Back then, Formula 1 was battling American Open-Wheel on the track

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photo: AP (AP)

On March 28, 1971, a lineup of impressive open-wheel cars lined up on the grid at California’s Ontario Motor Speedway with one purpose: to pit Europe’s Formula One cars against those of America’s Formula A (also known as Formula 5000). This race was called the Questor Grand Prix.

The Questor Grand Prix was conceived as one of the many ways to generate interest in European open wheel racing and establish Ontario Motor Speedway as one of America’s premier racetracks. IThanks to its street course and oval, it remains the only venue in history to have hosted racing events sanctioned by the FIA, USAC (for IndyCar), NASCAR and the NHRA.

To draw attention to the track, race organizers wondered what would happen if nimble Formula 1 machines rivaled the power of the American Formula A series. It was to be the “richest street race ever held in the United States,” reported Modesto Bee on January 12, 1971, with a purse of over $250,000 or thereabouts $1,775,000 in today’s money.

The race was by invitation only, so only the best of the best could compete. To compensate for the different designs of the cars – particularly the smaller gas tanks of the Formula A machines – the organizers decided that the race would be held in two heats of 32 laps or about 100 miles, with the ultimate winner being determined by total time.

The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware invited racer Mario Andretti to write his own column about the event and predict what he had predicted:

There are some who believe that Formula A machines will be fastr on the straight. Ssomeone else will probably put the finishing touches on the Formula 1 cars in the corners.

From my experience I think the Formula 1 car will be superior all round. I could be wrong, but if I am, I need to be proven.

AndretI went on to explain the difference between the two series. Formula A machines were a little heavier with their five-liter engines; Formula 1, on the other hand, had a maximum displacement of 181 cubic inches. Or as Mark Donohue put it The unfair advantage, “I decided that the biggest difference between Formula A and Formula 1 was that their engines were three liters and cost $20,000 while ours were five liters and cost $5,000.”

When it came time to race, however, turnout wasn’t quite what the organizers had hoped; many Europeans came with their vehicles from the F1 season that had already startedbut the American racing season had not started yet, leave them on the back foot. David Hobbs would win the 1971 Formula A season, but he submitted his entry for the Questor Grand Prix too late to be admitted. Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt, along with many other Americans, didn’t find a good ride and ended up with everything he could get. And then there was Gus Hutchinson, who got behind the wheel of a car that had never completed a single lap before.

At the end of the day, the Questor GP boasted 38 competitors on the entry list (although Jackie Stewart was listed twice; once for Elf Team Tyrrell and once for Agapiou Brothers/Young American Racing). Four of the competitors failed to show up for the event, Stewart did not start in the Agapiou car and three others failed to qualify for the final 30 car grid.

The qualified Formula A drivers included:

  • Mark Donohue: Sunoco Penske Race
  • George Folger: Brian O’Neil Racing
  • Sam Posey: Champ Carr Inc.
  • John Cannon: STP Corporation
  • Lou Sell: smother Brothers Racing Team
  • Ron Grable: Charlie Hayes Racing
  • Bob Bondurant: competitive developments
  • Peter Reson: Milestone Racing Team
  • Toni Adamowicz: American Racing Associates
  • Al Our: Kastner Brophy Racing
  • Bobby Ours: Charlie Hayes Racing
  • Gus Hutchinson: Developments in aircraft structures
  • Swedish game: Junior Tarozzi Racing/Keith Black Racing
  • AJ Foyt: Agapiou Brothers/Young American Racing

meanile, that was them F1 drivers who have surfaced:

  • Jackie Stewart: Elf Team Tyrrell
  • Chris Amon: Matra Sports Team
  • Jacky Ickx: Scuderia Ferrari
  • Denis Huelme: Bruce McLaren Motorsport
  • Pedro Rodriguez: Yardley team BRM
  • Graham Hill: Developments in motorsport
  • Jo Siffert: Yardley-Team BRM
  • Emerson Fittipaldi: Gold Leaf Team Lotus
  • pure queens: Gold Leaf Team Lotus
  • Mario Andretti: Scuderia Ferrari
  • Henri Pescarolo: Motul/Frank Williams racing car
  • Tim Schenken: Developments in motorsport
  • Ronny Peterson: STP March Engineering
  • Howden Ganley: Yardley-Team BRM
  • Derek Bell: Motul/Frank Williams racing car
  • Peter Getin: Bruce McLaren Motorsport

Both runs were dominated by the eventual F1 world champion Jackie Stewart, but Mario Andretti managed to pass Stewart both times to win by a comfortable margin: three seconds in the first heat and 12 seconds in the second. He emerged victorious, followed by Jackie Stewart, Denis Hulme, Chris Amon and Tim Schenken among the top five. Best Formula A driver was Rob Grable in seventh, followed by Lou Sell in 13th and Mark Donohue in 14th.

Despite the hefty prize money and the prospect of two different single-seater series competing against each other, the 1971 Questor Grand Prix was to remain a one-off event. The race attracted just 55,000 fans and despite Ontario Motor Speedway’s ability to host countless racing events, the track never really caught on with any sanctioning authority. 10 years later it was demolished.

Maybe the Questor Grand Prix just fell victim to circumstances. The Formula A cars just weren’t fast enough to compete against the F1 machines, although an impressive competition could have taken place a few years later, in the mid-1970s. Even Formula 1 had no idea how to break into America in a tangible way; Watkins Glen’s success has always been tenuous and the politics of international competition and expectations have always been complex. Unfortunately, this was the last time F1 cars competed against American open wheel racers.

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