Formula 1 Is Sweeping the Country. It Still Has a Long Way to Go.

A dream trip to the Monza Circuit for the Italian Grand Prix reveals America’s shortcomings in the sport

September 19, 2023 6:14 am
Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz celebrate on the podium after the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz celebrate on the podium after the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Mario Renzi/Formula 1/Getty

Formula 1 is having what the kids call “a moment,” most of which is due to Americans taking a larger interest in the sport than ever before. Thanks to the extra eyes and the efforts of F1’s U.S. owners, 2023 will see an incredible three races on this side of the pond: the Miami Grand Prix, which was held for the second time ever in May; the United States Grand Prix in Austin, which will take place in October; and the debut of the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November.

As exciting as this is for American F1 fans eager to see a race for themselves, the new hastily assembled street circuits struggle to replicate the grand prix experience fans can get at one of the sport’s iconic tracks. Fewer are more historic than the Monza Circuit, or the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, and after attending this year’s Italian Grand Prix, it’s clear Formula 1 in the States has a long journey ahead of it. 

F1’s American Resurgence

Last season, F1 saw record-breaking viewership numbers in the U.S., averaging one million or more viewers per race. The inaugural Miami Grand Prix earned 2.583 million average viewers, making it the most-viewed live F1 telecast ever in the U.S., according to ESPN. 

So what’s going on here? The short answer is: Netflix — more specifically, the docuseries Drive to Survive, which has brought a significant amount of new fans to the sport. That’s in addition to the endeavors of Liberty Media, the U.S. company in charge of F1’s promotion and commercial rights, to bring more races stateside.  

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This is a major coup from a business perspective, given our substantial car culture, as well as the U.S. being one of the largest markets for the automakers fielding teams. Speaking with a representative for Aston Martin (who hosted my visit to the Italian Grand Prix), they stated that the association with F1 has a measurable impact on the brand.

Aston Martin runs an F1 team while also fielding the safety and medical cars for half the races in a season, a duty it shares with rivals Mercedes-Benz. These are modified versions of its Vantage F1 coupe and DBX707 SUV that you’ll see on the track, controlling traffic and responding to various incidents, respectively. Aston says they’ve seen a 29% spike in website traffic whenever either cars are on screen, and that by and large, its customers consider the F1 association a boon. 

Aston Martin's Formula 1 car at the Italian Grand Prix 2023
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Alex Kalogiannis

State of the Union

While the U.S. has a long history with motorsport, its recent relationship with F1 is akin to the country’s attitude toward soccer. In very broad and polite terms, it’s been complicated. There have been attempts to keep F1 in the States, but various issues have led to the United States GP coming and going since the 1960s and repeatedly changing venues. 

In 2012, the U.S. became part of modern F1 with the construction of the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. This new track is built to the standards required by the FIA, Formula 1’s governing organization, and host to a number of other racing disciplines throughout the year. Still a young venue in comparison to the other F1 circuits, COTA has been able to satisfy the sport’s current standards of safety as well as the needs of the promoters for fan capacity, vendors and other business-related benchmarks. 

It’s certainly a good way for F1 to establish a solid foothold here, but in light of the unprecedented rise in the sport’s popularity and demand for more races in other regions, it’s not a process easily replicated. Most importantly, building a circuit like this takes too long. The best way to strike while the iron is hot? Street circuits. 

Street circuits are a common site in motorsport with plenty of benefits to them: They’re relatively quick to assemble, they bring the event closer to city centers, and their impermanence makes them less of a burden on their regions during the rest of the year. Many of the most storied races in history are street circuits, including the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Last weekend’s race in Singapore’s Marina Bay was a street circuit as well.

This is not to say that these types of tracks are inherently bad or worse than races at a dedicated circuit, but they are prone to hang-ups like sloppy track resurfacing, poor fan facilities and, the biggest sin, being just plain boring. 

Fans in the stands at the Monza Circuit for the Italian Grand Prix 2023
The hometown crowd showed up for Ferrari and its drivers, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Alex Kalogiannis

“The Temple of Speed”

The Italian Grand Prix at Monza stands as a model for the authentic F1 experience. Situated just north of Milan, the track itself is a 100-year-old fixture for an already historic region of Northern Italy. It’s hosted almost every Italian Grand Prix since F1 began, and is the home turf of the Tifosi, Ferrari’s fervent fanbase. 

Monza stands out among other tracks in the lineup for being made of straight-line sections, only broken up by a few quick chicanes and long, high-speed curves. As such, drivers are at full throttle almost 80% of the time, leading to the 3.6-mile track’s nickname, “The Temple of Speed,” and causing all sorts of headaches for the race engineers tuning their car’s aerodynamics. In short, less downforce allows for faster times in the straights at the cost of grip through turns, a tricky thing to balance when the track is almost all flat-out. 

