Circuit of the Americas brings international F1 racing to Austin / By Chad Swiatcki
What is this F1 track and how did it end up in Austin? It was an idea so fantastical and foreign that when word dropped in mid-2010 that the world’s motorsports speed kings were going to make Austin their American outpost, the only response most locals could manage was a raised skeptical eyebrow. “Yeah, right. That’ll never happen,” was the consensus opinion at the time, a reaction that greatly underestimated the motivations of billionaire racing fans from right here in Texas and beyond who had a goal of making Austin a new epicenter of the automotive world. Their vision will be realized in late November when moneyed race fans from all over the globe will flock to the new $300 million Circuit of the Americas, the first-ever racing facility in America built specifically for Formula 1 racing and its many offshoots.
“It’ll be the Disneyland of the car industry. That’s what it’s been designed to be and it’s already attracting attention from auto enthusiasts all over the world,” says Paul Carrozza, owner of Austin’s Run-Tex running stores and a member of the Events Host Committee for the race. “It’s going to add an element that will bring the world to Austin. We expect more than 120,000 people will be coming here from all over the country and the world for the race.”
As enthused as locals have become as the race has drawn closer—particularly local business owners and those with rooms to rent to well-to-do foreign visitors—making the track a reality had more twists and turns than easy straightaways. Spearheaded by Austin native and former racer Tavo Hellmund and billionaire family friend Bernie Ecclestone, who is also CEO of F1, the pair gathered investors like Texas auto magnate Red McCombs to fund the track with almost no public money. A series of squabbles and legal threats between Hellmund, his investors and Ecclestone delayed track construction until late 2010 and nearly killed the entire project. A settlement that divorced Hellmund from the group cleared up that dispute, and long-delayed approval from a series of local and regional governing bodies cleared the way for $25 million in state funding to aid the track’s financing and race-sanctioning fee.
All the legal wrangling paved the way for more than a week of festivities that many expect will eclipse South By Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and approach a Super Bowl in terms of crowds and economic impact.
“It’ll change Austin,” says John Massengale, host of ESPN Radio’s Speed City racing program, which took its name from McCombs’ moniker for Austin as an international racing capital. “Manufacturers are already starting to bring research and development to Austin, and there are people saying that it will be an automotive hotbed.”
The Appeal of the Race
To the uninitiated, it might be hard to grasp why Formula 1 racing appeals so strongly to fans throughout the world and why tens of thousands of them will likely drop close to six figures to come see the first race at the new Circuit of the Americas racetrack. Michael Ferweda is the opposite; he doesn’t see how anybody could not become an immediate fan.
“You come out to a race and you see that it’s the most exciting racing there is, with these cars going over 180 miles per hour and running at 19,000 rpms,” says Ferweda, the owner of Austin’s Zinger Hardware and an F1 enthusiast who helps organize grand-prix watch parties at Cool River Café. “When people come to actually sit down and watch a race, they get in to it, but it’s when they can actually go there and see it live when they get hooked.”
Generally speaking, F1 races are a slimmer time commitment than NASCAR events, with a typical race lasting between two and two and a half hours. Because of the cars’ open-wheel construction, drivers have to be precise in how they handle their cars since even the slightest contact could cause disaster.
“If those tires so much as touch each other, you’re going off the track and it’s a complete disaster,” Ferweda says. “The great thing about these tracks is they’re designed so you can see action all over, so you’re not just limited to the one corner where you’re sitting and that’s it.”
Racing experts who have studied the layout of the Circuit of the Americas say the assortment of turns modeled after famous tracks in other countries will make it familiar to drivers, allowing more opportunities for passing and, thus, even more exciting races. Because of the large personal wealth of avid F1 fans, many of them own high-performance automobiles and have had the chance to test them out on a professional track. So even if they haven’t gone all out and reached the close to five Gs of gravitational force that professional drivers flirt with during a race—enough to make breathing difficult and risk passing out—they still catch the speed bug and can’t turn away.
“You’ve got to be the very best drivers in the world to handle those kind of driving conditions, which is why these guys are on teams that spend from $300 million to half a billion dollars a year on a team,” Massengale says. “When you go to a race, the first thing that hits you is just the sound of all those cars operating at 18,000 rpms. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before and it’s astounding to be around a crowd of cars that are generating astronaut-level G forces.”
Drivers to Look for
You’d have to go back to 1994, when the United States hosted soccer’s World Cup, to revisit a sporting event of global magnitude happening in North America that had no significant American presence. But that’s the state of non-NASCAR racing on U.S. soil, and when the cars take off in front of 120,000-plus fans at the Circuit of the Americas in November, they’ll be driven by a field of almost exclusively European competitors. Here are some of the drivers to watch in the penultimate race of the Formula 1 2012 season.
Fernando Alonso (Spain): Considered one of the sport’s all-time greats at only 31, Alonso is a two-time champion who has already married and divorced a top Spanish pop star. He’s had consistency problems because of several team changes in recent years, but with a commitment to Ferrari through 2016, he appears back in top form in 2012.
Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain): A precocious heir apparent at 27, Hamilton has one season championship under his belt, but a long-time relationship with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger gives him more pop culture bona fides than Alonso. He’s also the first driver with black heritage to be a major player in F1 racing.
Mark Webber (Australia): A member of the splashy Red Bull racing team that has become one of the sport’s major players, