Logan who? Sargeant 1st American on F1 grid since 2015

FILE - Williams test driver Logan Sargeant sits in his car during the first practice session for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix auto race at Circuit of the Americas, Oct. 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Sargeant will debut for Williams in this weekend's season-opening race in Bahrain, where he will be the first American on the F1 grid since 2015. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

A Formula One rookie walked into a South Florida bar and the bouncer wished him luck for his upcoming season.

Over at a Florida Panthers game, a pair of girls in the crowd spotted the driver and couldn’t help but ask: “Are you Logan Sargeant?”

Indeed, the 22-year-old from Ft. Lauderdale has surged ahead of all the other American drivers hoping to be the next one to race under the red, white and blue on the global stage. With only 20 seats on the F1 grid, the road to the top series in motorsports is cutthroat, expensive, political and often soul-crushing.

Sargeant, who moved to Europe as a teenager to pursue his dream, has beaten all the odds and will debut for Williams in this weekend’s season-opening race in Bahrain. He will be the first American on the F1 grid since Alexander Rossi in 2015, when Rossi made five starts with a career-best finish of 12th at Circuit of the Americas.

The next American to make it to F1 was expected to be Colton Herta, the 22-year-old IndyCar driver at Andretti Autosport. But not even seven victories and four starts in the Indianapolis 500 could get the Californian the Super License needed to compete in F1, something Sargeant earned from his years climbing the European ladder system.

“I think everyone was so focused on Colton and overlooked how close Logan has been to reaching this level, through F3 and F2 and being under Williams’ wing,” said Kyle Kirkwood, a fellow Ft. Lauderdale driver who has been friends with Sargeant since childhood. “The reality is, Logan is probably the most ready and the best candidate at this time.”

Kirkwood will be Herta’s teammate this season at Andretti in IndyCar, watching Sargeant from afar. When Sargeant is in Florida, he and Kirkwood can most often be found together surfing, boating or deep-sea fishing.

It was a recent offseason trip that showed Kirkwood how rapidly things are changing for his childhood karting buddy.

“He’s getting recognized a lot more than me, it’s insane. We went to this place in Delray Beach and the bouncer stopped us,” Kirkwood recalled. “Girls at the Panthers’ game are telling him ‘We can’t wait to see you on Netflix,’ and I’m just mind-blown that this kid is already a superstar.”

Williams is already promoting Sargeant throughout Florida, well in advance of the Miami Grand Prix. Although the race isn’t until May and is the fifth stop on the F1 schedule, Miami is the first of a record three races in the United States this season and Williams wants to capitalize on its local talent.

The rub, of course, is that Sargeant has spent almost his entire career racing in Europe and outside of Florida; only F1 junkies in the United States have any real sense who he is. He will be teammates with Alex Albon, a former Red Bull junior driver entering his fourth full F1 season, second with Williams.

Sargeant hasn’t often raced in series with a demanding media schedule, which he will face weekly and also be expected to participate in the “Drive to Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has grown F1’s popularity throughout North America.

“He’s not super familiar in the United States, so I think there’s still going to be some advertisement, some marketing, some PR that he’s going to have to do,” retired driver Danica Patrick told Sky Sports. “I suppose if there’s anything I learned is how valuable PR is. So it would benefit him to do a lot of media around these races domestically if you can.

“Williams has a long way to go. So as far as being up the grid, Williams definitely has been struggling,” she continued. “So I think that if they can improve and he goes out and promotes himself… he has a really good chance of being a really popular driver.”

In its effort to improve the once-proud team, Williams in the offseason named James Vowles, chief strategist at Mercedes, its new team principal. Vowles was frank in his assessments of his new team following testing last week, acknowledging that the technical executive staff needed a rebuild.

“We don’t have the structure in place technically,” he said. “They’ve obviously had a difficult, probably last 15 years or so, due to just circumstance, lack of investment, and otherwise. It’s just understanding where Williams is.

“I had the benefit really of being in an organization where if you required something, you asked for it, you were provided it,” Vowles said. “We had everything you could possibly imagine and it’s a stark contrast to where I am now, especially in an environment in a cost-cap where it’s difficult to request or even pay for what you need.”

Sargeant is not entering with a wide-eyed approach and believes he is as prepared as possible. He will be one of three rookies on the grid, joining Oscar Piastri of McLaren and Nyck de Vries of AlphaTauri.

“I’m loving it to this point. The work I’ve put in during the offseason has put me in a great place physically, even the amount of work I’ve put in the (simulator), I feel like I’ve expanded mentally from the end of last year,” Sargeant said. “I feel like I’ve left no stone unturned and I’m in a great place heading into the first race. One thing that can really benefit me is the years I’ve done — I’ve had my ups and downs and mentally, that’s going to make me a lot tougher.

“Going into my first season of F1, that’s going to be a challenge and hopefully I can bring the mental toughness and be able to use that throughout the season.”