Top of the flops: when F1 failed in America

F1

Formula 1 has tried many times before to crack the US – and failed. We examine grand prix racing's all-American disasters

Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany poses for the media during the news conference after the filming of the 3rd Infiniti's Inspired Performers' series at the recently announced Grand Prix circuit in New Jersey on June 11, 2012, New York. Photo by Victor Fraile (Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images)

A grand prix held in New York: much mooted, never happened

Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images

They say ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’…apart from the announcement of the 2023 Las Vegas GP, which seemingly everyone knew about.

It’s all part of Formula 1’s new assault on America which appears, after decades of trying, to finally be going in the right direction – record crowds in Texas, a first race in Miami just around the corner and now another flagship event in Nevada for 2023.

It hasn’t always been this way though. Plenty of times F1 has tried its luck on the other side of the pond with cult events that never progressed, experimental races gone wrong, venues visited just the once and some downright bizarre ideas that never even got off the ground.

We’ve listed the worst (and even worser) previous attempts by F1 to make it big in America.

 

Caesars Palace GP – Foolish gamble

Vega sTambay

F1 in Las Vegas – Round 1: not a hit with anyone

Perhaps the blueprint for all rubbish street circuits, and a memory F1 is now trying to emphatically erase with the new Las Vegas race: The Caesars Palace GP, first held in 1981.

If anything just a tribute to how big US car parks really can be, a race run up and down the bays of the Caesars Palace Casino never was going to get the heart pumping, at least not for the right reasons.

From the archive

Intense heat which persisted as drivers laboured around the bland and repetitive anti-clockwise track meant competitors were not only exhausted by the race’s end, but extremely bored too.

As Nigel Roebuck once recalled, much unlike the F1-fever which seems to be engulfing the US now, when grand prix racing first visited no-one in Las Vegas seemed remotely bothered that such an event was occurring in their city: “I wouldn’t even care if it was the American championship…” said one local.

Inaugural winner Alan Jones, who was about to take his first retirement from F1, said of the concrete expanse which made up the circuit: “It’s like a goat track, dragged down from the mountains and flattened out. What a bloody place to be ending your career…”

F1 would return once more for ’82, in which the much-liked Michele Alboreto took his debut win, driving a Tyrrell.

 

Phoenix GP – Worst seats in the house

Ayrton Senna (McLaren-Honda), Nigel Mansell (Ferrari) and Alain Prost (Ferrari) lead the field at the start of the 1991 United States Grand Prix in Phoenix. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Bernie was not happy with seating in Arizona

Grand Prix Photo

Another dubious desert race: just why did F1 race in the city of Phoenix, Arizona? Because the city wanted to put itself on the map as a tourist destination, and Bernie Ecclestone, looking for a replacement for Detroit GP – the organisers of which he had fallen out with over substandard facilities – was only too happy to oblige.

From the archive

The street circuit was thrown up in four months with the first race date set for June 4th 1989 – in a city whose summer setting was permanently switched to ‘sweltering’.

It held three races from ’89 to ’91, but none of them could be said to be classics – although the middle serving did offer up one of F1’s most iconic battles in ’90: young upstart Jean Alesi announcing himself by dicing with Ayrton Senna for the lead, using his underpowered but lithe Tyrrell 019 to take on the might of the McLaren-Honda MP4/5.

“You just don’t do that to Senna!” said David Tremayne at the time. After one more visit to in ”91, that would be it for Phoenix, Bernie Ecclestone reasoning that after the huge investment made by the city into the circuit’s infrastructure, only a few paying spectators actually had a good view of the circuit.

 

2005 Indianapolis GP – F1 in America goes flat

Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren-Mercedes) leads the field off the grid on the warm-up lap before the 2005 United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Field sets off for formation lap of race that never was in 2005

Grand Prix Photo

The 2005 US GP at Indianapolis was described by Alan Henry as “the most catastrophic public relations disaster in the 56-year history of the official world championship.”

In practice, accidents causing Michelin tyre failures on Indianapolis’s banked Turn 13 afflicted both Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher – who had to withdraw from the race – and his replacement Ricardo Zonta.

