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After Miami, What’s the Next Chapter for the American F1 Boom?

Max Verstappen ran away with another race Sunday, raising questions about how F1 keeps new fans in a season that doesn’t have the constant thrill of 2021

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is an old story about Dale Earnhardt that speaks to the heart of auto racing. Hell, the heart of sports. Earnhardt made hard contact with Rusty Wallace, one of his main rivals, and got reprimanded by Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder. France demanded an explanation, and he got one: “Just selling T-shirts, boss,” Earnhardt said.

There are many things auto racing is defined by, and two of the biggest are conflict—obvious, boiling, long-standing feuds between drivers and teams—and selling T-shirts. The first one, as Earnhardt explained, leads to the second. But after the second edition of the Miami Grand Prix—an unusually fun event to attend that, after Max Verstappen’s latest clear-cut win, has produced two dull results—I started to wonder about that intersection.

Formula One has long been defined by dominance. It is the reason the top drivers become some of the most famous people in the world. In seasons where they have the car and meet the moment, drivers like Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, or Ayrton Senna possess an air of invincibility, make history, and are adored by millions. That kind of dominance was present Sunday. But the Miami Grand Prix represents something different: It’s a symbol of the American F1 boom, which has become one of the country’s biggest sports successes over the last five years and brought in new fans. The next step is keeping those fans—and well, that’s when you have to find a way to sell T-shirts, boss.

To recap Sunday’s action: Max Verstappen passed his teammate Sergio Pérez on the 48th lap and paraded toward the checkered flag from there. He became the fifth driver ever to win from ninth on the starting grid and the first in nearly 40 years—though it should be noted that that’s not even Max’s lowest starting position in a win over the last year; he won from 14th last August in Belgium. Verstappen can win from anywhere on the grid—he’s won from eight different spots at this point in his career—and has become by far the worst thing to see behind you in Formula One.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso called Sunday a lonely race, and in that comment he said more than he probably thought: This is, as of now, a lonely season for Alonso, with the Red Bulls consistently about 26 seconds in front and the rest of the pack far behind. He radioed his team during the race about an overtake he saw from his teammate Lance Stroll, a move he could have only seen on a trackside TV screen. He explained later that there are monitors around the track grounds and it was “pretty easy” to follow the race on TV from his car. I want to reiterate that he drives 220 miles per hour during races, yet still found the time to watch his buddy.

There is a genuine question of where the spark will come from this year, and what comes next in a season that has very few unanswered questions at the top of the sport. Upgrades are coming for Ferrari and Mercedes, sure, but when asked if that will tighten the pack, Verstappen explained that Red Bull is also upgrading their car—one that already has a chance to be one of the most dominant of all time. George Russell, Mercedes’s talented young driver who finished fourth on Sunday, talked this week about how fans can entertain themselves by watching the race for third place every week. Even that seems like a bit of a bore.

Let’s be clear: There is a now-diehard segment of American F1 fans who have become total obsessives—I am among them. I host a damn podcast about a sport I didn’t really care about until six years ago. But huge grandstands and champagne hospitality areas are not built for them. Three American races this season weren’t designed to take the money of those fans, though they are certainly doing that. It’s the casual fan that has fueled the boom, and if the boom is going to last, they’re going to have to get more comfortable with the realities of F1: that the epic Verstappen-Lewis Hamilton drama of 2021 was a once-a-decade spectacle—not the norm. This group has not seen a title race that’s been over since May. Welcome to the party, pal.

If there is any drama now, it’s in the race to see which car or driver can eventually deliver us from this boredom. If we mean title-race boredom, that could take years or weeks or months on a one-off race basis (the chaos of Monaco qualifying not withstanding). No team seems especially close. A parade of drivers came into the media area this weekend to complain about their cars, and down the hall Verstappen was describing how, when you have the best car, you just pick people off one at a time. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc complained about the consistency of his car, saying it was too sensitive to the conditions and that new problems seem to arise when new weather does. The general consensus is Mercedes needs major upgrades before Hamilton and Russell can compete for anything serious. And when, after a disastrous qualifying effort, a reporter asked Lando Norris a softball question about whether he expected a better result, he said he didn’t. I suppose you can be entertained by what Verstappen and Red Bull have done to the paddock: turning some of the hottest, most confident humans in the world into hot sad sacks.

