Finding the next Mario Andretti: America's long wait for a Formula One champion

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It's been 38 years since Formula One had an American race winner or world champion. Jimmy Carter was president, Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys were Super Bowl champions and Pete Rose had just recorded his 3,000th major league hit.

The driver who claimed both was Mario Andretti, winning the 1978 world championship with the iconic Lotus 79. He became the second American after Phil Hill to claim the F1 title, though his triumph -- and final victory at that year's Dutch Grand Prix -- precipitated a nearly four-decade long drought for drivers from his country.

There are several tragic parallels between Andretti and Hill's championships. Both men wrapped up their championships at Monza after their teammates suffered fatal accidents. For Andretti, the loss of Ronnie Peterson has always left a cloud over his finest achievement.

"Of course, it's bittersweet," Andretti tells ESPN about the memory of 1978. "It could have been the happiest day of my career but I couldn't celebrate, I lost a friend and teammate, one of the best teammates I ever had."

That day in Italy should have been the realisation of a life's ambition at the place the dream began 24 years earlier. As a youngster living in Italy, Andretti had become transfixed on motorsport in 1954 after he and his brother Aldo watched Alberto Ascari beat Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1954 Italian Grand Prix, just months before his family journeyed the Atlantic for a new life in the United States.

Andretti arrived in America dreaming of being Dan Gurney in a Ferrari. But in America, all paths led elsewhere. In his new country Andretti split duties between midget racing, NASCAR and national championship racing, making part-time appearances in F1 between 1968 and 1972. He claimed pole on his F1 debut, the 1968 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

"Let's put it this way," Andretti says. "If that had been happening today I would have got a lot more attention than back in the '70s. We had a press following and there was a certain appreciation but no-one really, but no-one realised what I was really going through and how I was mixing up the disciplines. At the beginning of the '70s I was going from a dirt track to a Formula One, doing that and Monza in the same weekend!

"If I'd been doing that today I would have got a bit more appreciation for what I was doing! I always had such tremendous passion for all of it, but Formula One was always in the back of my mind and a very strong goal for me because that's where it all started in my mind. I was just very thankful that I was at least satisfy that part of my career, even though I started a little bit late on a full-time basis. I consider that time in F1 very precious."

Though the sanctioning bodies have now changed, Andretti thinks the mindset in North American racing has remained the same.

"Here in the U.S. you have two major disciplines, IndyCar and NASCAR, where a driver can have a full career and be satisfied pretty much by staying here. You probably don't need a passport! It's probably the only country on the planet that has disciplines that are that strong as far as their own country.

"The dream across the board globally for a racing driver is to be a Formula One driver. I don't think that's necessarily the case here. The few that have that ambition I think are being totally overlooked by the Formula One contingent. It's always been particularly difficult to break through that.

"I look back at my case, my passion for the sport began when I was first living in Italy: It was Formula One, Formula One, Formula One for me. When I came here I started racing locally and built a reputation, but my idea was still to somehow get my career to Formula One.

"I had that passion that was with me from the beginning, so even in Formula One I had opportunities early on in my career but things were going so well for me here that I could just abandon it. Especially because even in those days, financially Formula One was not very rewarding. That was my case."

Before committing to F1 full time midway through the '70s, Andretti claimed the Daytona 500 (1967) and Indy 500 (1969). He remains the only man to win those two events and the F1 world championship. Having grown restless at switching disciplines, Andretti finally completed a full season of F1 with American outfit Parnelli in 1975. He then accepted an offer to drive for Colin Chapman's Lotus team when Parnelli folded early in 1976, a successful partnership that would eventually lead to a world championship.

Though he saw many of his American counterparts stay home to race nationally, he is still baffled by the limited amount of home-grown drivers who enjoyed major success in the pinnacle of motor racing.

"I'm only the second guy to come away with a championship, yet look how much racing America has to offer. But only two of us have done it. I think Dan Gurney, if he hadn't been playing around with his own cars and maybe gone to a Lotus or a more established team he would have been a champion.

"But there's only two of us and I'm the only one standing, which seems odd for a country that has so much to offer here, but that's the case."

After Andretti, success for American drivers in F1 was hard to come by. Eddie Cheever, who debuted in 1978, failed to win a race in 132 attempts between then and 1989. Nine years later, Cheever would win the Indy 500 back in America.