The French firm flew in new tyres, which it hoped could withstand the load of Indy’s banked turn, but it appeared the new compound wouldn’t hold either.

Michelin made several suggestions, such as imposing a speed limit, making pitstops every ten laps or putting a chicane at Turn 13 – legend has it the last option was inadvertently vetoed by Ferrari’s Jean Todt by virtue of not attending the meeting to resolve the matter – the team boss later said that he’d never been consulted, but would have rejected the track alteration idea anyway.

As a result Michelin-shod teams withdrew the race – which Toyota had ironically been on pole for through Jarno Trulli – leaving just the Bridgestoned Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi teams to make up a six-car grid. Michael Schumacher used the opportunity to win his only race of the season, ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello, whilst a delighted Jordan’s Tiago Monteiro took the final podium place.

Originally Monteiro was going to act suitably sombre for American fans who had been ripped off, but then…

“When we got to the podium, I saw a sea of people in [Jordan] yellow,” he told Damien Smith in 2020. “They were shouting and cheering, and throwing things in celebration, and although I could see the others were serious, I thought, ‘I’m not having that, I’m going to celebrate as well’.”

The championship would vist the Brickyard twice more, but the writing was already on the tyre wall – F1 at Indy, and for now in America, was dead in the water.

 

New York GP – The race that never happened

Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany poses for the media during the news conference after the filming of the 3rd Infiniti's Inspired Performers' series at the recently announced Grand Prix circuit in New Jersey on June 11, 2012, New York. Photo by Victor Fraile (Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images)

F1 in New York: about as likely as Vettel actually being into this Infiniti

Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images

Several times F1 has attempted to put on a race in the New York Metropolitan area, but the idea never come to fruition.

Bernie Ecclestone first mooted an F1 street race in Flushing Meadows in 1983, then again in’84 and ’85 – but it never happened.

Environmental protests, legal issues – and in stark contrast to now – a lack of sponsor commitment meant the race never got off the ground.

Come 2010-2011 and F1 aimed for the Stars and Stripes of the Big Apple again, or nearly: this time it was to be held at Weekhawken Port Imperial New Jersey, where another street race was planned for the ‘Grand Prix of America’, with the skyline of Manhattan the backdrop.

Although things got as far as the pit complex being built, again Ecclestone’s best laid plans were stymied, this time due to financial reasons. Similar to the ’80 situation, the event was repeatedly added to and then removed to the calendar in ’13, ’14 and ’15 before finally dropped the year after.

 

One-off curios – Sebring, Riverside and Dallas

1984 Dallas GP

Dallas ’84: Popular with the fans, just not anyone else

Getty Images

F1’s repeated attempts to get a foothold in America has seen it traverse the country. If you discount the Indianapolis 500, which was included for a championship event from 1950-1960 but had few F1 driver entries, the first race to be held in the US was at Sebring in ’59.

That weekend saw a famous championship climax with Jack Brabham pushing his car over the line to claim the title before collapsing, after running out of fuel, but the locals weren’t impressed, with few attending.

Due to the financial stress, promoter Alec Ulmann moved proceedings to the other side of the country to Riverside, but the Florida locals showed little more interest than their Californian counterparts.

The United States Grand Prix, the Riverside edition of which would be won by Stirling Moss, was thereafter moved to Watkins Glen for a 20-year stint.

This wasn’t the end of the one-off F1 interlopers though. The Dallas GP made an appearance in 1984 – and unlike Vegas, Phoenix or Detroit, the Texans actually rather took a liking to the race.

The drivers didn’t though – Elio De Angelis described the Fair Park street circuit as “a joke in every way”, and most of the grid agreed with him.

A support race the night before the grand prix tore up the circuit, almost prompting a driver mutiny as last minute repairs were made.

The field did ultimately race and a classic ensued which was won by Keke Rosberg. His Williams team were the only one to employ NASCAR-style skullcaps which circulated cool liquid over the drivers’ head, helping somewhat in conditions Motor Sport described as a “furnace”.

Despite the race ultimately being a success, F1 would never return.


Every US Grand Prix venue ranked, and the very best races we’ve seen in America: see our F1 in the USA-themed May 2022 issue here.

F1 in the USA: May 2022 issue