Danica Patrick credits a TV show for the burgeoning popularity of Formula 1 in the U.S. She says three seasons of the Netflix series, Formula 1: Drive to Survive “has been a total game-changer in the states.”
The average person “doesn’t know about racing. If NASCAR and IndyCar did that and they really showed behind the scenes—if they really got drivers and teams and owners to be involved in it the way they’ve been able to get Formula 1 to do it, it would be a game-changer for those motorsports as well.
“I think the Netflix series has really opened people’s eyes to the controversies, the politics, the rivalries, the difficulties and the high-level execution these teams go through—it’s just not a sport people try,” Patrick told Autoweek. “You might try to play basketball, or try to throw a football or kick a soccer ball, but you don’t just try to race. It’s such a blank slate for people and that’s such a great way for them to have an insight into our sport.”
The comments from Patrick, an IndyCar winner and a retired NASCAR veteran, come just over a week before the 10th annual U.S Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, the only F1 race in America this year. That changes in May of 2022 when the Miami Grand Prix kicks off, and rumors persist that a deal is being made for Las Vegas in 2023 or 2024 for a third F1 race on U.S. soil.
Back to the Netflix series: “You turn on the TV on Sunday and you just see cars going around, you don’t have any idea about the storylines, you don’t have any idea about the personalities because they’re in a helmet.
“It doesn’t look difficult because they’re just driving around. If a car was driving sideways like a drift car it’d be going slow, so it just looks easy because the race cars aren’t out of control. That’s why people like Daytona and Talladega—they can understand a crash. ‘That’s dramatic! It’d be scary to do that!’ That’s about the only thing they can grasp.”
No question that an American driver, someone known to U.S. fans, would just sweeten the pot. What will it take for that to happen? “Apparently not much, now that word is there’s going to be an American owner, and the rumors about Colton Herta driving for Michael Andretti, if indeed Michael is going to buy the Sauber-Alfa Romeo team, are true.
“I think it will probably take a young driver, someone who has the latitude to sacrifice. I mean, you’d probably have to move I would think, it would be very difficult to fly back and forth. Look, Michael has a lot of that information, and I imagine he would stress how difficult it would be to fly home after every race.
“It would probably be someone young, someone who could uproot their life, someone who is confident, somebody who wants it. Somebody who wants to race Formula 1. I don’t know if that has always been the case. I know here in the states a lot of drivers want to race NASCAR, they want to race IndyCar, but I don’t know of that many who say I really want to race Formula 1, my real dream is racing F1. That’s not the narrative I hear from a lot of drivers. You’ve got to want it. Really want it.”
And what would it take to have a female F1 driver? “She’d have to be a great road course racer. They need to be really good on the road courses here in the States if they’re in IndyCar, and I think that should be a good enough steppingstone. I don’t think they have to come from Europe, but there’s a lot more open wheel series and a lot more road course racing going on there.”
Patrick knows: She was on that pre-F1 treadmill in Europe early in her career. But the atmosphere in Europe worked against her, she says. “I think from my experience when I lived in England—of course it was 20 years ago—but assuming the progression culturally has continued at the same rate for everyone… I felt like being there I wasn’t as welcome as a female as I was in the States. Unless Europe and England have taken a giant leap forward in the last 20 years, I don’t know if that would be a situation that would be likely, a woman coming up through the ranks in Europe. Yeah, there might be an opportunity, but is she getting a fair shake, is she in the right equipment?
“Look, when I was in England I was told I couldn’t drive on the main factory team, so they put me on a secondary team, and at the end of the year, I drove for the factory team in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, and I got (future F1 driver) Anthony Davidson’s old car from the season and he got a brand new car, and I finished second.
“That’s just how it went. I use the analogy of my own career in IndyCar—when I first started with Bobby Rahal in 2005 I had a great car, and I almost won in Japan in my fourth race, I almost won at Indy and qualified on the pole three times. I was fast. That kind of locked me into my career and solidified me.
“What would have happened if the car wasn’t good? Take for instance Scott Dixon – I was lapping Scott when Chip Ganassi Racing had a bad combination with engines and everything. What if that was me in that car? You put a new driver in, and it’s always going to be the driver who can’t get the job done. You have to be in a position to run well, otherwise…”
She isn’t sure the W Series, the female-only formula series that will be a support race to the F1 event in Austin, is a true steppingstone to Formula 1, as it was intended to be when it launched in 2018. “It has been more than 45 years since a female driver last started a Formula 1 Grand Prix race,” says the press material for the W Series, “and without positive intervention, it could be decades still before a woman has the experience and qualifications to start a Formula 1 race again.”
“I don’t know. I don’t watch it, I don’t know much about it,” Patrick says. “I’ve always been all about everybody competing together. I don’t know if it will make a big difference. I don’t know if when somebody wins anyone will say, ‘Hey, let’s definitely bring her into Formula 1.’
“If you don’t climb the natural ladder with everyone, how do you get the respect, how do you earn the credibility not only as a driver but as a team if they don’t know what’s going on when we’re not comparing apples to apples?”
And finally, is she still sore? Three days after her first Boston Marathon, “this is the first day I could walk and not feel pain,” Patrick says. “But for the first few days it was ankles and knees, then knees and thighs, then my butt—it was making its way through my body, but today is the first day I feel good.
“Actually,” she said, “I felt a lot better than I thought I would. My goal was to do it in under four hours, and having never done a marathon and probably not training properly to the extent that I should have, and the fact that Boston is the toughest according to those who know, we got so close—four hours, one minute and 21 seconds. It was so close to being under four hours, that’s the only bummer.”
Patrick and her younger sister, Brooke, finished the 26.2-mile run together. The two and a friend, Erin Buntin, raised nearly $50,000 for the Light Foundation charity.