RANKED: The top 10 American F1 drivers of all time

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RANKED: The top 10 American F1 drivers of all time

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RANKED: The top 10 American F1 drivers of all time

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Logan Sargeant will be the 151st American driver to start a world championship race when he makes his Formula 1 debut for Williams next year.

The vast majority of that number shouldn’t really be considered F1 drivers given they competed only in the Indianapolis 500, when it paid world championship points from 1950-1960. That anomaly was the consequence of the misguided attempt to legitimize the world championship tag. As great a race as the Indy 500 is, it’s always been a separate world to F1.

So setting aside those who are often listed as F1 drivers thanks to their Indy 500 exploits — to call Bill Vukovich a two-time F1 race winner is simultaneously inaccurate and reductive — who are the greatest Americans to have competed in the world championship?

Based on their achievements and qualities in F1 — rather than their qualities as drivers across all categories — here are the 10 best drivers from the United States to have competed in the world championship.

10. GEORGE FOLLMER

George Follmer, Shadow DN1 Ford, 1973 Canadian GP. Motorsport Images

Follmer is best known for his North American road racing exploits, winning the Can-Am Championship but also showing a good turn of speed on the ovals. But his sole F1 season in 1973, driving for Shadow, is enough to edge out fellow one-season wonders Danny Sullivan and Michael Andretti.

Follmer was 39 when he embarked on his F1 season despite very limited grounding in European road racing that meant he was at a disadvantage in terms of circuit familiarity. But he finished sixth on debut at Kyalami before taking third in the Spanish Grand Prix.

Follmer later admitted that he shouldn’t have gone to Formula 1, even though it was a long-time dream. The way the season panned out after the positive start, with Follmer believing he got the thin end of a two-car team that wasn’t big enough to run both cars properly, perhaps justified that position. But in the circumstances, he proved himself to be a capable F1 driver.

9. MARK DONOHUE

Mark Donohue, March 751 Ford, 1975 German Grand Prix. Motorsport Images

Anyone who has ever read “The Unfair Advantage” — one of the great books about motorsport — will understand what made Donohue so good. In a way, he was a driver before his time, one who would have reveled in the data-driven years of the 21st century. Nobody had so deep a grasp of the engineering side as Donohue did.

Who knows what he might have achieved in F1 had he been given a serious shot in grand prix racing before he retired! It was only Roger Penske launching an F1 team that lured him back into driving late in 1974 — at which point his sole outing in F1 had been in Canada in ’71, where he finished third in a Penske-run McLaren.

The Penske F1 project took time to get going, with the PC1 sidelined during the season in favor of a customer March chassis. It was in this car that Donohue crashed at the Osterreichring, walking to the ambulance but dying two days later thanks to a blood clot.

It was a case of too little and too late for Donohue in F1, who started only 14 world championship races. But its the tantalizing question of what might have been, and the qualities he showed in every other category he turned his hand to that briefly shone through in F1, that earns him so high a ranking.

8. HARRY SCHELL

Harry Schell, BRM P25, 1958 Belgian GP

The name Harry Schell doesn’t trip off the tongue when the grand prix aces of the 1950s are remembered, and legitimately so given he was regarded more as a solid and reliable driver than a star. But while his F1 wins were limited to minor non-championship races, he did lead points-paying races and finish second in the 1958 Dutch Grand Prix.

There were times when Schell did show real inspiration, notably for Vanwall after taking over Mike Hawthorn’s car in the 1956 French Grand Prix, or in Spain two years earlier when he led in his privateer Maserati 250F. Had Vanwall not insisted on an all-British line-up for 1957, there’s every chance he would have emerged as a race winner that season given the quality of his performances in ’56.

But for most of the 1950s, he was a well-liked and respected competitor. His death in practice for the International Trophy at Silverstone when he clipped a low wall and his Cooper T51 was thrown into the air, brought a tragic end to a career that should not be overlooked.

7. MASTEN GREGORY

Masten Gregory during the 1965 German GP weekend. Rainer Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Images

Gregory had a rather piecemeal F1 career, amassing 38 world championship race starts from 1957-65 but too often in limited machinery. But he did have the respect of sometime Cooper teammate Jack Brabham — not an easy man to impress — who held him in high regard. It’s suggested this actually counted against Gregory and led to him being dropped by the team.

