After several decades of trying, Formula 1 appeared to have finally cracked America last season as it heads to the Miami Grand Prix.
A grand total of 380,000 fans were said to have attended the Circuit of the Americas over three days in Austin, Texas, to witness a key race in the World Championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
As the drivers were cheered by spectators – many of whom had no doubt bitten the bait of Drive to Survive over recent years and found themselves hooked – every time they emerged from their garages, the 2021 United States Grand Prix had the feel of a breakthrough moment in F1’s often uneasy relationship with America.
The challenge now? To build on it, to capitalise on that existing goodwill and to make a home out of one of the many houses on the F1 calendar.
It is why this weekend’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix is, by some margin, the most significant milestone since Liberty Media’s takeover of F1, or at least it was until the sport recently announced a third race in the States – in Las Vegas of all places – from 2023.
The changes Liberty have made to F1 since their arrival almost six years ago have ranged from cosmetic (logos and anthems) to root and branch (new technical and financial regulations), but there is no greater reflection of their impact than the presence of an extra American race or two on the schedule.
And so, when the cars line up on the grid in Miami this Sunday for a race in the planning since 2018, F1 will be fully and unmistakably the land of Liberty.
The buildup to the race weekend may prove unbearable for some so-called ‘legacy’ fans of a certain disposition – F1’s launch of a garish Miami GP-themed clothing range, to take one example, is enough to roll the eyes – but this promises to be an event unlike any other.
The Final Preparations 💪
— F1 Miami Grand Prix (@f1miami) May 2, 2022
As for the circuit itself? It may come as a disappointment to some to learn it is nothing we haven’t seen before.
Watch an onboard lap of Miami and it quickly becomes apparent that, rather than offering something unique and befitting of the place itself, it merely follows the template for the modern F1 street circuit.
The high-speed sweeps of the first sector, for instance, are straight out of Saudi Arabia, while the clumsy collection of corners leading on to the longest straight later in the lap – ending in a close-to-the-walls left-hander as the track narrows – bears a striking resemblance to Baku.
Having first hosted a grand prix in 2016, Baku broke the rules of street circuit design with its alluring and chaos-inducing mix of high-speed stretches and slow sections and is arguably to blame for the current trend.
The arrival of Jeddah, ‘the world’s fastest street circuit’, in 2021 took the balance between risk and reward to a whole new level, while only the Covid pandemic prevented Hanoi, the copycat street circuit that time forgot, hosting its first race two years ago.
As street tracks continue to take over the calendar, F1 increasingly following the Formula E model of forcibly arousing the interest of the locals by bulldozing its way on to their doorsteps, Vietnam was the bullet F1 dodged. But even well-established venues are seemingly not immune from being mutilated to suit modern expectations.
The alterations to Albert Park for 2022 were supposedly intended to improve the spectacle of the Australian GP yet seemed to achieve little beyond lowering lap times and bringing Melbourne’s layout more in line with Baku and Jeddah.
The removal of the chicane at Turns 9/10 – and with it one of the defining images of any F1 season, of the cars racing against the backdrop of downtown Melbourne – was a form of sacrilege, leaving yet another cold, kinked, hard-walled section of flat-out racetrack.
When their main distinguishing feature is their position on a map – the same ideas transplanted from one track to the next – the novelty value is normalised and street circuits become no different to the various purpose-built Tilkedromes that have sprouted across the globe from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi over the last two decades.
Not long ago, the notion of a driver giving their team-mate a tow in qualifying was reserved for the vast expanses of Spa-Francorchamps and Monza; that they are now just as likely to employ the tactic as they flash past the buildings of Baku is a sign of the times.
In its pursuit of faster and faster, extreme and more extreme, F1 has perhaps lost sight of the two crucial ingredients of any celebrated street circuit – variety and character.
Miami Grand Prix clear the final legal hurdle
A lawsuit to block the race in Miami filed by the local residents has been denied by the judge.
The venue of the sport’s first-ever night race in 2008, Singapore will make a very welcome return to the schedule this year after a two-year absence and, often running close to the two-hour time limit in sweltering heat, remains the most physically demanding race in F1.
Marina Bay was a destination race long before it became a term popularised by Liberty chiefs, but even Singapore has failed to supersede Monaco as the ultimate jewel in F1’s crown.
The rise of the identikit street track has left Monaco’s place on the calendar in more jeopardy than ever before, perceived to be a relic of the past in more ways than one.
F1’s move to wider and heavier cars over recent years has counted against it – whispers that the sport has outgrown the place grow in volume by the year – and Miami and Las Vegas pose a clear threat to its status as the most glamorous grand prix, adding to the suspicion Monaco is simply no longer as valuable to F1 as it once was.
And yet, for all its faults, still nowhere does it better when it comes to illustrating the innate skill, commitment and judgement of an F1 driver.
More than any other circuit on the calendar, it is the place where the driver can make a discernible difference, and if there is frustration that qualifying in Monte Carlo is a bigger attraction than the race itself, those desperate for its demise should be careful what they wish for.
Miami is sure to be a fine addition to the F1 calendar and when it is joined by Las Vegas next year F1 will have almost everything in place for its influence to be felt across the full length and breadth of the United States.
Both will be important to F1’s long-term future but if it’s uniqueness you’re looking for both on and off the track, Monaco – this symbol of the sport’s history and heritage, where ghosts of the past lurk around every corner – still sets the standard.
All the more reason to hold it just a little tighter when F1 returns to the Principality later this month…