The Florida Man of Formula 1

Logan Sargeant, the only American driver in Formula 1, is zipping around the narrow streets of Baku, Azerbaijan, at roughly 200 miles an hour. His head bounces inside the cockpit as a wheel shudders over a rumble strip. It’s hard to hear over the banshee shriek of his V6 engine, carrying three times the horsepower of a run-of-the-mill Porsche Carrera.

Then the noise stops, and Baku vanishes. We’re inside a low-slung brick building nestled in the Oxfordshire countryside. The track, projected onto a CinemaScope-sized wraparound screen, was a mirage, part of a sophisticated training simulator. (F1 rules prohibit driving the real cars between races.) Mr. Sargeant climbs out of a replica driver’s seat wearing athletic pants. He won’t need a fireproof suit until later.

In three weeks’ time, Mr. Sargeant will do this for real: wind whipping his visor, G-forces of up to six times his body weight pressing on his neck, the ever-present threat of a catastrophic crash as he is watched by roughly 70 million people around the world. For now, it’s time for lunch. “Is chili bad for you?” he asks, digging into a bowl at his team’s commissary. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”

Reaching Formula 1, the highest level of international motor sport, is a big step for Mr. Sargeant, 22, a South Florida native who began racing rudimentary cars known as karts at 6 years old and this year joined the Williams Racing team as the first full-time American F1 driver since 2007.

For Formula 1 itself, finding a hometown hero for American fans is a giant leap.

Although it is enormously popular in Europe, F1 struggled for decades to break into the United States. That began to change in 2016, when the sport was purchased for $4.4 billion by the Colorado-based Liberty Media, owned by the cable magnate John Malone. Liberty ramped up its social media — F1 had barely kept a YouTube page — and backed a popular Netflix documentary series, “Drive to Survive.” Once geared toward aging white men, F1 now has a younger and more diverse fan base. American TV viewership is up 220 percent from 2018, and the sport made $2.6 billion in revenue last year.

Still, a subset of F1 devotees complain about what they see as an overemphasis on entertainment and ginned-up drama. Under Liberty, they argue, pure racing is taking a back seat to cheap tricks to reel in casual viewers. And they often use a dirty word for it: Americanization. “It is becoming more and more like Formula Hollywood,” Bernie Ecclestone, the 92-year-old Briton who built F1 into a global business, griped last year. “F1 is being made more and more for the American market.”

The backlash reached a crescendo at last week’s Miami Grand Prix, which was added in 2022 as a showpiece for American fans. In a prizefight-style pre-race ceremony, the rapper LL Cool J introduced the 20 drivers one by one amid swirling smoke and a squad of cheerleaders. Nearby, conducted a live orchestra playing the rap song he recently recorded with Lil Wayne as part of a “global music collaboration” with Formula 1. (The lyrics rhyme “Max Verstappen,” the name of the sport’s top driver, with “your champion.”)

“Pandering to the American audience is killing @F1,” wrote one fan on Twitter, echoing criticism that bubbled up across numerous F1 websites. Even the racers complained: “None of the drivers like it,” groused Lando Norris, a Briton who drives for McLaren. Undeterred, Liberty announced that the bombastic pre-race sequence would be featured at several more grands prix this year.

In the United States, F1 has long been associated with a certain European mystique. Its drivers race across the Ardennes forest (Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium), the plains of Lombardy (Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale di Monza) and, most famously, the louche glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix. The sport’s stateside image could be summed up by the 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” which featured Sacha Baron Cohen as a pretentious French F1 driver named Jean Girard, a snooty Eurotrash foil to Will Ferrell’s macho NASCAR cowboy.

In 2023, F1 can feel a bit more Ricky Bobby than Jean Girard. In Miami, drivers circled a track built in the parking lot of the Dolphins football stadium, past an artificial Monaco-style “harbor”: blue-painted asphalt topped with ersatz yachts. A new Las Vegas race in November will have cars zooming down the Strip past Caesars Palace. Meanwhile, traditional races in France and Germany are gone.

Katy Fairman, a journalist based in Brighton, England, who runs the F1 podcast “Small Torque,” said she was surprised by the spectacle when she attended a race in Austin, Texas. “There were girls with pompoms,” she said. “I remember watching it and thinking, Oh my gosh, this is so different from anything I’d seen F1 do in a long time.”

