It is easy to lose enthusiasm for motorsport when it has been dominated by the difficult all-around talents of F1’s drivers — Ferraris, Mercedes, Red Bulls — for so long. But now it’s time to celebrate the sprinters of the American sport who have smashed records, broken rules and changed the story of Formula One.
Alexander Rossi, in his first season, won the pole position and made a clean start to the race on Saturday, with Kyle Larson, in his third year, taking second. They are not the biggest names in the sport — neither has won an F1 race — but their achievements have made them stars in their own right.
Larson, of “Kyle’s Kids” fame, is 26 years old. Rossi is 24. They have spent the past five years trying to break into the men’s game, and now find themselves developing their careers for television cameras at the same time. The previous single-car team, Andretti Autosport, does not have a driver who has a chance to win his debut race. Only two of the top six finishers in America’s grand prix have U.S. nationality, and it has been a long time since an American driver beat a F1 team at home.
The chance that Larson is throwing at himself feels particularly significant. Fourteen years ago, when he was starting his car engineering degree, he was asked by a friend to help him with an experiment. The friend wanted to simulate the rocket propulsion of an X-37B space shuttle. Larson filled the gap with 12 school projects to help his friend learn to control an actual aircraft.
It wasn’t until 2010, after being told by a Formula One manager that he was too young for his turn, that Larson managed to get into a race, taking seventh place in the season-opening DTM championship in Germany. Five years later, in Canada, and Larson overcame a series of crashes to finish seventh.
Larson and Rossi would have a clear path to contention had they not been displaced by the arrival of mega-budget teams. Teams like Haas F1 and McLaren that the team administrators hope to control through new contracts mean that manufacturers have greater financial incentives to spend far more on race machines. There are less races and longer ones. The racing is the hardest to watch. In racing, there is nothing sacred. Formula One is no different, but it has been made much safer for a huge number of people.
The first automatic cars brought crashing forward. The great Ayrton Senna claimed the Renault by which he died was better than his Lotus at Silverstone. But they were hits and crashes and drifting and brute force and primitive way-finding. In any other sport, it would have been an occupational hazard. But it was tolerable in Formula One because the risk-takers couldn’t get the cars good enough to match them. The cars of today are up to it, and when you have a win now, it feels as if it’s for something more than bragging rights.