Let’s Get An American Driver: Part 1 - Time for a change to Super Licenses

Updated: Aug 18

You've heard me rant about it on the podcast, but why are there no American drivers in the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1? A World Championship that lacks a contender from the largest economy in the world, despite hosting three races in 2023 and being owned by an American company. We’ll dive into this in a multi-part series about what has to change to open a pathway for American drivers.

Colton Herta takes the top step of the podium at St. Pete.

FIA Super Licenses are required for any driver to be eligible to race in Formula 1. As we know all too well by looking back at history, Formula 1 is an incredibly dangerous sport. Super Licenses became the FIA's mechanism to ensure that only highly qualified drivers were able to strap themselves into these rocket ships and race on some of the fastest circuits in the world. In the early years of Formula 1, drivers could pretty much buy their way into the top Formula, if you had the money and the ambition, you could build or buy a car and enter it in races. While this allowed the series to grow in popularity, it was not uncommon for racers with more money than skill to flood the grid and create hazards that contributed to some extremely nasty crashes, injuries, and deaths. As the sport became more governed and regulated, the FIA needed to introduce an eligibility process for the top Formula. Sounds great right? Better drivers equate to better racing. In principle, the Super License program is great. It forces drivers to work their way through the junior Formulas, rewarding the most skilled drivers with an opportunity to work their way into F1.

Although great in theory, it's horrible in implementation. The FIA Super Point license structure heavily favors a European racing-centric viewpoint as if it’s uniquely the highest quality racing on planet earth. Inherently making it difficult for American, but also most non-European drivers, to work their way into the top Formula.

Formula 1 is the largest open-wheeled series in terms of global viewership, prestige, and financials. But, there are several open-wheel racing series throughout the world producing exceptional racing, highly skilled drivers, and racing fans across the world, all of which should be proving grounds for future F1 World Driver Champions.

Theoretically, the most competitive of those other series are Formula 2 and Indy Car. Formula 2 is the direct feeder into F1 and its season follows many of the same circuits while Indy Car is the highest class of open-wheel racing in America. Both are stock car series. Both series feature cars built by Dallara to be extremely fast and packed with technology. Both rely on drivers demonstrating their skills on highly technical and unforgiving tracks, rather than car performance, to determine their Champion. In reality, Indy Car is a much more competitive and talent-filled series than Formula 2.

But for some reason, Indy Car and Formula 2 don't offer the same opportunity in a driver's quest to earn super license points. Formula 2 is no doubt a great breeding ground for fantastic drivers, but it is largely full of unproven teenagers supported by a driving academy, building their skillsets and working their way up the ladder, hoping to capture the attention of an F1 team. On the other hand, Indy Car is full of seasoned professional drivers who have worked their way through the lower American series, (Indy Pro and Indy Lights), with many of the drivers racing in other top-class global series including F1, World Endurance Championship, Super Formula, and have experience in the F2, F3, and F4 series. These races are highly competitive. Much more so than the typical Formula 2 race, because ultimately the drivers are more skilled, more experienced, have a deeper professional resume, and better, well-developed racecraft.

In fact, previous F1 drivers have competed in Indy Car with only limited success, giving more credence to its competitiveness as a top series. Most recently Romain Grosjean entered Indy Car and after 2 seasons has finally become an outside contender in the championship, but is far at the front of the pack Despite his later years in F1 being a bit disappointing, he still has 10 F1 podiums and a well above average F1 career.

Grosjean at the Indy 500

Marcus Ericsson has found his way to several wins and podiums since leaving Sauber F1's paddock. Including a notable win at the Indy 500, propelling him to the front of the championship hunt.

Fernando Alonso has made a few attempts at the Indy 500, once failing to qualify and another finishing in a lonely 21st. This is an F1 World Champion, a Le Mans 24 Hour Overall Winner, and only the Indy 500 away from a Triple Crown.

Juan Pablo Montoya a Formula 1 race winner who raced under the Williams and McLaren banners from 2001 - to 2006 was successful in the American Series.

Callum Ilott, a highly regarded F2 driver, who could only find his way into F1 as a reserve driver for Alfa Romero has shown some promise but is only really fighting to get into the top15 during his rookie season.

