F1 touches down in US for Miami GP amid undercurrent of controversy

Spring break fever has overtaken Formula One. It has Charles Leclerc playing catch with the Marlins’ Jazz Chisholm Jr, Lewis Hamilton teeing off with Tom Brady and Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris chasing James Corden around the paddock in cutoff team shirts. It could only happen in Miami. And it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened sooner.

This weekend F1 will stage its first ever race in Miami as the US plays host to a pair of Grand Prix races for the first time since 1984, when the series touched down in Detroit and Dallas. But this time, rather than return to Motown or Moo Town, F1 has parked its massive traveling circus here, to the land of white sand beaches, neon lights and withering heat. And the local buzz isn’t simply a product of the town’s strongly poured daiquiris and mojitos.

It’s yet another breakthrough moment for a sport that has long struggled to crack the US market. And even though F1’s embrace of social media, Netflix’s Drive to Survive and Sky Sports’ cracking TV coverage (via ESPN) has played a big part in winning over viewers across the pond, many of whom couldn’t have cared less about motorsports to begin with, it is curious that F1’s American seduction didn’t start in Miami – America’s exotic foreign getaway.

Instead, it bounced across the coasts, tarried in Middle America and blew up in Indianapolis – and not in the good way. (Austin, however, is cool, weird and succeeded in entrenching F1 in the States.) The closest the series ever got to Miami was Sebring, Florida, a fabled inland racing venue three hours north that served as the backdrop for the one-off 1959 US Grand Prix.

But of course that was before the Americans at Liberty Media took over F1 in 2017 with the goal of making the global behemoth nationally relevant. While Long Beach, Watkins Glen and other long-ago US Grand Prix sites have their charm, Miami has always been the closest thing America has had to a true F1 city. It’s cosmopolitan, seedy and a playground for a fair few celebrities – Hamilton, not least. There’s a culture of wretched excess, of flashy cars and of racing between stop lights. Miami’s shimmering coastline has all the heady trappings: big yachts, tanned bods, colorful deco architecture and water that’s quite literally laced with prescription drugs.

IndyCar raced here back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Nascar staged its season finale in nearby Homestead for almost two decades and Formula E raced around Biscayne Bay in 2015. Really, you’d be hard pressed to find a more postcard-perfect venue for an F1 race. With Las Vegas on the schedule for next year, clearly this is just the tip of F1’s American expansion.

Still, Miami wouldn’t be Miami if it didn’t also traffic in illusion. Despite Formula 1 fighting for a downtown race along the city’s iconic waterfront, it wound up a half-hour north of downtown in Miami Gardens, the bedroom community that is home to the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium; ultimately, an influential neighborhood association couldn’t vibe to this new Miami Sound Machine of noise pollution and traffic bottlenecks. (Formula E cars, with their near-silent electric motors, at least got around the first concern.)

The race itself will follow a makeshift 5.4km street circuit around the stadium, under a highway overpass that will surely grind to a halt once things go green down below. In an effort to bring more of that Tubbs and Crockett flavor to the race – fittingly sponsored by a cryptocurrency firm, as Miami angles to become the Wall Street of blockchain – organizers added a pool area, two stories of cabanas and a fake yacht marina that looks like something out of Minecraft. But it isn’t just the normos who are embracing the artifice, typical Miami. Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Pharrell are also expected to roll through.

A replica of the Miami marina at the track. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters

Seven years ago, at the US Grand Prix in Austin, Hamilton was openly puzzling over how to get Americans into Formula 1 in a pre-race news conference. Taking in the scene here at a sponsor event earlier this week, he called the Miami GP “a dream”.

But not everyone is caught up in the revelry. Miami Gardens, the largest Florida city with a majority Black population, has been dreading the arrival of this motorsport Super Bowl ever since their attempts to ship the race elsewhere were thwarted three years ago. In 2020 a group of residents led by former Miami-Dade County commissioner Betty Ferguson sued Formula One, Hard Rock Stadium, the Dolphins and ex-Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez for racial discrimination. “This is environmental racism,” Ferguson declared, “pure and simple.”

Last May a recall election was sought to remove council members who voted to bring the race to Miami Gardens. (In the end the recall effort failed to draw the requisite number of signatures to initiate a vote.) Worse than those lawmakers getting into bed with F1, residents felt as if they had agreed to a bad deal – one that promised only $5m in community benefits and 5% of revenues to the city. So figure about $25m altogether. What’s more, Miami Gardens residents are locked into this deal for a decade, with F1 president Stefano Domenicali promising to leave “a positive and lasting contribution for the people in the local community”. Never mind that aggrieved residents have vowed to fight on.

It’s an undercurrent of controversy that puts Miami squarely in league with Sochi, Saudi Arabia and other dubious F1 crash pads. So it figures that a Grand Prix would finally wind up here. Hamilton’s neon dream is more than a rowdy carnival of serious F1 escapists now. It’s a proper homecoming.

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