On the way to the track, I gazed out of the window of my transport to see the throngs of fans filling the streets as they made their way to Monza’s towering stands. Some sported colors of teams like McLaren’s amiable “papaya” or Aston Martin’s distinctive green, cheekily referred to as “podium green” on the DBX707 order form. For the most part, it’s a sea of rosso corsa, the red that is distinctly Ferrari. Happily, everyone plays nice. The Tifosi are gracious hosts to fans of other teams, all excited to celebrate the sport together. Like Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers or Wrigley for the Cubs, Monza is home to generations of Ferrari fans — some walk together holding flags sporting the marque’s prancing horse logo, eager to cheer on the home team. 

There is however a strict divide between those attending an F1 race. The fans who fill the stands are funneled into the “fan zone” where vendors, merch, food and live entertainment are available in-between the races. The rest occupy the “paddock club” where guests of the teams and sponsors are hosted, along with anyone with enough scratch to pay for the premium experience.

VIPs are given further access to hospitality suites above the pit lane where the race can be viewed from the balcony. These suites are filled with monitors displaying the race feed when the action has passed by, not to mention neverending concessions, and occasionally play host to team drivers and race directors who briefly speak to the crowd. 

View from above of Lance Stroll in his Aston Martin car at the Italian Grand Prix 2023
Seats don’t get closer to the action than this.
Alex Kalogiannis

Both fandoms are indicative of the personalities F1 wants to convey simultaneously: one that is deeply rooted in racing history and on-track action, but also a prestigious, exclusive affair for the upper crust. Both sides are vital to the proceedings. Fans in the stands roar in tandem with the engines, energizing the entire circuit, while the suite members justify the costly sponsorships by buying the advertised six-figure cars and five-figure watches. 

This is not to imply that those in the climate-controlled boxes aren’t just as big of fans as those in the stands. Whatever side of the literal fence you end up on, there’s something for every F1 fan to enjoy; and when it’s at Monza, you’re likely going to walk away with a cache of unforgettable moments.

Mine happened at the end of that Saturday’s qualifying event. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. of Ferrari, the hometown heroes, were attempting to land pole position for Sunday’s big race. Leclerc managed to snag the top spot, much to the delight of the crowd, only for current F1 champion Max Verstappen to snatch it away from him by fractions of a second. Soon after, Sainz stole it back by an even smaller margin. The wave of cheers, the sudden drop and then an even bigger pop from the Tifosi will forever ring in my ears. 

Of course, Verstappen went on to win the Italian Grand Prix. A disappointment for the local fans, certainly. But in doing so he became the first F1 driver to win 10 races in a row. Hard to complain about witnessing history. 

Lance Stroll of Aston Martin driving the Monza Circuit in the 2023 Italian Grand Prix
Lance Stroll rounding the bend at Monza.
Aston Martin

View From the Cockpit

Nobody is expecting these sorts of legendary F1 experiences to be replicated in the U.S. overnight — but so far, the efforts currently being made don’t bode well. Miami’s first grand prix had great viewership numbers, but they plummeted once the novelty ran its course, with the 2023 event’s TV viewers down 24% year-over-year on ABC.

The in-person event was also thoroughly dragged online after the wild up-charges for food at surrounding venues went viral. Then there’s the fact that the circuit mainly takes place in the parking lot of the Hard Rock Stadium, and that its faux marina has already earned it the reputation of being “a phony Monaco.” All of this could possibly be forgiven if the races themselves had been exciting — but they haven’t been. 

Is this a preview of coming attractions for the new Las Vegas Grand Prix? Possibly, especially considering reports of outrageous hotel and ticket package prices and a track layout that looks more for show than for racing. Of the two fandoms I spoke of before, these pricey, half-baked facsimiles of what racegoers experience at one of the more classic venues seem to be doing both a disservice.

It’s one thing to gripe from the grandstands, but what do the drivers think about these new courses? “For the most part, racing is racing,” Lance Stroll, driver for the Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team told InsideHook. “When you’re sat on the grid waiting for the lights to go out, you’re not focused on how much sporting history the track has.”

Hard to argue there. For the professionals, the focus is on the task at hand, racing for championship points, if not the win. From our armchair, it’s easy to scoff at the Miami circuit’s foibles, but given the chance, we’d have a hard time turning down a few laps. 

Stroll offered another perspective on how everyone’s takeaway will be unique to them: “It’s a huge privilege to race at tracks with so much history — but the circuits that are special to race at are the ones that really resonate with you on a personal level. That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how long they’ve been on the calendar.

“It’s hard to really call one circuit out as being more special than the others because of its historic significance,” he adds. “They all resonate with us differently; it’s one of the great things about Formula 1.”

Maybe other drivers feel the same. Maybe I would too if I had the privilege of being the one on the track instead of in the stands. Maybe it’s easy to romanticize a place like Monza after having the privilege of being there in person. Stroll is right that everyone is going to take something away from these new races, just as I took away amazing memories from my experience at the Italian Grand Prix. I’d love to have a transcendent experience like that happen here in the States. It just seems like a long way off.

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