Gregory’s high points in F1 were third on debut in the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix driving a Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati and the supporting role he played for Cooper’s title-winning season two years later. He had six outings that year, finishing second in Portugal and third at Zandvoort. That meant he had a hand in Cooper’s constructors’ championship success.

But he was only ever a bit-part player for Cooper and spent the majority of his F1 career in privateer kit that meant results were sparse. He could be quick, although did have a reputation for accidents, and also has a place in history as the first American driver to finish in the top three in a world championship grand prix.

6. EDDIE CHEEVER

Eddie Cheever, Renault RE40, 1983 Monaco GP. Motorsport Images

No American has started more world championship races than Eddie Cheever, who was arguably the most “European” of all the drivers in this list. Yet he never won, despite finishing on the podium nine times.

He came into F1 having built a good reputation with race-winning exploits in Formula 2, but only in his third season in 1981 with Tyrrell did he get into the machinery to get results. After a season with Ligier, he got his big break with Renault in 1983. His career never really recovered from being comprehensively outperformed by teammate Alain Prost, who came close to winning the title while Cheever managed just four podium finishes.

After two fruitless years with Alfa Romeo, he had his moments with Arrows from 1987-89, taking a couple of podium finishes, before making the switch to CART — although it was after the launch of the Indy Racing League that he had his major successes, including winning the 1998 Indy 500.

Cheever was a quick, hard-charging driver who had remarkable longevity in F1 even though he never fulfilled his potential, earning him a high place on the list even if he never managed to win a race.

5. RICHIE GINTHER

Richie Ginther in the Honda RA273, 1966 Italian GP. Rainer Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Images

Best-known as the man who gave Honda its first F1 victory, it was actually with Ferrari that Ginther built his reputation in grand prix racing. On that famous day when Stirling Moss won the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, Ginther was his closest rival.

But as evidenced by the fact he wasn’t a factor in the championship fight in 1961 when he was one of three full-time Scuderia Ferrari drivers, his strength was as a team player, test driver and support act rather than as the main man in a team. The same applied in 1962 when he was alongside world champion Graham Hill at BRM.

Perhaps his best quality was mechanical sympathy, which allowed him to achieve a remarkable finishing rate at a time when cars were fragile. But on his day, he could be seriously quick, notably with that dominant victory in the Honda RA272 that marks the high point of his F1 career.

4. PETER REVSON

Peter Revson, McLaren M19A, 1972 Spanish GP. Motorsport Images

Revson was a relatively late starter in grand prix racing, ignoring his brief dalliance with F1 in 1964. It wasn’t until 1972 that he became a regular with McLaren, winning twice the following year before making his ill-fated move to Shadow after Emerson Fittipaldi took his place.

When he died after a high-speed crash following a suspension failure at Kyalami, he was a 35-year-old whose best years were potentially still ahead of him.

As the heir to the Revlon cosmetics empire, Revson was lazily caricatured as a rich playboy racer by those not paying close attention. But he was a hard worker and genuinely quick, albeit not quite in the top rank of the very fastest of his time.

For proof of that, look at his pace during his brief Shadow career, or the quality of his performances for McLaren. While his breakthrough victory at Silverstone was a little fortuitous, and his second win tainted by the scoring confusion at Mosport Park that makes the question of who won that race a topic of debate even a half-century later, he was a consistently good performer in F1.

He underlined his level of ability by winning the Can-Am Championship in 1971 and excelling at Indianapolis, although his sole IndyCar victory was at Indianapolis Raceway Park with his best finish at the Brickyard being second.

3. PHIL HILL

Phil Hill, Ferrari 246, 1958 Monaco GP. Motorsport Images

Hill is more celebrated for his sports car exploits, winning the Le Mans 24 Hours three times. But he was also successful in F1, winning the 1961 world championship for Ferrari.

