Formula 1’s recent revival in the USA has been wonderful to see. The return of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin has been a complete success, and an American team is set to join the grid in 2016 courtesy of NASCAR team owner Gene Haas.
However, there is still one thing missing: an American driver. You have to go back to Scott Speed in 2007 for the last US F1 racer, but there are two very young and exciting talents coming through the ranks at the moment.
First up, we have Alexander Rossi. The Caterham test driver is perhaps the closest to F1 at the moment, but he is still yet to make the full-time step up. We spoke to him about his chances a few weeks ago in Montreal.
The second is Conor Daly. The two drivers took different routes up the junior ladder, but the ultimate goal remains the same: Formula 1. Therefore, with the sport becoming increasingly pro-American, surely it must bode well for an American driver?
“People keep saying that,” Conor explains, “but me and Rossi are still here in GP2, and we’re not getting those calls to jump up. I love being American, I happy being American, but we can’t keep seem to generate the support that other nationalities get from their pure countries – not morale support, financial support.”
And this has been what has held Conor back all too often: finances. After what he called “the worst winter ever” in pursuit of a race seat, he eventually secured a last-minute drive in GP2.
“I’m not fortunate enough to have governments behind me or oil companies, so it is what it is and I’m happy to be here and we’ve done every race so far so all is well,” he said. “I can’t be more thankful to these guys for the opportunity.
“We’ll just have to continue to see how it plays out, and even if it’s Alex and not me, that’s awesome, I’d love to see Alex there, but we cannot stress enough that we need help to get there for sure.”
The fact that Formula 1 has become so business oriented has been to the detriment of drivers such as Conor. Strictly speaking, the sport should involve the best 22 drivers in the world. However, the rise of the pay driver means that sometimes the size of your wallet can mean more than the trophies on your shelf.
Daly, Rossi, and even Gene Haas have all had to deal with the difficulty of being an American trying to break into a Euro-centric sport. “For me as a driver, you had to come to Europe to try to get to F1,” Conor said. ” I think no matter what he’s going to make the right decisions when it comes to the time to do it.
“I think if you have a base of operations in America, you can also just as easily – maybe not have one big one but two small ones. I’m sure when the time comes they’ll make the right decision either way.”
Haas Formula appears to be Conor’s best chance of stepping up into an F1 role in the near future, but after seeing many opportunities come and go over the years, he is unwilling to say for certain that he will make it into the sport.
“Some day you could be at zero percent, and the next day you might get a call and things are at 95%,” he said. “I thought I was gonna be a Formula 1 driver when USF1 came up. All of a sudden we thought ‘wow, life is good’.
“I thought everything was going to be fine when I had a contract with Gerry Forsythe for ten years. He was one of my original investors, and then after 2010, my best season in Star Mazda, he decided that he wanted to pull out.
“I’ve known a lot of things, and it’s all gone well, but then it’s all gone up in flames too so I can’t put any percents on anything.”
What Conor said next summed up the sometimes brutal and uncertain life of a racing driver trying to make a break into a top-line series.
“You have to be confident that opportunities are real, but for sure if any opportunities come up you have to chase it to a certain point to make sure whether it’s real or not,” he explained.
“But for sure you hear a lot more things in racing that never happen then actually do happen, so that’s the shady part. There’s so many people who promise so many things that never actually happen; that’s the sad part of racing.”
It is sad. It is sad that drivers without the necessary funding see their F1 hopes go up in flames. Conor currently races in GP2, which is technically F1’s direct feeder series. However, the last two champions – Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer – are not racing in F1, nor is Sam Bird or James Calado, who came second and third respectively last season. Some of the drivers currently in Formula 1 did not come close to winning the championship.
Nevertheless, Conor is pleased with where he is. “GP2 is a pretty high level championship. I’ve got so much experience now that I can take it really anywhere and I think people would benefit from it, so for sure there are opportunities anywhere.
“I think there are opportunities in sportscars, I obviously have to meet the right people, get in the right meetings, do all this, do all that, as you normally do. IndyCar, I think I would love to do for a very long time if that’s something that I need to do. Long shot left field, if NASCAR, there’s something there I’d take that too.
“Anything, so long as I’m driving and going fast I’m happy.”
Formula 1 remains the ultimate goal, naturally, but it is refreshing to see a driver making himself open to other avenues. Be it F1, IndyCar or sportscars, Conor will be sure to impress.
Amid the flux of pay drivers, reserve roles and billionaire backers, both of our American drivers are fighting hard to get to the top; the hope of hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out in F1 once again still burns brightly.