How the ultimate Euro-centric motor sport took ATX by storm, and what to look for this year.
By Anthony French
That’s Bernie Ecclestone speaking in November 2007, after it emerged the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway would not be hosting a US Grand Prix Formula 1 in 2008, or beyond, for that matter.
“The future of F1 in the USA? I think we’ll finish with three races here within the next three years.”
That’s the very same Mr. Ecclestone in November 2012, after the world’s top motorsport category returned to American soil with the inaugural US Grand Prix in Austin. Why was it such a success? How did Austin get it right when Watkins Glen, Dallas, Las Vegas and Indianapolis got it so wrong before? Is there any hope of a long-term future for the Euro-centric sport in Texas?
F1 versus America
F1 has never had an easy ride in the United States. Since the dawn of the world championship in 1950, nine attempts have been made to break into this most lucrative of markets. All have failed. No long-term home for the race has ever been found, and you would be forgiven for thinking the oval track-rich state of Texas a bad choice for the 10th attempt. The Circuit of the Americas, a 3.4-mile ribbon of tarmac weaving its way across 890 acres of land in Travis County, cost about $400 million in private investment, and created approximately 6,000 jobs in the surrounding area.
It wasn’t without dissent; a mere fortnight before the Grand Prix was due in town, residents protested the placing of a temporary heliport near their homes for the duration of the five-day event. It even attracted attention from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which feared those flocking to the circuit to watch their heroes in action were worshipping “false gods.”
Yet Austin was, on reflection, the natural setting for F1 to stage its U.S. comeback. A city with a vibrant cosmopolitan scene and a record of hosting live events, few places in the American South would open their doors to this foreign sport like Austinites did. The 2012 event attracted 265,499 spectators during the three days of on-track action, ranking it third behind only the British and Canadian Grand Prix events.
Austin garnered $191.2 million in global media coverage, hotels in the city took in $32 million (triple the amount for a University of Texas football game) and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport saw 21,725 people pass through its doors Nov. 19, a new record for a single day. Was it mere novelty? Can 2013 live up to the 2012 billing as the potential title-deciding race, the penultimate event of the year? Much hinges on what happens between now and November. Or, to be more precise, what happens on-track.
A Year of Living Dangerously
With 10 races gone in the 2013 Formula 1 season, few would bet against Germany’s reigning world champion, Sebastian Vettel, claiming his fourth straight title crown. He has driven his Red Bull RB9 car to four victories already this season (at press time), and sits at the head of the championship points table on a comfortable 38-point margin over nearest rival Kimi Raikkonen.
The season began well for the German, with a third-place finish in Australia behind archrival Fernando Alonso and the Lotus car of Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen, who managed one pit stop less than his opponents. The event was the first indication of the major role Pirelli tires, fitted to all the cars, would play in the outcome of the world championship. Unlike the Indy Racing League, F1 cars are all different; no two teams run identical machinery, and much hinges on how the aerodynamics of the car and the skill of the driver preserve the fragile Pirelli rubber.
By July’s British Grand Prix, the tire debate had taken on the proportions of a monolithic struggle between supplier and user after a series of unsavory incidents throughout the first half of the year. Mercedes’ illegal test after the Spanish Grand Prix at the behest of Pirelli saw the team fighting a costly legal battle in court while on-track tire failures for Toro Rosso, McLaren, Ferrari and the hapless Mercedes at Silverstone raised serious concerns about driver safety. Lewis Hamilton branded the Italian manufacturer “stupid” before promptly winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, two races with tire controversy at their heart book-ending what had been an extraordinary start to the season.
The politics didn’t stop there. Team orders, once the reviled outcast of the F1 paddock, reared their ugly head once more in the Malaysian Grand Prix, with drastic consequences. Mark Webber was muscled out of the way by a defiant Sebastian Vettel as the Red Bull duo came to conflict once again while an irate Nico Rosberg, desperate to secure his first podium in almost a year, was denied the opportunity to pass teammate Hamilton.
Malaysian Grand Prix, lap two. Fernando Alonso crashes at turn one after his front wing, damaged during a squabble with Vettel on the opening lap, disintegrates and sends him aquaplaning off the circuit. Ferrari’s decision not to pit, and Alonso’s misjudgement in agreeing with the decision, may cost the Spaniard a world title.
Malaysian Grand Prix, lap 46. Vettel passes Webber in defiance of team orders to win the race, but receives no punishment from Red Bull management. This is probably the moment Webber realized his time in Formula 1 was up.
