For American Formula 1 fans, the dream of seeing one of their own in the driver’s seat has been unfulfilled since 1993. In short, a full dozen years have passed since Michael Andretti’s disastrous foray into Formula 1, where he drove a twitchy McLaren with customer Ford engines and had a teammate who was looking to prove himself once again: the late, great Ayrton Senna. The IndyCar star was tailor-made for a mismatch of supreme proportions.
Andretti just hoped to carry his IndyCar success across the pond, but not moving to Europe affected his ability to fit in with the team, provide information, or make testing sessions.
That year was interesting in that three-time champ Alain Prost had returned following a year’s hiatus after a not so pleasant breakup with Ferrari in 1991. He joined the Williams-Renault outfit, which had won ten races and the title the previous year. Prost would prove to be Senna’s greatest rival for the World Championship. Andretti’s greatest challenge was simply getting to grips with Formula 1.
Andretti’s first start came at the South African Grand Prix, where he qualified ninth but crashed out after four laps. He wasn’t alone; of the twenty-six cars that started, only five finished. Senna drove a clean race to second, impressive but for the notable fact that he didn’t beat Prost. At Brazil, Andretti had gained four positions on the grid, starting a season-best fifth. That lasted all of one corner, whereupon he collided with Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari, and the two smashed into the barrier. When Senna won his home grand prix, it showed what everyone had expected: the American simply was not Senna.
A third event was held at the Donington Park circuit in England when plans for an Asian grand prix failed to materialize. While Andretti again qualified well, in sixth, he crashed out for the third race in a row, this time colliding with Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber-Illmor on the first lap. In changing dry, wet, and wetter conditions, Senna drove what some called the best race of his career en route to his second win in a row. McLaren’s team boss, Ron Dennis, considered replacing Andretti with Lotus refugee and McLaren test driver Mika Hakkinen, whose own future F1 career would yield two World Championships.
Senna threatened to leave the team when McLaren didn’t get the factory Ford engines at the fourth race in Imola. A comedy of errors ensued as Senna tried to get to the race and sign a contract. The Brazilian agreed to drive only on a race-by-race basis and was a disappointing fourth on the grid, only two spots ahead of Andretti. This time, Andretti made it past the first corner and ran well until lap 33, when he spun off. Senna retired about ten laps later, and Prost won the race.
In Spain, Andretti started seventh and finished fifth, scoring his first two points. He followed that with an uninspiring ninth-to-eighth at Monaco. It had to provide some sense of relief that he finished the most prestigious event on the calendar even if it wasn’t for points. Again, Senna won, taking his record sixth victory at the Monte Carlo street circuit.
But from there it began to go downhill for Andretti, as he began a string of six consecutive starts outside the top ten. At the only race on his home continent of North America, in Canada, he started twelfth and finished fourteenth. In France, he did come from sixteenth to score a point in sixth, but he retired in the next three events in Britain, Germany, and Hungary. He finished eighth in Belgium before earning the first and only podium appearance of his Formula 1 career with a solid third at Italy. It was there he left the McLaren team, after scoring seven points and finishing six of thirteen starts. Andretti was replaced by test driver Hakkinen, who promptly outqualified Senna at Portugal in his first start. The second car proved a better fit for the ice-cold Finn.
So Andretti the son couldn’t match Andretti the father, Mario, who was America’s last World Champion driver. After the ’93 disaster, Michael Andretti returned to IndyCar racing and retired full-time in 2003, with a career zero for the Indianapolis 500.
Formula 1 hasn’t had an American racing driver since, although in 1994, Elton Julian tested with the Larrousse-Ford team with hopes of a potential seat in 1995. Unfortunately the team closed its doors following the last race of the season due to a lack of funds.
In 2002, seeing the obvious need for an American driver in the sport, 1985 Indianapolis 500 champion and former Tyrrell F1 driver Danny Sullivan launched the Red Bull Driver Search, a program designed to give young Americans the opportunity to move overseas and progress toward a Formula 1 seat. Sullivan and a panel of other well-qualified judges made their four selections.
Of the four winners, only Scott Speed had a good enough 2003 season to keep him in the program, whereas Grant Maiman, Joel Nelson, and Paul Edwards had minimal success.
The program was expanded in 2003 to include kart racers as well as formula racers, and a process of elimination included a test at the Estoril circuit in Portugal. Speed was retained, and Dominique Claessens, Colin Fleming, and Matt Jaskol were selected as Red Bull Driver Search winners.
Speed and Fleming drove in the Formula Renault 2000 Series this past season, and Speed did an outstanding job to win the series championship. He won seven races at notable tracks such as Hockenheim in Germany, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and Imola in Italy. Fleming finished third in the points standings and had a best finish of second in three races, twice behind Speed (Spa, Imola). Jaskol won races in the U.S. Formula BMW Series, while Claessens did well in both Formula Renault 2000 and German Formula Renault.
For 2005, the Red Bull Junior Team will contain Speed, Fleming, and fourteen-year-old John Edwards. That is not a misprint. Edwards graduated from Skip Barber regional racing after two years and beat out the other contenders at Estoril. Age is his only hindrance at the moment-Formula 1’s youngest-ever driver was New Zealander Mike Thackwell at nineteen.
Red Bull’s interest in F1 grew substantially when the Jaguar team announced it was withdrawing from the grid. Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz purchased the Jaguar assets and rebadged the team with the sports drink’s name. Red Bull first made an F1 appearance in 1995 as a primary sponsor for the Sauber team. If an American were to get the call, the Red Bull squad would be ideal.
For 2005, Speed has graduated to the GP2 Series, the replacement for the International Formula 3000 championship. He recently tested with Red Bull at Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya. He posted the fastest time of the four drivers at the test, the others being fellow Red Bull-sponsored driver Neel Jani and the Williams-BMW pairing of Nick Heidfeld and Antonio Pizzonia, both F1 veterans.