Alexander Rossi turned down an uncompetitive F1 seat in the Manor Marussia F1 team after serving as a development and reserve driver for Caterham. A move that served him well and has led to a solid Indy Car career thus far.

Other F1 greats have also graced the series predecessor, CART, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Nigel Mansell, among others.

Despite the obvious level of competition in Indy Car, the FIA rewards Formula 2 participation significantly greater than Indy Car. The math, and lack of points parody, are at the core of why it is so difficult for American drivers to find their way into an F1 seat.

It takes 40 points, earned over a maximum of three seasons, to be eligible for a Super License and an F1 seat. In Formula 2, 40 points are awarded for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishers in the season's Championship. With 30, 20, and 10, for 4th, 5th, and 6th respectively. So in theory a decent driver can spend 3 years, place in the top 25% of the championship and be eligible for an F1 seat. A feat that was easy enough for Nikita Mazepin to pull off.

In Indy Car 1st place receives 40 points as well, but it quickly tails off to 30, 20, 10, 8, and 6 for 2nd place through 6th place respectively. Requiring drivers to be in the top 10% of the series which sees a roster of over 35 seasoned professional drivers per season. Mindnumbing fact: The Super License program rewards Formula 3 drivers with more points than Indy Car starting in 4th place.

In what world are the no names of Fredrik Vesti, Victor Martins, and Alexander Smolyar, the 4th-6th finishers of 2021‘s Formula 3 Championship, more worthy of Super License points than these drivers who placed 4th-6th in the 2021 Indy Car Championship:

  • Scott Dixon - A driver well regarded as one of the best in the world, and named a top 50 Driver of all time who never raced in F1. A six-time Indy Car Champion, Indy 500 winner, with numerous other great performances in other global series. Scott has been eligible for a super-license during his career, but useful as a comparison in Super License points disparity between Indy Car and Formula 3.

  • Colton Herta - America's next big-name driver who went to race in Europe as a kid with Lando Norris, but was too young to race in British F3 so he went to Euroformula. Finishing with three wins, six podiums, and five poles before going on to race in six Formula 3 races, reaching the podium on three occasions before ultimately returning to Indy Lights and becoming a multiple Indy Car race winner. All before the age of 21 for Andretti Autosport.

  • Marcus Ericsson - Someone who has ACTUALLY RACED IN F1. Yes, he had a super license, but if he hadn't gone through the Formula ladder and came to America early, he wouldn't have based on his Indy performance thus far.

Those three drivers, many of whom have serious name recognition in the world of motorsport, actually received fewer Super Point license points than three F3 names, who you've learned about for the first time in this article and have already forgotten, and would have to Google search to know anything about their limited driving resume. Do you really think those three no-names wouldn't get smoked in a head-to-head against the Indy Car talent? There are no fact-based arguments to be made that Formula 2 is more competitive and testing of driver skills than Indy Car.

An American driver with ambitions to race in Formula 1 practically requires relocation to Europe, at great expense, to work their way through the F4/F3/F2 ranks. In a completely foreign culture, as non-Europeans, where building a fanbase and attracting sponsors as an American driver is extraordinarily difficult.

Sure there's a European pathway, and American talents like Logan Sargeant and Juan Manuel Correra are on it. But for a country with the rich racing history of America to not have a realistic path on par with those in Europe, it's a damn shame.

If drivers like Nikita Mazepin, Lance Stroll, and Nicholas Latifi can shake their daddy's wallet and make it through the Formula ladder with relative ease, but world-class talents like American's Colton Herta, Mexico's Pato O'Ward, the Dutch sensation of Rinus VeeKay, New Zealand‘s Scott McLaughlin, and Australia's Kyle Kirkwood, are left looking from the outside in, can Formula 1actually say that it has the best drivers in the world without being full of shit? New's has broken recently about Alex Palou joining the McLaren family, and despite all of the excitement surrounding Colton Herta's F1 test in Portominao, and Pato O'Wards at Yas Marina, Alex is the only one with enough super license points to actually jump into F1 right away.

It's about time that Liberty Media, the American owners of Formula 1, pull their strings and force the FIA into reevaluating the Super License system, because America has so much more to offer Formula 1.

Stay tuned - Part 2 - An American Team that Wants to be American is coming next. But in the meantime, tune into last week's podcast for your fill of F1 talk.

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