Ms. Fairman conceded that some Europeans find the American hullabaloo “tacky.” But she added: “When it’s something to do with America, I think Europeans are quite judgmental. I think it’s just a bit of lighthearted fun. You guys like to have a party.”

The arrival of Mr. Sargeant, who grew up about an hour’s drive from the Miami racetrack, has spurred new interest, including a profile and photo shoot in GQ, and he’s happy to play the part. “What’s up America, let’s bring that energy!” he shouted to the cameras after LL Cool J introduced him as “the local boy done good.”

But as with F1, there are growing pains. In Miami, Mr. Sargeant finished last, his race ruined on the first lap when he damaged a front wing. After the checkered flag, he apologized to his team, his voice barely a whisper: “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it.”

Weeks earlier, in an interview in England, Mr. Sargeant had demurred about the pressure of wearing the stars and stripes. “I try not to get too caught up in the talk of the role of ‘first American,’” he said. “It’s still very early for me, and I have a lot to learn still.”

If Mr. Sargeant doesn’t perform, there are dozens of drivers eager to take his spot. “At the moment,” he said, “I just have to worry about staying here.”

Before his tough Miami weekend, Mr. Sargeant was asked how he would celebrate a top 10 finish. “Honestly, it might sound lame, but probably just go back to my house and get in my bed for another night before I go back to London,” he replied. “That’s all I want to do.”

For a wealthy, handsome, globe-trotting athlete, Mr. Sargeant can be soft-spoken and endearingly self-conscious. It’s not unusual for someone who, like a tennis prodigy or Olympian gymnast, has devoted their life since childhood to a sole pursuit.

Mr. Sargeant was 6 when he and his brother Dalton got a kart from their parents for Christmas. “No one in the family was really even that much into racing,” Logan said. “We just picked it up as a hobby, something to do on the weekend.” He began winning junior races around the country — too easily. To reach the next level and pursue Formula 1, he’d have to leave behind his friends and beloved fishing excursions for life on a different continent: “We just needed a higher level of competition, and at the end of the day, that was in Europe.”

Mr. Sargeant left Florida before his 13th birthday, bouncing between Italy, Switzerland and Britain as he raced on the European junior circuit; in 2015, he became the first American to win the Karting World Championship since 1978. “As a kid, it was tough,” he recalled. “Coming from Florida, being outdoors all the time on the water, great weather — it was literally vice versa.” He eventually settled in London, where he spends most days working out with a trainer. “I get away from a race weekend, and I just want to get back in the gym,” he said. “I hate that feeling of leaving slack on the table.”

It is incredibly difficult to nab a seat in Formula 1. Today’s drivers are physical dynamos trained to optimize their reflexes and performance levels down to how well they can withstand jet lag — critical in a sport that this year will include 23 grands prix spread over five continents. F1 teams employ hundreds of employees and spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing the world’s most sophisticated racecars. But it’s ultimately up to the driver to execute.

It also helps to have money. Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion and F1’s only Black driver, is an exception, having grown up on a London council estate. Many F1 competitors are the sons of multimillionaires (and some billionaires) who can bankroll pricey travel and high-tech cars.

Mr. Sargeant falls into the scion category. He hails from a wealthy Florida asphalt shipping family. His uncle, Harry Sargeant III, is a former fighter pilot and onetime finance chair of Florida’s Republican Party who has been sued by the brother-in-law of King Abdullah II of Jordan and whose name turned up, tangentially, in the 2020 impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump. (Harry was not accused of any wrongdoing.)

Logan’s father, Daniel Sargeant, worked alongside Harry until the brothers had a falling out. In a 2013 lawsuit, Harry accused Daniel of misdirecting $6.5 million in corporate funds “for the purpose of advancing the international cart racing activities” of his sons, Logan and Dalton; that litigation was eventually settled.

In 2019, Daniel Sargeant pleaded guilty in federal court in New York to foreign bribery and money laundering charges related to his business dealings abroad. He is free on a $5 million bond and is awaiting sentencing. A Williams spokesman said that Logan Sargeant was not “in a position to comment” on any of the legal matters involving his family.