The next great hope was another Andretti: Mario's son Michael, CART champion two years prior, joined McLaren in 1993. His name and success across the pond meant instant success was expected at a team which had dominated the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it was a team in decline. The iconic red and white livery remained but the Honda engines did not, having been replaced by Ford.

He also joined in a year of dramatic testing restrictions limiting drivers to 23 laps in the morning's session and 12 before qualifying. Coming from IndyCar, Michael had no experience of concepts such as active suspension and traction control, meaning he struggled to master the McLaren MP4/8. On top of all that, Michael was paired alongside Ayrton Senna, widely considered F1's greatest ever driver, while McLaren had also signed Mika Hakkinen to a test role with a view to a future drive.

His father is convinced F1 never saw anything close to the best of Michael Andretti.

When asked if his son's struggles strengthened the negative perception of the calibre of IndyCar in the F1 paddock, Andretti said: "Yeah, that plays. In Michael's situation I know -- and not just because he's my son -- the quality of his driving. He only did one season and the rules went against him because you could only do so many laps, it was a total of like 23 laps, counting the in and outs, and no testing allowed on any of the circuits they raced on.

"So all of that played against him, but he showed some moments of brilliance. He made some mistakes, of course, because he was used to winning and was trying to force things. But overall, part of it was that he was not patient enough. He was used to winning here and he thought 'I'm not going to waste my time, they don't appreciate what I can do,' so he just abandoned it. The true story was never really told on what happened to him. But the perception was that he was not capable of getting it done."

That perception was not helped by what was happening across the Atlantic, where reigning Formula One champion Nigel Mansell, axed by Williams after his title-winning year, went and won the CART crown at the first attempt. Michael did not even make it to the end of the 1993 F1 season, parting ways with McLaren after his solitary podium at the Italian Grand Prix. It would be his last F1 race.

Andretti is certain Michael's 1993 struggles had a negative impact on the chances of Americans making the grid in the future.

"Even his podium at Monza, nobody did as much overtaking as he did! So it was things like that [people didn't appreciate]. But a lot of this perception is plain, and a lot of the drivers who were there after myself, they were not as successful so they say 'oh, Americans can't cut it there.' I beg to differ -- they can if given the proper opportunity."

Two CART drivers who would be given that opportunity to show what they could do in a competitive car in the following years were Canada's Jacques Villeneuve and Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya. Villeneuve joined the dominant Williams team in 1996, winning the title the following year, while Montoya joined the same team at the start of its resurgence in the early 2000s.

Michael very nearly got that second opportunity. Having returned to CART in 1994, he soon had an offer to return to F1 with his father's former team Ferrari. It was a Ferrari team on the cusp of the most dominant era of Formula One ever.

"He went back with Chip Ganassi, but then when he went to Newman-Haas [in 1995] he was still thinking of finishing in up in Formula One. I went there with his manager to Ferrari and they were ready to do a deal with him [for 1996].

"I told Michael 'don't sign more than a one year deal with Haas.' He signed three years with the understanding they might release him [after one] if he had the opportunity, but they didn't. So that ended any possibility for Michael to do Formula One again but it could have changed everything for him."

Instead, America would have to wait until 2006 for the next time it was on the F1 grid. The driver was Scott Speed, then in his early twenties and a product of Red Bull's American talent search in the early 2000s. Having been discovered by Red Bull, a teenage Speed moved to Austria and competed in various series in Europe, including the inaugural GP2 championship in 2005. After finishing third behind champion Nico Rosberg and and Heikki Kovalainen, Speed was promoted to Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso.

Despite high expectations, Speed struggled to make an impact with and now admits the complexity of the sport, and the difficulty in making an impression at a backmarking team, caught him by surprise.

"I had no idea when I got to Formula One just how technical it would be," Speed tells ESPN. "It's hard for the driver to have too much impact on the result when you get further down the grid. If you're in a car that can finish 12th or 13th, you might finish 11th if you do a really good job or 14th if you do a bad one. But whatever you do -- you've still finished outside the top 10! In other series it isn't like that. That makes it difficult to ultimately make a good impression and get a top drive.

"The sheer scale of the technology in Formula One is incredible. IndyCar is a lot easier to drive, in the sense that the cars are similar and the level of competition is so good. But compare those cars to Formula One, it's like kindergarten and college. F1 is a world championship not just between drivers but between engineers. So if you don't get a top drive, you're unlikely to be successful and winning races. I didn't truly appreciate that until I got to Formula One."

Speed was ultimately dropped for Sebastian Vettel, who went on to become the most successful driver of the modern era. Speed's departure turned out to be the first part of a double-whammy, as America lost its only driver and only race (the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis) by the end of 2007.

