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Formula One still chasing American dream

McLaren Group Limited CEO Martin Whitmarsh attends a joint news conference with Honda Motor Co's President and Chief Executive Officer Takan
McLaren Group Limited CEO Martin Whitmarsh attends a joint news conference with Honda Motor Co's President and Chief Executive Officer Takan

By Steve Keating

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A year after making a splashy return to the United States, Formula One's American dream has yet to come true with the glamour sport unable to captivate a market it has long coveted.

While motor racing fans across the globe planned their Sunday around the U.S. Grand Prix, for Americans it was just another event on an action-packed day of National Football League (NFL) games and NASCAR.

The Circuit of the Americas carved out of the south Texas scrubland, one of the most popular stops on the calendar for paddock regulars and praised by drivers, teams and spectators alike, was supposed to provide the launching pad for a new era for F1 in the U.S. but has so far failed to take off.

When Formula One returned to the United States in 2012 after a five-year hiatus F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone stood in the paddock and enthusiastically outlined a coast-to-coast vision for the sport in America with races in Austin, New Jersey and Los Angeles.

A year later, talk of a race in Los Angeles has disappeared while the elfin Ecclestone breezed through the Austin paddock on the weekend avoiding questions about a New Jersey race that is struggling to get off the ground.

"We can always do more," said McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, noting that the U.S. is a major market for many F1 sponsors especially car makers such as Ferrari and Mercedes. "This is such an important market that I think we have to treat it as a new market.

"I know there have been lots of races in the States before but we have never cracked the States in the way we should have done and I think the opportunity is there and all of the stakeholders, the commercial rights holders, the teams, the promoters all of us should be working together and harder to make sure we demonstrate to the great U.S. public what a fantastic sport Formula One is.

"I think it is reasonable to say we are not doing enough."

Unable to find a permanent home in the United States, Formula One has been forced into a string of unsatisfying one-night stands with Austin, the Texas capital, becoming the 10th venue to host the series after Sebring (Florida), Riverside (California), Watkins Glen (New York), Phoenix (Arizona), Dallas (Texas), Detroit (Michigan), Las Vegas (Nevada), Long Beach (California) and Indianapolis (Indiana).

Americans have had a long-standing love affair with the automobile but the romance of Formula One, which sets hearts of motor sports fans around the world aflutter, has never managed to get pulses racing in the United States.

NO AMERICAN DRIVER

The Circuit of the Americas, the only purpose-built F1 track in the United States, has provided an attractive foundation for the sport in the U.S. but one promoters have since been unable to build on.

Even in Austin, known as "The Weirdest City In Texas," F1 had to battle for attention with a college football showdown between the University of Texas and Oklahoma State stealing the buzz during Saturday qualifying then going head-to-head against the NFL goliath on Sunday.

Three day attendance was announced at 250,324, a drop of 6 percent from last year's inaugural event but remains one of the most well-attended events on the circuit.

The main reason for a lack of interest in the United States is that F1 is almost devoid of American content with no U.S. teams or drivers on the starting grid.

Attempts to form a U.S.-based team with a factory in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2010 failed and there has been no American driver on the circuit since Scott Speed left in 2007.

Even Ecclestone has acknowledged that in order for F1 to grow in the United States they need to develop an American driver who can win or, at the very least, be competitive.

Mario Andretti, who handed out trophies after Sunday's race won by Sebastian Vettel, remains America's best known F1 driver 35 years after he claimed the series drivers' championship.

No American has won a Formula One race since.

Andretti's son Michael followed his father to Europe and competed briefly in F1 for McLaren alongside the triple World Champion Ayrton Senna.

Andretti told Reuters he would like to see grandson Marco, who currently races on the IndyCar series, give F1 a shot but has no desire to be involved.

"I have no interest in creating a team, the only thing I would be interested in seeing is my grandson Marco getting some proper testing and evaluation," Andretti told Reuters.

"That in itself could be interesting but I agree with Bernie, you don't necessarily have to have a team but if you have a driver representing the U.S. with a top team it would make all the difference in the world as far as press interest."

American Alexander Rossi could be the next American to appear on the F1 starting grid after leaving home at 16 to pursue his F1 dream in Europe.

A winner in F1 feeder series GP2 and currently a reserve driver for Caterham, Rossi made brief appearance in Austin during the first practice session but it is still uncertain when, or if, a full-time F1 seat will ever come.

"It doesn't matter if you win every junior championship in America you have to go to Europe and start all over again and prove to them (F1 teams) you can race in Europe and compete against the Europeans," Rossi told Reuters.

"That's just the way the sport is. Formula One is a European-dominated sport and they don't believe anyone deserves a chance unless they won and competed in Europe."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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