How Formula 1 Finally Made Inroads in America

A few years back, on a Sunday morning in December, I awoke to find Twitter in a state of unified frenzy. My feed had turned into a cascade of all-caps missives from friends and media peers, all reacting in real time to…a race? I learned soon enough what had captured the collective gaze of the Twitter hordes: the 2021 Formula 1 season had reached a dramatic (and controversial) conclusion at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Max Verstappen of the Red Bull team dethroned Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion. After clearing that up, I had some more questions. Chief among them: When the hell did everyone get into F1?

It remains one of the more unlikely developments in sports this century. Formula 1, for so long a niche pastime of petrolheads and a symbol of European glitz, had somehow transformed itself into a mainstream spectacle with a now-sizable footprint in the United States. “The whiplash of a sport once watched almost exclusively by nerdy middle-aged men suddenly discovering that it was cool and young and online was perhaps the most disorienting moment in the series’s history,” write the authors Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg in their new book, The Formula: How Rogues, Geniuses, and Speed Freaks Reengineered F1 into the World’s Fastest-Growing Sport.

F1’s breakthrough in America was dreamed up by Liberty Media, the U.S. company that acquired the circuit in 2016 for $4.4 billion. Liberty, Robinson and Clegg explain, understood that the world’s premier motorsport “needed to be treated as the entertainment product it really was: a prestige television drama.” The company set out on what the authors call a “total reboot” of F1, modernizing how the races are broadcast and shifting the focus from the teams to the drivers. But Liberty’s slick rebrand was also bolstered by plain old good luck.

The company teamed up with Netflix to produce a fly-on-the-wall docuseries about F1 called Drive to Survive, which became a lockdown-era hit after the second season dropped on February 28, 2020, weeks before COVID ground life to a halt. “Against all odds,” Robinson and Clegg write, “F1 had carved out its own corner of the weirdest media landscape anyone could remember.” Drive to Survive proved to be the best advertisement the sport could have asked for; by the end of 2021, the authors note, F1 had added more than 70 million new fans in its 10 largest markets.

The Formula, which hits shelves on Tuesday, also provides a breezy accounting of F1 history prior to Liberty’s takeover, devoting ample space to the sport’s most consequential figures–– Enzo Ferrari and Bernie Ecclestone, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, I talked to Robinson and Clegg about F1’s improbable rise in the U.S., the potential of a Saudi takeover and a bubbling controversy that threatens to upend Verstappen and the reigning champion Red Bull team.

Vanity Fair: Formula 1 is currently gripped by scandal. Christian Horner, the principal of Red Bull, is facing allegations of misconduct. While he has denied the allegations against him and was cleared of wrongdoing in a probe initiated by the team’s parent company, there’s still a cloud hanging over the matter. The female employee who levied the accusations was recently suspended for reasons reportedly connected to the investigation, while the father of Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s three-time world champion driver, has insinuated that his son may leave the team if Horner is still in the picture. I wanted to start there. How big is this story, and how messy could it get?

Robinson: It’s clearly a huge issue within Red Bull and threatens to tear this team apart. When you look at the figure that is Christian Horner, he presents himself as a maverick who built this team and has always pushed things to the very limit as his modus operandi. If it does lead to him leaving, I think that is the biggest change in Red Bull’s Formula 1 history, since he basically embodies it. He’s the only team principal they’ve ever had since the team was founded in 2004. Obviously, the details are still unknown, and are dribbling out in some of the craziest ways. We had this anonymous leak of messages that are purported to be between Horner and his accuser. There’s been an internal investigation at Red Bull, but we have no idea how they came to the conclusion they did. There’s certainly more to come here.

Clegg: It just doesn’t feel like the present situation is tenable for much longer. It feels like there’s going to be some sort of resolution, whether that’s Horner leaving or deciding to walk away at the end of the season or some sort of mutual agreement. I don’t know exactly how it ends, but it does feel like the present situation can’t continue much longer.

It feels like F1’s breakthrough in the U.S. was a case of lightning in a bottle. Drive to Survive became a massive hit, which in turn brought droves of new fans to the sport, but it was a massive hit in large part because of the pandemic. In your book, Mercedes principal Toto Wolff is quoted as saying that it’s unclear whether the deal with Netflix was “a genius move or a lucky punch.” If COVID doesn’t happen, are we even having this conversation? Does F1 take off in the U.S. if people aren’t stuck in quarantine desperate for something to binge?

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