story. George Lucas walked through the paddock almost unbothered. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr., who finished third, said there were too many people in the paddock, where the teams and cars are housed. That was sort of the point.

Let’s back up: Formula One has always been an international sensation that couldn’t gain a foothold in America. And now that it has—not just because of the Netflix show, but because of increased visibility on ESPN and a uniquely marketable group of drivers—it is capable of something every sports league, American or otherwise, dreams of: tapping into the zeitgeist. Dwyane Wade and Patrick Mahomes do not show up to everything. (By the way, Mahomes was there, even if Martin Brundle interviewed Paolo Banchero and thought it was him.) But celebrities are not the path toward becoming a permanent fixture in the American sports world. Rich celebrities like all sorts of activities that the common fan does not—hell, that’s why they are rich celebrities. In order for F1 to capitalize on their momentum, they have to serve the few hundred thousand people in attendance who haven’t won Oscars or MVPs. That means not changing the Formula: access, personalities, petty dramas, and great racing.

For more fans than you’d like to admit, Sunday was the first time they saw Netflix characters drive around a track. You cannot see Ozark live (and you do not want to), but you can see this. The Wall Street Journal reported that Laurent Rossi, the CEO of Alpine, said that the sport was only “for petrolheads [the British term for gearhead] … a Champions League of engineers. People were ready for the show business side to come back.” Show business, if you have not noticed, was back. But the crucial part of this is that the drivers are part of it. The drivers are the box office as much as Josh Allen was. Diehard F1 fans dislike Drive to Survive for its focus on interpersonal dramas and a de-emphasis on racing. I get it. Lance Stroll should not be this famous. I should not know, really, what Valtteri Bottas’s ass looks like. But the show is a gateway drug for people to go from trusting the Netflix algorithm to posting on the F1 technical subreddit.

“They’re producing Formula One: American Style. It may well be that it’s good, because so many stupid things come out of America and everyone’s happy,” former Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone said in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece last week. “But it wasn’t the way I ran things.” Formula One: American Style is a hit. This country loves this sport because it is a reflection of what they want: nice cars and the vague appearance of money.

So, there were three types of folks at the track this weekend: New American fans who started watching in the past few years or past few weeks; old American fans who’ve been watching since the Speed Channel days; and those who traveled internationally for the race (which was a not-small portion, by the way). The U.S. will need a coalition of all three in order for F1 to have a viable long-term future here. For the Miami Grand Prix or the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix to grow, they’ll need a steady stream of American fans and international travelers who see the U.S. as a destination to see a race. These circuits need to be shrines of the sport to keep the track full. Or, you know, just have good champagne. Is there a risk this is a fad? Sure. Any ascending organization can get arrogant, change their approach, and start to slip. But F1 seems to understand why people currently like it and have been given a tremendous gift in superstar creation. Baseball gets much higher ratings, NASCAR gets higher ratings (though F1 nearly matches them in young viewers), but neither have been the epicenter of the sports world in recent memory the way Miami was on Sunday.

New American fans got to see everything they had anticipated this weekend: Red Bull’s car had reliability issues on Friday as it had all season. Mercedes was porpoising (bouncing) down the track as usual. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz crashed in practice, something he’s struggled with all year. To see all of these things in person is like seeing Pearl Jam and the first five songs played are all from Ten. F1 was playing the hits. The race itself was less thrilling, and that’s part of the growth, too. Not every F1 race is heart-thumping, but that’s the nature of F1: Sometimes it sucks, and you gotta learn to enjoy battles for P9.

We will look back on the Miami Grand Prix as either the end or beginning of something. Either it marks the peak of Formula One fandom, or the start of a steady stream of packed, lucrative, celebrity-filled races in this country. There are at least rumblings there could one day be a fourth race in the United States. This was the Netflix era of Formula One playing out in dozens of hospitality suites and expensively priced grandstands.

Here’s what happened if you weren’t watching: Verstappen passed Sainz on the first lap and then passed Leclerc, on pole position, on lap 9. The race was generally boring and even a late safety car couldn’t produce much drama. When the quickest car gets a lead early, they tend to keep it. Verstappen raced flawlessly (in contrast, Leclerc locked up noticeably on one turn), but flawless driving from the leader is not exactly what’s needed for epic clashes. Leclerc got close a few times toward the end, but Verstappen defended perfectly to the point there was no real drama at the finish.

George Russell did not like the asphalt. Drivers griped about grip all weekend. I’d argue that the weekend was a win if complaints about grip and chicanes—and especially a sequence of vaguely gimmicky turns near the Florida Turnpike—are the worst issues that drivers can come up with.

It is the first year on an impossibly hot track in a new climate. There was always going to be a grace period. Earlier in the week, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Pérez were both harsh on the setup of the track, but most drivers thought it was generally OK on the actual race day. It can become a quicker track in the future, and race organizers can fix the inconsistent asphalt when you drive offline that is probably overly penal (Valtteri Bottas learned this the hard way when he went wide).

Great racing, of course, never showed up. And that’s the next step for Miami. Earlier in the week, track officials hailed the “mistake generator” sequence near the turnpike, and the fact that the circuit was built with new regulations in mind, which means that cars should have been able to race close together. That never really materialized and Verstappen joked he would love to be in a go-kart for the race, but maybe not a massive F1 car.

These are minor quibbles in comparison to the hype generated this weekend, and likely the money. Steve Matchett, the former race mechanic turned author, wrote that the first rule of F1 is don’t be late. The second rule is to not, under any circumstance, be late. Every step of the American F1 journey has been right on time. Every step seems perfect, and Miami was another one of those.

All week, drivers were peppered with questions about the potential for more American drivers and more American teams. Most of the drivers delivered pleasantries about how it would be great to get more Americans in F1. What F1 needs is not a charity case; they need a winner. NASCAR has, for more than 20 years, been plagued with the problem of their most marketable drivers not being winners. Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are sensations because of what they do at the front of the pack and their ludicrously entertaining title race last year. That’s what sells: winners. That’s what Americans like. The next step is important: growth without dilution or pandering. Mario Andretti said if everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough. American growth in F1 seems fast enough, because there’s a little chaos. Andretti’s family might soon launch another American F1 team. This is Formula One: American Style, as Ecclestone said. Maybe it always was.