It is not easy for teams to snap their fingers and start competing with one of the best cars in modern F1 history, but for the sake of entertainment something needs to happen. Serious regulation changes are far off, Verstappen is not retiring, and no new teams are going to come into the sport and challenge immediately. F1 cannot rely on Netflix to take seasons and turn them into winter catnip for fans. That needs to happen in-season, in the summer. One vague hope is that, at some point this year, Sergio Pérez could provide a title challenge in his own Red Bull, an end-of–Jurassic Park type of race where the Raptors fight the T. Rex. Though that seems unlikely right now. After the race, both Verstappen and Pérez reiterated that the absolute priority for them both had been running a clean race and not crashing into each other at the front of the pack. In short, they are avoiding lighting the fuse that undid the Mercedes partnership of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg last decade. That rivalry started in 2014 after a wreck in Belgium and became a full-fledged slugfest by the time an infamous wreck in 2016 occurred, the year Rosberg shocked Hamilton by winning the title and then retiring.

So long as that doesn’t happen, we know how this one ends: Red Bull running away with the constructors’ championship and Verstappen doing the same with the drivers’ championship. Pérez can put up a fight every few weeks, but he had the chance to announce himself a serious contender on Sunday and didn’t. Pérez was asked after the race if he felt he could have defended his position more vigorously against Verstappen and he said he had to put the team first. Red Bull does not exist for our amusement, only theirs.

Four years ago, F1 handed Netflix 30 or so of the best looking type-A weirdos on the planet and in return Netflix gave F1 one of the best gifts ever handed to a sport: a huge chunk of viewers, many of whom never enjoyed the sport before. To those viewers, the drivers and team principals became TV characters. And this made on-track drama a bonus, but not the focal point. The people were the attraction. When I filed my first piece about Drive to Survive to The Ringer, my editor—who’d never seen a race—said it sounded like I was describing a cross between Selling Sunset and The Challenge. Formula One smuggled a sport into living rooms disguised as a show about not wearing a shirt outdoors. Eventually, many of the viewers learned about tire degradation.

There was a brief moment when Verstappen looked like he might go full Hollywood Hulk Hogan in the post-race Miami press conference. A reporter asked about boos he faced pre- and post-race—Miami has a massive Spanish-speaking population that favor Pérez—and wondered whether the negative crowd reaction bothered Verstappen. He said it didn’t, and that no one would care about him if he was running in the back of the grid all the time. He continued: “I take the trophy home and [the booing fans] go back to their houses and …” He stopped briefly, probably setting the press conference room up: “… they can have a nice evening.” The reality is probably that Verstappen is a nice enough guy off the track, one who is not going to create a persona for our amusement, nor does he have to. Leo Messi is the most famous active athlete in the world and I know next to nothing about his personality except that he enjoys taking unauthorized trips to Saudi Arabia. It is the sport that makes Messi compelling. And that’s what F1 teams are currently failing to provide. Verstappen has made F1 boring—good for him.

As for Miami, there’s still a disconnect between the pre-race experience—absurdly fun—and what it’s like to follow when the cars are on the track. This race needs on-track drama to keep those enamored with the celebrity aspect occupied—as does the boom at large. Patrick Mahomes, Paolo Banchero, the Williams Sisters and Tom Cruise were in the paddock but that does not matter to the guy in Spain or the woman in Italy just trying to see good racing. This is a good event in search of an iconic race and it will have to wait at least one more year—but it is building something. The off-track energy will, at some point, carry over. And the entire F1 season needs some of that.