Logan Sargeant, the first American full-time F1 driver since 2007, is now in his third year. Can the sport survive the transition from Monte Carlo and Miami?
Logan Sargeant is one of the few South Florida natives to reach Formula 1, which is the highest international level in motorsport. He began racing primitive cars called karts at age six. Credit...Sam Bush, The New York Times
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By Michael M. Grynbaum
Michael M. Grynbaum reports from the Williams Racing factory, Grove, England.
May 13, 2023
Logan Sargeant is the only American Formula 1 driver zipping through the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan at approximately 200 miles per hour. He bounces his head inside the cockpit while a wheel shivers over a rumble track. The banshee shriek from his V6 engine is so loud that it's difficult to hear. It has three times as many horsepower as a Porsche Carrera.
Baku disappears when the noise stops. We are inside a brick building in the countryside of Oxfordshire. The track projected on a CinemaScope wraparound screen was a mirage. It was part of an advanced training simulator. F1 rules forbid drivers to drive the cars in between races. Mr. Sargeant gets out of the replica driver's chair wearing athletic pants. He won't require a fireproof jacket until later.
In just three weeks, Mr. Sargeant is going to experience this in real life: the wind whipping around his visor and G-forces up to six-times his body weight pressing against his neck. He will be watched by 70 million people from all over the world. Now, it's lunchtime. Is chili bad? He asks as he digs into a bowl of chili at the team commissary. I don't believe it's as bad as you think.
Sargeant is the first American F1 driver to join the Williams Racing team since 2007. He began racing primitive cars, known as karts, at the age of six.
Finding a local hero to represent American fans in Formula 1 is a huge leap.
F1 has struggled to gain traction in the United States for many decades, despite its huge popularity in Europe. In 2016, the Colorado-based Liberty Media owned by cable magnate John Malone purchased the sport for $4.4 billion. Liberty Media boosted its social media - F1 barely had a YouTube page - and backed the Netflix documentary series 'Drive to Survive'. F1 is no longer a sport for aging white men. It now attracts a more diverse and younger fan base. The number of American TV viewers is up by 220 percent compared to 2018. Last year, the sport generated $2.6 billion.
A subset of F1 fans complains about the overemphasis placed on entertainment and drama. They argue that under Liberty, the pure race is being pushed aside in favor of cheap tricks designed to attract casual viewers. They often call it Americanization, a dirty term. Bernie Ecclestone (92), the Briton who turned F1 into an international business, complained last year that it was becoming more like Formula Hollywood. "F1 is made more and more to appeal to the American market."
Last week, the backlash reached its peak at the Miami Grand Prix. This race was added to American fans' calendar in 2022. In a pre-race ceremony reminiscent of a prizefight, rapper LL Cool J announced the 20 drivers in front of a cheerleading squad and swirling smoke. Will.i.am led a live orchestra in a nearby room, playing the rap track he recorded with Lil Wayne recently as part of Formula 1's 'global collaboration'. The lyrics of the song rhyme "Max Verstappen," the name the sport's best driver, with "your champion."
One fan wrote on Twitter that pandering to American audiences is killing URL. This criticism was echoed by many F1 websites. Lando Norris - a British driver for McLaren - complained that 'none of the drivers' liked it. Liberty, undeterred by the criticisms, announced that it would feature the explosive pre-race scene at several other grands prix in this year.
F1 is associated in the United States with a certain European aura. The drivers of F1 race through the Ardennes Forest (Circuit de Spa Francorchamps, Belgium), the plains and hills of Lombardy in Italy (Autodromo Nazionale di Monza), and the glamorous Monaco Grand Prix. Sacha Baron's role as Jean Girard in the 2006 comedy 'Talladega Nights, The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby', which starred Will Ferrell and Sacha, was a pretension French F1 racer named Jean Girard. He played a snooty Eurotrash driver who was the antithesis of Will Ferrell's macho NASCAR Cowboy.
In 2023 F1 will feel more like Ricky Bobby and less like Jean Girard. Miami drivers raced around a track constructed in the parking area of the Dolphins stadium. They passed an artificial Monaco style 'harbor,' which was blue-painted asphalt with ersatz boats. In November, cars will zoom down the Strip past Caesars Palace in a new Las Vegas race. Traditional races in France, Germany and elsewhere are no longer held.