That title victory is often unfairly tainted by the death of teammate Wolfgang von Trips at Monza that left the way clear for Hill to win the crown. But it’s often forgotten that Hill was not in von Trips’s shadow given he was on pole position for five out of seven races up to Monza.

It’s also too often overlooked that 1960 was Hill’s real peak. By his own admission, he had lost his edge in ’61 to the callousness of a sport that was then taking too many lives and was no longer wishing to push himself to the limit. But even so, his intelligence and calculating nature still allowed him to win the world championship. As he said, his chance in what was that season’s best car had come a year too late.

Perhaps that mindset also explains the mistake he made in joining the walkout of Ferrari personnel to form the doomed ATS for 1963. While Ferrari had slumped in ’62, ATS didn’t live up to its potential and this marked the start of Hill’s F1 career fizzling out.

But speak to any of his grand prix rivals from those years and they speak highly of him, both as a man and an opponent. That he was able to win the championship when already in a self-imposed decline speaks highly of his qualities in single-seater machinery.

2. DAN GURNEY

Dan Gurney, Eagle T1G Climax, 1966 Belgian GP. Rainer Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Images

Gurney’s tally of four world championship race victories — plus a couple of non-championship wins — doesn’t do justice to how good he was in grand prix racing. Not only was he seriously quick, but he also had a sharp technical eye.

Arguably, that latter characteristic was his undoing in F1. He realized Ferrari was persevering with obsolete front-engined layouts when he walked away at the end of 1959 to join BRM. Had he stuck it out to 1961, he’d surely have won the title in the “sharknose” Ferrari. He then jumped ship to Porsche after one year with BRM, a team that would win the world championship within two years. And after emerging as the effective team leader with emerging Brabham, he left to form his own Anglo-American Racers outfit for 1966.

While he won a race for Porsche and in his own Eagle — as well as two for Brabham — he always proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time despite, on three occasions, being with teams that weren’t far from success.

Although his timing might have been wrong too often, nobody doubted Gurney’s speed. He was one of the pre-eminent drivers in 1960s F1 and arguably the quickest American there has ever been in grand prix racing. He was also held in high esteem by his rivals, who regarded him as one of the best.

Among the great drivers never to win the title, Gurney is up there with Moss and Gilles Villeneuve among the very best. That’s how good he was in European road racing.

1. MARIO ANDRETTI

Mario Andretti at the 1970 Spanish GP. Motorsport Images/Rainer Schlegelmilch

Nine years passed between Mario Andretti’s first appearance in F1 and him completing a full season. But it says much for the greatness of arguably motorsport’s most versatile driver that he reached the top in F1 without ever giving it his undivided attention. Even in 1978, when he comfortably won the world championship for Team Lotus, he dabbled in IndyCar with Penske — winning at Trenton.

Right from the start, he was at home in F1. He started his first world championship race at Watkins Glen in 1968 from pole position. Famously, that should have been his second race but for the permission he and Bobby Unser believed they were originally given to start the Italian Grand Prix, having contested the Hoosier Hundred USAC race at Indiana State Fairgrounds the day before being revoked after they made a mad dash from Indianapolis to Monza.

For his first seven years in F1, Andretti was only an occasional participant — by choice rather than through lack of opportunity. He won the 1971 South African Grand Prix for Ferrari on one of those sporadic appearances, but when Vel’s Parnelli Racing took on the challenge of F1 Andretti finally committed fully to F1. Even then, it wasn’t until the team fizzled out early in ’76 and he moved to Team Lotus that he finally racked up a complete season in ’77.

That was with the Lotus 78, the first true ground effect F1 car and precursor to the Lotus 79. Andretti won six races in 1978 on his way to the championship.

Lotus’s slide and a misguided decision to race for Alfa Romeo meant his F1 career fizzled out, albeit with a final blaze of glory in 1982 when he stood in for the badly injured Didier Pironi for the final three races and took a famous pole position at Monza — a race he could have won without a turbo problem that hindered him on his way to third.

Quick, combative, technically proficient, Andretti was the full package in F1. That he “only” won 12 grands prix and one world championship reflects the fact that his F1 career was just one part of his multi-dimensional — and phenomenal — career.

 

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