Andretti has seen how the failures of the Americans who followed him have had a negative impact on the F1 paddock's willingness to look across the pond for new talent. He remembers one conversation in particular with Helmut Marko, Red Bull's motorsport advisor and overseer of the driver programme, which brought Speed into F1.

"I'm always speaking in Formula One with certain individuals," Andretti says. "Like Helmut Marko, for instance, he was asking me if there are any talents in America, let me know. I once mentioned him a couple of names and he just sneered at it, and I said 'why?'

"So they already have their mind made up on certain people who need to be given the opportunity. To them the ones who have been in haven't shown what they should have shown, but they couldn't because of the teams they are in. So it's a Catch-22."

With the biggest F1 teams not looking at American talent, Andretti hopes 2016 debutants Haas -- run by Gene Haas and run out of Kannapolis, North Carolina -- pick up the torch and help create a pathway for young drivers in the States.

"The new American team... I would hope they would look at an American talent. There are a few who could be measured up in their roster. Then they can see if they can cultivate something for an American driver because that would do wonders for exposure over here."

In 2015, it looked like F1 had suddenly found that perfect American team-driver combination. With Haas' arrival on the horizon, American driver Alexander Rossi made five appearances in the final seven races of the season for Manor. Rossi's arrival on the grid was significant -- no American had driven in the sport since Speed's departure in 2007, and the sport now had an American team set to join the grid.

Like Speed, Rossi's journey to F1 can be traced back to the fact he moved to Europe at a young age. Rossi grew up idolising Mika Hakkinen and dreaming of being America's next Formula One champion rather than following IndyCar or NASCAR too closely. Perhaps in part due to the scepticism Andretti encountered with the likes of Marko, his wait for F1 was long, and his opportunity short. Haas overlooked the apparent natural fit for their maiden F1 season and Rossi -- who won the Indy 500 as a rookie this year -- now seems poised for a successful career in North America.

Rossi thinks the cost of an American making it into F1 is too great for some to consider with the existence of series such as IndyCar and NASCAR on young drivers' doorsteps.

"I think the reason of it is you have to commit to it at a young age," Rossi explained to ESPN. "A lot of teenagers and families, for that matter, are not willing to go over to Europe, for understandable reasons. America's not a bad place. You can have a racing career in America and not uproot your whole life.

"That's the only reason, it's got nothing to do with American drivers not being able to be competitive or not having what it takes. You just can't go from the junior championships to America and be successful in Europe. You have to start in Europe as a kid and prove yourself over there."

Though he is convinced an American driver could cut it in Europe, he admits the quality of championships on that side of the Atlantic are greater than the ones he left behind.

When it was put to Rossi that it's hard to see the structure of junior racing changing in North America and Europe any time soon, he replied: "Yeah, exactly. And it is true the junior championships in Europe are more competitive than the ones in America, without a doubt. You'll always see guys that are successful in the junior series in Europe and do a pretty good job in IndyCar. Going the other direction isn't always a guarantee for success.

"I think that speaks to the level of European racing and how competitive it is. I owe a huge part of my success in IndyCar this year to how hard Europe is and how quickly you have to adapt and how much on top of your game you have to be on a regular basis."

The loss of Rossi from the grid also came before this year's takeover of American media giants Liberty, who have promised a radical evolution of the sport in the coming years. There has been talk of a second race in the U.S. to capitalise on the popularity of the COTA event, while Liberty's approach to broadcasting and social media promises to open the sport up to a new generation of fan base.

While Andretti accepts more American races are something of a moot point without a competitive American on the grid, he thinks the recent changes to Formula One's governance can only mean good things for his adopted country.

"The country is big enough that it could easily host two races," Andretti says. "Absolutely. That would really reinforce the fan base -- the more the merrier. I would love to see that and I think it would be a step forward. I think Liberty now being part of it, they will want to grow it or start making some effort to grow it in the US as well.

"I'm sure it's a company that wants to make a difference, wants to improve and make it more appealing, that's their business. They aren't investing millions of dollars to maintain the status quo...."

As for the chances of finding that driver, Andretti thinks the only chance might well be someone taking a risk on a Rossi or another successful IndyCar driver.

"It's a strange situation, really. Something will have to break through, again, to establish some kind of credibility with the drivers who compete in IndyCar. Otherwise it's hard to see where the next American world champion is going to come from."