Katy Fairman is a journalist from Brighton, England who hosts the F1 podcast "Small Torque". She was shocked by the spectacle she saw at a race held in Austin, Texas. She said that there were girls wearing pompoms. I remember watching and thinking, Oh, my gosh! This is so different than anything I had seen F1 do for a long time.
Ms. Fairman acknowledged that some Europeans found the American hullabaloo "tacky." She added, 'I think Europeans can be quite judgemental when it comes to America. I just think it's a little light-hearted fun. You like to party.
Sargeant is happy to be playing the role. He grew up an hour away from the Miami racetrack and has been featured in GQ. "What's up America! Let's bring this energy!" LL Cool J had introduced him as a 'local boy who has done well'.
As with F1, the sport is still in its early stages. Mr. Sargeant was last in Miami after he damaged his front wing on the first lap. He apologized to his crew after the checkered-flag, with a barely audible voice: "I'm sorry." I can't even believe it.
In an interview conducted in England a few weeks earlier, Sargeant had resisted the urge to wear the stars and strips. He said, 'I don't want to be too enamored with the idea of being the 'first American'. It's very early in my career, and I still have a lot of learning to do.
If Mr. Sargeant does not perform, dozens of drivers are eager to take over his place. He said that he only had to worry about his safety at the moment.
I just want to go back to the gym.
Sargeant was once asked, before his Miami weekend, how he would celebrate finishing in the top 10. He replied, 'Honestly, I know it sounds lame, but I'd probably go back home and sleep in my bed one more night before returning to London.' "That's what I want to do."
Sargeant is a handsome, wealthy athlete who travels the world. He can be incredibly shy and self-conscious. As a tennis prodigy, or an Olympian gymnast has dedicated their entire life to one pursuit, it's not uncommon.
Mr. Sargeant and his brother Dalton were 6 years old when their parents gave them a kart for Christmas. Logan stated that 'no one in the family really was into racing'. We just took it up on weekends as a hobby. He won junior races all over the country - too easily. He had to move continents in order to pursue Formula 1 and leave behind his fishing trips and friends.
Mr. Sargeant, who left Florida in his early teens, raced on Europe's junior circuit, racing between Italy, Switzerland, and Britain. In 2015, he was the first American since 1978 to win the Karting world championship. He recalled that he had a tough time as a child. It was the opposite of Florida. Being outdoors on the water all the time, the great weather, it was the complete opposite. He settled in London and spends his days with a personal trainer. He said, 'I just want to go back into the gym after a race weekend. I hate the feeling of leaving slack in the gym.
The competition for Formula 1 seats is fierce. The drivers of today are physically dynamos who have been trained to maximize their reflexes, performance and even how well they can handle jet lag. This is critical for a sport which will feature 23 grand prix on five continents this year. F1 teams spend hundreds of millions on developing the most advanced racecars in the world. It's up to the driver, however, to perform.
Money is also a plus. Lewis Hamilton is the only Black F1 driver and seven-time World Champion. He grew up in a London council housing estate. Many F1 drivers are sons of multimillionaires and billionaires who can afford expensive travel and high-tech vehicles.
Mr. Sargeant is a scion. He comes from a wealthy Florida family of asphalt shipping. Harry Sargeant III is his uncle. He's a former fighter-pilot and former finance chair for the Florida Republican Party. His brother-in law, King Abdullah II, sued him. Harry Sargeant III was also a participant in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, which will take place in 2020. Harry Sargeant III was never accused of anything wrong.
Logan's dad, Daniel Sargeant worked with Harry until they had a falling-out. Harry sued Daniel in 2013 for misdirecting $6.5m of corporate funds to 'advance the international cart-racing activities' of Logan and Dalton. The lawsuit was settled.
Daniel Sargeant, a businessman from New York, pleaded guilty to charges of foreign bribery in New York federal court. He is currently freed on a bond of $5 million and awaits sentencing. Logan Sargeant, a spokesman for Williams, said he was unable to comment on the legal issues involving his family.