In F1, none of this particularly stands out. The mother of Mr. Sargeant’s Williams teammate, Alexander Albon, was jailed in Britain for swindling millions of pounds in fraudulent sales of high-end cars. A Russian racer, Nikita Mazepin, was booted from the sport after his oligarch father, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, was sanctioned following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

James Vowles, the Williams team principal, said in an interview that he hired Mr. Sargeant for his speed, not his U.S. passport. “I’m incredibly pleased that the sport is growing in America, but I think it would be anything but disingenuous to say that Logan’s here for any other reason than I think he’s got this pure talent,” he said.

In his F1 debut in Bahrain in March, Mr. Sargeant finished 12th, outpacing this year’s two other rookies. “He has this insatiable desire to be better, to want more,” Mr. Vowles said. “He’s a perfectionist, and I like that in him.”

Britain, where Formula 1 originated in 1950, remains the sport’s spiritual home, where most of its 10 teams are based. Williams was founded in Oxfordshire in the 1970s, but it’s now an American subsidiary: a Manhattan private equity firm, Dorilton Capital, bought the company in 2020 for an estimated $200 million.

It was an important cash infusion for a team that had struggled to keep up with rivals. Manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz pour enormous resources into their F1 teams, which double as an elaborate global marketing campaign and an in-house innovation farm; tech developed for F1, like engines that recycle braking energy as an accelerant, can trickle into consumer vehicles.

The Williams campus is a humdrum brick pile that could be mistaken for an office park — a far cry from McLaren’s space-age complex an hour’s drive away. Many F1 teams provide their drivers with a high-end sports car for personal use; Mr. Sargeant commutes in a Vauxhall Astra, a compact.

Even the team’s sponsors are relatively down-market; whereas the official watch of Ferrari is Richard Mille (starting price: $60,000), Williams has a deal with Bremont, whose timepieces retail for significantly less. (On a recent visit, a Williams press aide was quick to extract a spare Bremont watch from his pocket and ensure Mr. Sargeant was wearing it whenever a photographer hovered.)

Given the huge costs, corporate partnerships are crucial to F1, part of the reason the American market, with its abundance of affluent consumers and wealthy brands, has proved so tempting. Gerald Donaldson, a journalist who has covered F1 for 45 years, recalled how cars were gradually taken over by corporate logos starting in the late 1960s.

“Marlboro paid all the Ferrari bills, including the drivers, for many years,” he said in an interview. “There are eager companies who want the publicity.” Mr. Sargeant’s car features ads for Michelob Ultra beer and an American financial firm, Stephens. In Miami last weekend, beachgoers spotted an airborne banner reading “Go Logan!” alongside the image of a Duracell battery.

Last year, the Miami race was viewed on ABC by 2.6 million people, the biggest American audience for a live F1 telecast. Ratings for this year’s race fell about 25 percent, perhaps a result of a duller-than-usual season dominated by one team, Red Bull.

Still, viewing data show that F1 is expanding beyond affluent cities associated with elite sports: In 2022, its top five American TV markets included Asheville, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla. ESPN is clearly betting on more growth. When the sports network renewed its broadcast rights last year, it agreed to pay $90 million annually — up from the $5 million-a-year deal it signed in 2019.

Liam Parker, a former adviser to Boris Johnson who now leads communications at F1, said the sport was intent on rectifying past mistakes. “We were too arrogant,” he said. “We couldn’t understand why the American fan base wasn’t falling in love with us.” But he also pushed back on the complaints that Liberty’s efforts to raise the entertainment factor had stripped F1 of something essential.

“This whole argument of ‘Americanization,’ it’s a very crude way to describe things,” he said. “We shouldn’t ignore things that can improve things for new and core fans. It’s about giving people more choices in the modern era. It’s modernization of access to everyone.”

Mr. Hamilton, arguably the biggest celebrity of the current F1 lineup, has offered his own endorsement of Liberty’s approach. “I mean jeez, I grew up listening to LL Cool J,” he told reporters in Miami. “I thought it was cool, wasn’t an issue to me.”

For all the debates over elitism, good taste and corporate rap collaborations, the core appeal of F1, when you get right down to it, may be something simpler — something Mr. Sargeant got at when asked in the interview if he had loved cars as a kid.

“I absolutely love driving, as you can imagine,” he said. “But to be honest, I’m not one of those people who studies cars and, you know, likes to know every detail of every single car. It doesn’t really interest me.”

“The part that interests me,” he concluded, “is driving them as fast as I can go.”

Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting from Miami. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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