The 2022 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas is nearly here and Formula 1 is riding a wave of popularity in the USA. While the future looks promising with three grands prix on the calendar next year, the history of F1 in America has produced many a memorable race. For the October 2017 issue of RACER magazine, racing journalist and historian Paul Fearnley selected his favorite five from the then-56 previous races on U.S. soil.
#5: 1982 – DETROIT
His understeering McLaren transformed by harder Michelins fitted during a race stoppage that he considered unnecessary, John Watson became Pac-Man on a maze of downtown streets. On lap 33 he gobbled up the sister car of Niki Lauda, the Talbot-Ligier of Eddie Cheever and Didier Pironi’s Ferrari — waka, waka, waka! — in the space of just 10 turns. In truth there wasn’t much space.
Four laps later, he passed Keke Rosberg, whose Williams was suffering gearbox, braking and tire issues, for the lead. Normally he might then have eased off, but this race would be decided on aggregate and Watson, his qualifying spoiled first by a bent wishbone caused by a collision with another car and then by rain, had finished the six-lap first part in 14th, having started three places even further back. Lauda, therefore, remained the likeliest winner until, stung by his teammate’s brilliant opportunism, he bungled an unnecessarily optimistic passing attempt on Rosberg.
#4: 1977 – LONG BEACH
Three of F1’s toughest and smartest operators had feuded throughout
practice. And war broke out when Jody Scheckter’s Wolf, third on the grid, led into the first turn, while Mario Andretti’s Lotus and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari — his start from pole compromised by an awkward siting of the lights — narrowly escaped being wiped out by the latter’s overly ambitious teammate, Carlos Reutemann.
That’s how it remained for 76 of 80 laps: leader Scheckter incisive amid backmarkers; and Lauda hounding Andretti to the point of flat-spotting his front tires before mid-distance. But this stalemate had a twist when the leader’s right-front Goodyear began deflating 15 laps from the end.
Andretti didn’t know it, so superbly was Scheckter compensating, and instead it was oil mist from the Wolf’s catch-tank that spurred his making the pass that the crowd — and Lotus boss Colin Chapman — so craved. Chapman threw his trademark cap high in familiar salute, forcing the unfortunate Scheckter, who’d slipped to third, to swerve — in order to run over it…
#3: 2015 – COTA
Amid heavy squalls that caused the weekend to be rescheduled drastically (qualifying was on race morning and lasted two instead of three segments) and a flurry of safety cars, virtual and real, Lewis Hamilton, on the verge of a third world title, and squabbling Mercedes-Benz teammate Nico Rosberg had eyes only for each other – even though both Red Bulls, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and the Toro Rosso of the precocious Max Verstappen at times held a speed advantage over them during a race that began wet and gradually dried.
Their team had secured the F1 constructors’ title at the previous round and so the gloves were off when Hamilton shoveled Rosberg wide at the first turn. The latter dropped to fifth, but was able to respond, on the track and in the pits, to be leading with eight laps to go.
Whereupon he ran off the road — caught out, he insisted, by a strong gust. Though publicly peeved by his internecine rival’s “very aggressive” opening lap, Rosberg’s private inner storm was what caused him petulantly to toss a cap at Hamilton in the post-race green (with envy?) room. Unfortunately for Nico, the cap fit…
#2: 1959 – SEBRING
The first of the 56 ended on foot having begun with an argument on the grid that saw one of three title contenders at this December showdown, Tony Brooks, relegated to the second row. It was a switch that had serious ramifications when he was rammed by a Ferrari teammate on the opening lap. After two heavy accidents, Brooks, the outsider, had promised himself never to race a compromised car, and so, he pitted to check all was still well.
Risk-taker Stirling Moss would never have done such a thing. He needed to win and set fastest lap to end a four-season sequence of being world championship runner-up. His gamble in switching from transverse leaf- to coil-spring rear suspension looked likely to pay off when his privateer Cooper burst into a sudden and steadily increasing lead from pole position. But after five laps its gearbox failed.
Only now did Jack Brabham’s weekend begin to settle down. He’d arrived nursing a sore eye caused by splintering goggles at his previous race and was uncharacteristically flustered during practice, crashing twice. His team was floundering, too: overheating engine, broken differential, twisted chassis, juddering brakes, cracked mainshaft. A typical Aussie battler, only at a doctor’s insistence had “Black Jack” retired to bed at 1am on race day. Leading, and therefore heading for the title – with teammate Bruce McLaren riding shotgun – was a breeze in comparison.
But with a mile to go, his Climax “four” stammered, coughed, died – out of fuel. McLaren, unsure of the etiquette, drew alongside and only after much encouraging gesticulation from Brabham did the 22-year-old New Zealander accelerate away to become the then youngest winner of a GP.
Brabham, meanwhile, set to pushing, the final incline of 100 yards draining him. Brooks passed him for third, but fourth was still good enough for the title. By way of “celebration” the glassy-eyed new world champion drained a cup of Coke while slumped on the floor.
#1: 1983 – LONG BEACH
McLaren appeared all washed up after qualifying. Complaining of no grip and plenty of understeer, John Watson and Niki Lauda — a winner here in 1982 — lined up 22nd and 23rd at a street track expected to suit their naturally-aspirated poise in the face of the turbo rise; world champion Rosberg’s Williams, for example, also powered by Cosworth’s DFV, had qualified third.
Rosberg was in a bullish mood and sideswiped Rene Arnoux’s Ferrari at the start. Seconds later he snapped into a spin over a bump while attempting to pass Arnoux’s teammate, Patrick Tambay. Incredibly, the Finn’s counter-clockwise 360 cost him only one place and soon he was back on Tambay’s tail. They collided on lap 26, and although Rosberg was able to continue, he immediately clashed with teammate Jacques Laffite — whereupon he was rammed by yet another Frenchman. Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Ligier was, like the McLarens, on Michelin tires, and such had been its pace that he’d already recovered time lost to a trip up the escape road after elbowing aside Michele Alboreto’s Tyrrell. Sadly his race was now run — and so was pinball Rosberg’s.
Progress almost unnoticed, suddenly the McLarens were in the points. Lauda passed Watson on lap four and thereafter they’d lapped in tandem as quickly as the leaders, while also benefiting from others’ retirements. Watson had selected the compound and construction that had taken him to victory in Detroit the year before and it was increasingly clear that his choice supplied more grip than Lauda’s latest covers. Completing the move with typical neatness on lap 33 — sounds familiar? — Watson swiftly hunted down Laffite and the Michelin-shod turbo Brabham of Riccardo Patrese. Forced into action by the McLaren’s rapid closing speed, the Italian flunked his attempted pass for the lead and slithered down an escape road on lap 44; one lap later Watson showed him how it should be done.
Watson romped away thereafter to beat Lauda, briefly slowed by cramp, by 28 seconds; he’d lapped fourth-placed Laffite, his Goodyears shot, within 30 laps. Even the political faux pas of serenading a victorious Ulsterman with a Republican anthem washed over most on this, F1’s most discombobulating day.
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