Formula One, the sexiest motor sport in the world, has grown into a $3 billion global juggernaut. And yet, there’s a problem: 62 years after its founding, F1 is still a puzzle to American audiences. F1—born in the jet-set redoubts of Monaco, San Fermín, and Spa, and with a history more replete with royalty and mortal drama than any other sport (except maybe bullfighting)—hasn’t found its niche in the heartland.
This month, after a five-year hiatus from the United States, the series returns, to a purpose-built, $400 million track outside of Austin, Texas. F1’s mercurial owner, Bernie Ecclestone, is investing heavily in the sport’s return. He has decreed that there will be a Grand Prix in New Jersey in 2013.
“Will it work? It’s certainly not a given,” says the 25-year-old reigning champion, Sebastian Vettel of Germany. “This market is huge, but does America really care? I don’t know.” Like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, Vettel represents the modern evolution of the F1 driver—he’s in prime physical shape (the punishing g-forces drivers now endure during a race require them to be among the world’s most conditioned athletes), and he’s a savvy businessman. His background is similar to that of another driver, James Hunt, who is the subject of Ron Howard’s upcoming Formula One period piece, Rush—an odd-couple story set in the swinging 70s that captures the rivalry between Hunt, a certified playboy, and the straitlaced German Niki Lauda and that stars Chris Hemsworth as Hunt.