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.”)

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.

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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