In F1, nothing stands out. In Britain, the mother of Alexander Albon's Williams teammate Mr. Sargeant was jailed for defrauding millions of pounds through fraudulent sales of luxury cars. Nikita Mazepin, a Russian racer who was banned from the sport following sanctions imposed on his father, an oligarch and close ally to President Vladimir V. Putin after the 2022 invasion in Ukraine, has been sanctioned.
James Vowles said that Mr. Sargeant was hired by the Williams team for his speed and not because he had a U.S. Passport. He said: 'I am incredibly happy that the sport in America is growing, but it would not be disingenuous for me to claim that Logan Sargeant was hired because of his speed, and not because he had a U.S. passport.'
Sargeant was 12th in his F1 debut at Bahrain in March. He finished ahead of the two other rookies this year. Vowles stated that Mr. Sargeant has an insatiable drive to improve and to always want more. He's a perfectionist and I like that about him.
Vauxhall Astra - Tooting around
Britain, the birthplace of Formula 1 in 1950, is still where the majority of its 10 teams reside. Williams, founded in Oxfordshire, England in the 1970s is now an American company. Dorilton Capital bought it in 2020 for $200 million.
The cash injection was crucial for a team who had been struggling to keep up with its rivals. Mercedes-Benz, for example, invests a lot of money in their F1 team, which also serves as a global marketing campaign as well as generating ideas within the company. Tech developed for F1, such as engines that use braking energy to accelerate, can be used on consumer cars.
Williams' campus looks like a brick heap that you could mistake for an office complex. It's a long way from McLaren, a space-age facility an hour away. Many F1 teams give their drivers a high-end sport car to use for personal purposes; Mr. Sargeant commutes with a Vauxhall, a compact.
Williams' sponsors are also relatively low-end. While Ferrari has an official watch, the Richard Mille (starting at $60,000), Williams works with Bremont whose watches retail for much less. Williams' press assistant was quick to pull a spare Bremont from his pocket on a recent visit and make sure Mr. Sargeant wore it when a photographer approached.
Due to the high costs of F1, corporate partnerships are essential. This is one of the reasons the American market with its wealth of wealthy brands and affluent customers has been so attractive. Gerald Donaldson, who has covered F1 over 45 years, recalls how corporate logos began to take over cars in the late 1960s.
In an interview, he revealed that 'Marlboro had paid for all Ferrari bills including drivers' over a period of many years. There are companies that want publicity. The car of Mr. Sargeant features advertisements for Michelob Ultra Beer and Stephens, an American financial company. Last weekend in Miami, beachgoers saw an airborne banner that read 'Go Logan'. Alongside the image of Duracell batteries, a banner reading 'Go Logan!
The Miami race last year was watched by 2.6 millions people on ABC, which is the largest American audience to watch a live F1 broadcast. This year's ratings fell by about 25%, possibly due to a season that was duller than usual, dominated by Red Bull.
ESPN clearly believes in more growth. The sports network agreed to pay $90m annually when it renewed its broadcasting rights last year. This is up from the $5m a year deal it signed in 2019
Liam Parker is a former Boris Johnson adviser who now heads communications for F1. He said that the sport wanted to rectify past mistakes. He said, 'We were arrogant'. We couldn't comprehend why American fans didn't love us. He also responded to the criticisms that Liberty's attempts to increase the entertainment factor have stripped F1 of an essential element.
He said: 'This entire argument of "Americanization" is a crude way to describe the situation. We shouldn't overlook things that could improve things for both new and core supporters. In the modern age, it's all about providing more options for people. It is modernization and access for everyone.
Hamilton, who is arguably the most famous F1 driver in the world, has endorsed Liberty's strategy. 'I mean jeez. I grew listening to LL Cool J', he told Miami reporters. I thought it was cool. It wasn't a problem to me.
When it comes down to the truth, F1's appeal may be something much simpler. This is what Mr. Sargeant was getting at when he asked him in an interview if he loved cars when he was a child.
He said, 'I love driving as you can imagine.' "But I have to admit, I am not one of those who like to study cars, and know all the details of each car. It's not something that I'm interested in.
He concluded that he was most interested in driving the cars as fast as he could.
Eliza Shapiro contributed from Miami. Kitty Bennett contributed research.