OPINION: America rising

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OPINION: America rising

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OPINION: America rising

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Formula 1 has made no secret of the fact that it is trying to crack America, adding multiple races and expanding its reach in the States. But at the same time, a couple of Americans might be getting closer to cracking F1.

It has been seven long years since Alexander Rossi last represented the U.S. on the F1 grid, with his final start for Manor coming at Interlagos in 2015. Since then, nobody has really come close, and there’s been a clear shortage of talent on the conveyor belt.

You could certainly argue that in IndyCar the talent was there, but it has been all too rare for any driver to go from IndyCar to F1 – the flow tends to be in the opposite direction.

The junior ladder in Europe is where the States needed to be represented to have more of a chance of making it to F1, and while a number of drivers climbed as high as Formula 3, it has been rare to see title challengers kicking on from that point. Until now.

This year had been simmering with potential from Americans in both Formula 2 and Formula 3, with Red Bull-backed Jak Crawford (main image) scoring a pair of podiums at Imola in April. When he followed that with second place in the sprint race in Barcelona, there were three podiums in a row and his title challenge was starting to pick up.

Add in the fact that Logan Sargeant scored his first F2 podium that same weekend in the Spanish sprint race, and it was a time of promise. While F3 took a bit of a break, Sargeant came through a tricky first Monaco weekend to then score his first feature race podium with second in Baku, and since then the trajectory has been rapidly upward.

His team boss Trevor Carlin needs no introduction, and when he told me that Sargeant had the pace to reach F1 but was making a few rookie mistakes trying to prove it on tracks he doesn’t know, I fully believed him. Carlin was confident Sargeant would click at more familiar circuits, and he duly did that at Silverstone.

A first pole position came in impressive fashion and he followed up with a strong win in the feature race in front of one of the biggest crowds of the season, withstanding late pressure from highly-rate Alfa Romeo youngster Theo Pourchaire.

Far from cracking when Pouchaire closed in, the attention made Sargeant even more determined that he wasn’t going to miss his first proper opportunity to win in F2. The ability to thrive on pressure is a very good trait to have.

But there was no time to soak it in, as Sargeant was immediately turning his attention to the following weekend in Austria. Even before the F1 race had started at Silverstone, the Floridian was focusing on the Red Bull Ring and continuing his form.

Another strong qualifying performance earned him third on the grid – comfortably ahead of the only two drivers above him in the championship standings – and it was set up for another good weekend to be an American racing fan backing the youngsters in Europe.

Williams junior driver Sargeant’s performances are making an increasingly loud case for giving him more F1 seat time. Carl Bingham/Motorsport Images

Crawford was coming off the back of a very solid weekend in Silverstone himself as F3’s season resumed, and before Sargeant went racing, he was making it two U.S. wins from two junior events. Starting at the sharp end on Saturday in the sprint race, Crawford moved up to second early on and then pulled a beautiful move around the outside of race leader Caio Collet to take his first F3 win.

“It was definitely one of my favorite moves I’ve ever done, especially since it was for the lead of the race,” Crawford said. “So I was really happy with that move, and my engineer was saying it was the best move of the season. Up until that point my racecraft hasn’t been great but I think I definitely made a step.

“It felt really good. I’d come so close a couple of times – second in Imola, second in Barcelona, I got second last year in Spa in the sprint race – so I’d been close numerous times, but it never really all came together. But it was one of those races where I had the opportunity, I really wanted it and I took it.”

It would have been an even better weekend for Crawford but for being innocently taken out of what looked like being sixth place during a wet race restart on Sunday, but he still sits in title contention, fourth overall and 28 points off the lead.

And from almost nowhere, title contention is now where Sargeant finds himself, too. The F2 rookie was one of many drivers to start on wet tires on a drying track in Sunday’s feature race straight after Crawford’s misfortune, and while he pulled an excellent move on Jack Doohan after a slow getaway, soon they all tumbled down the order when slicks proved to be the way to go.

Emerging outside the points after pitting as early as possible for a set of tires he’d have to nurse to the end, Sargeant was on a mission trying to make up lost ground.

“I wasn’t messing about,” Sargeant said. “You had an angry driver behind the wheel – sometimes that’s good, sometimes that bad. I think that worked for me. I didn’t worry too much about deg to be honest, I just wanted to charge my way through. I’ve got to be proud of what I did.”

While he did climb through the field, which none of his title rivals could do, and he crossed the line fourth but was promoted to third by an existing time penalty. That became second when the original race winner couldn’t provide a fuel sample, and eventually became back-to-back feature race wins when the original second-placed driver received a time penalty for a grid infringement.

Coupled with neither of the top two scoring on Sunday, Sargeant moved up to second place and cut what had been a 73-point deficit to the leader just two rounds ago to 39 points.

That form has put Sargeant in title contention and leaves Carlin wondering if a two-year deal to race in F2 might be revisited by Williams if this form continues.

It’s surely starting to warrant attention from the F1 team when it comes to its remaining FP1 rookie outing that still needs fulfilling, and with Colton Herta testing for McLaren this week in Portimao – also with an eye on FP1s – there could be two Americans running during F1 weekends at some stage this season.

There’s still a few steps to go for any of them to reach a race seat, but momentum is building in a way it hasn’t for a number of years.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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