Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Written by Morgan Holiday, Edited by Aiden Hover
For a country that boasts several world-renowned racing series’, America’s presence in Formula 1 has been severely lacking for, well, ever. Only 19 American Formula 1 drivers have started more than ten races and the reason for this phenomenon largely remains a mystery.
But while the United States’ presence in Formula 1 hasn’t been overwhelming, the country still boasts drivers with very impressive resumes. Since most of them are rarely recognized or remembered, let’s take a look at the best American drivers to ever race in Formula 1.
Italian born Mario Andretti is the most decorated American Formula 1 driver, with 12 wins accompanying his one driver’s championship. While his fascination with cars and racing began at a very young age, he didn’t officially start racing until 1964 when he started in the United States Auto Club stock car series – a series he won 3 times throughout his career. His first championship win was in 1965, just a year after he started racing.
Andretti started competing in NASCAR in 1966. While he only raced in 14 races throughout four seasons, he managed to score a win in the Daytona 500 in 1967, driving with Holman Moody. He also had an extensive and successful Indycar career, racing in the series from 1979 to 1994. He only took the title once, in 1984 with Newman/Haas Racing.
Andretti made his Formula 1 debut at the United States Grand Prix in 1968 with Lotus. While it was the only race he competed in that season, he took pole position, retiring with a broken clutch 33 laps into the race. He continued to participate in occasional races throughout the 1969 and 1970 seasons, although he retired from all of them but the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix, where he finished on the podium.
After that season he moved to Ferrari, where he won on debut with the team in South Africa. Eventually going back to Lotus, Andretti finally took the driver’s title in 1978. That season, which saw Andretti take six wins, would also be his last Formula 1 race win, and the last win for an American driver in Formula 1 to date.
Phil Hill was the first American to win the Formula 1 driver’s championship, taking the title in 1961. Hailing from Santa Monica, California, Hill left college to pursue his racing career. He made his F1 debut in 1958 in the French Grand Prix with Maserati, driving for the Ecurie Bonnier racing team. He drove several more races that season, this time with Scuderia Ferrari, who signed him full time for the 1959 season.
Hill finished 4th and 5th respectively in the driver’s standings the next two seasons with Ferrari, before becoming the first (and only) American born driver to win the World Driver’s Championship. Hill clinched the championship with a first-place at Ferrari’s home race that season. But the win was bittersweet, as his teammate Wolfgang Von Trips was killed that very race. The unfortunate accident combined with the fact that Ferrari had already taken both the driver’s and constructor’s championship lead to their decision not to participate in the final race of the season, the American Grand Prix.
That win would sadly be Hill’s last in F1, although he went on to race for four more seasons. It is not, however, the end of his career highlights. Hill was also a three-time Le Mans winner with Ferrari, in 1958, 1961, and 1962. While Hill started the 24 Hours of Le Mans 14 times, he failed to finish the race 11 of those times. But in every race he finished, he won. Hill retired from racing in 1967 but remains the only American to win both Le Mans and the Formula 1 driver’s championship.
A staple of racing, as well as sports in general, is the podium celebration, where the top three athletes from the given event celebrate their victories, and these celebrations inevitably include the spraying of champagne. This widely practised and respected tradition has been in place since 1967 and was started by none other than America’s finest, Dan Gurney. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, does it?
Actually, it does. Starting the champagne spraying tradition is merely a footnote on Gurney’s impressive resume. Along with Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya, he is one of the three drivers to win races in Formula 1, NASCAR, Indycar, and Sportscars. He was also one of three drivers to win in Formula 1 with a car of their own design, along with Jack Brabham and Bruce Mclaren. If you’ve ever heard of the Gurney Flap, a part used on some racing cars, he invented that too. But while Gurney’s accomplishments could fill a book, let’s focus on his Formula 1 career.
To give an idea of the kind of driver Dan Gurney was, Jim Clark once stated that Gurney was the only driver he ever feared. He made his Formula 1 debut in 1959 with Ferrari. He bounced between teams for the next couple of seasons, before taking his maiden win in the 1962 French Grand Prix with Porsche. The following season, Gurney was the first driver signed to Jack Brabham’s racing team, Brabham Racing Organisation. He would go on to score the team’s first two Formula 1 wins in the 1964 season.
However, Gurney’s most impressive Formula 1 win wouldn’t come till 1967, when he won the Belgian Grand Prix in a car he designed himself. The Anglo American Racers (or All American Racers) was a team founded by Gurney a Carrol Shelby, former racing rivals turned business partners. That same year he took his only win at Le Mans, driving for Ford and Shelby American.
While Gurney never won the world championship, his four Formula 1 wins put him at the second most wins of any American driver. That, coupled with his many other achievements makes him one of America’s most impressive racing drivers, not just in Formula 1 but of all time.
Richie Ginther made his Formula 1 debut with Ferrari in the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. Despite only racing in three races throughout the whole season, he scored points in every one of those races, with a best-placed finish of second in the Italian Grand Prix, and ended up 9th in the championship standings. In 1962 Ginther signed with Owen Racing Organisation (BRM), with whom he raced for the next three seasons. In 1963 he would score his best championship finish, ending in equal second place with his teammate Graham Hill.
Ginther stood on the podium 13 times before he finally made it to the top step in 1965, driving for Honda in the Mexican Grand Prix. Qualifying third behind Jim Clark and Dan Gurney, Clark retired with an engine problem and Ginther made it past Gurney to take his first and only Formula 1 win.
The Mexican Grand Prix would not only be Ginther’s last win, but also his last podium finish in Formula 1. He only started five races throughout the next two seasons and retired in 1967 following an accident in qualifying for the Indy 500.
Peter Revson’s racing career is somewhat sparse compared to the other drivers on this list. He didn’t begin racing full time until age 23 when he competed in Formula Junior. He made his Formula 1 debut in 1963 in the Gold Cup with Reg Parnell Racing. However, the team was not very successful, and Revson soon went back to America to race there.
He competed in the USAC championship for 8 years, taking one win despite never competing for a full season. In 1971 he scored a pole position in the Indy 500 with McLaren, finishing second in the race.
The following season Revson went back to Formula 1, this time with McLaren. Throughout his two seasons with them he achieved eight podium finishes and two wins, giving him the third-most wins of all time for an American Formula 1 driver.
Among these five drivers stand others like them, but not many. America’s last Formula 1 driver was Alexander Rossi, who started five races in 2015 with Marussia. No American driver has won a Formula 1 race since 1978 when Mario Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix. Until someone new makes the step up, we remember the talented, albeit few, people who have already achieved great things in motorsport’s top tier.