Hungarian Grand Prix, podium. Hamilton’s maiden victory for Mercedes was also the first without significant tire problems for the Anglo-German team, and sets the team up perfectly for a serious assault on Vettel and Red Bull in the second half of the year.
Three to Look Out For
Jules Bianchi, Marussia. The Frenchman is competing in only his first season in Formula 1, but has stunned observers with his speed and consistency. Finishing just one lap behind race winner Raikkonen in Australia was a sign a fierce new talent had arrived. He won’t win in Austin, but you shouldn’t bet against him for a shock result, all the same.
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull. In red-hot form since Abu Dhabi 2010, when he clinched his first championship, the young German has romped from success to success. He only lost victory in Austin last year because of a misunderstanding about yellow flags, so he could easily put the record straight this time.
Romain Grosjean, Lotus. The French driver teeters on the brink between F1 oblivion and greatness. A torrid finishing record in 2012 was interspersed with some great podium finishes, and 2013 has been the same. Austin could be his last chance to prove he can take it to the next level needed to save his career.
Three Places to Watch
Turn One. In a move appreciated by real racing fans, designers made the Circuit of the Americas’ first corner a general-admission zone; grandstand seats are not available, but in return, those on a budget can get three-day access to a superb viewing point at the top of the track for a mere $181.84. The same ticket at Silverstone would cost you $264. If you want value for money and a view of the key first-lap action, look no further.
Turns three through eight. Four grandstands and two general-admission areas ensure plenty of choice for those wanting to appreciate the sight of a Formula 1 car battling the laws of physics. With seven high-speed direction changes in excess of 120 miles per hour, this is a great place to see man and machine in harmony. Ticket prices range from $181 to $366 for three-day passes.
Turn 12. With the pit straight grandstand fully booked well in advance, there is really only one place you should look for action of a racing nature. Sitting at the end of a .62-mile flat-out blast through a DRS (drag reduction system) zone will afford fans plenty of chances to see overtaking moves into the tight left hand of turn 12.
Three Opinions on Austin
Jenson Button, 2009 world champion: “The change of direction is faster than Silverstone, and that ’s saying something. It’s fantastic.”
Mario Andretti, 1978 world champion: “Let’s face it, we’re saying F1 needs America and America needs Formula 1. I think it’s both. It’s a win-win situation. The majority of the sponsors there in F1 are global companies that do a lot of business in the United States, so to have the exposure in this big market here is what’s needed. This is a good thing.”
Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal: “I believe it’s fair to say that [the 2012 race]was a brilliant day for motorsport in the United States. The Austin racetrack is a magnificent one, and it staged a wonderful motor race. The city of Austin has welcomed us and our sport, and on behalf of everyone at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, I want to extend our friendship and gratitude in return.”
Noteworthy Races at the Circuit of the Americas
Le Mans Series/World Endurance Weekend, Sept. 20–22, 2013
It’s not just Formula 1 that visits Austin’s doorstep in 2013. Oh no! September’s penultimate weekend sees the arrival of what is one of America’s favorite motorsport categories. With tickets ranging from $79 to $549, there are spaces for everyone to enjoy the finest sports-car racing in the world, combined in the American Le Mans Series and the World Endurance Championship. Boasting headline names like Tom Kristensen, nine-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, spectators can enjoy Audi and Toyota battle for supremacy while GT cars from Chevrolet, Aston Martin and Porsche fight for GTE class honors. This is the first running of the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas endurance race, so be sure you don’t miss out on what promises to be a motorsport extravaganza. Sept. 20 and 21 offer the best of the ALMS action while Sept. 22 is the date set for the headline WEC event.
U.S. Vintage Racing, Oct. 25–27, 2013
From Formula 1 racers to production sports cars, the U.S. Vintage Racing national championship boasts the lot. Grand Prix winners from Lotus and Brabham share the track with Mini Coopers and Chevrolet Monza sedans, enabling fans young and old to get up close and personal with the history of motor racing in its entirety. Unlike mainstream motorsport events at COTA, such as Formula 1 and Moto GP, the SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) is eager to introduce new fans to the pastime, and tours of the paddock and cars are freely available to the general public. Tickets at $59 are not to be ignored, regardless of whether you are a true petrol head or inquisitive first-timer. Students and military personnel with appropriate ID can obtain discounts on tickets in accordance with COTA policy.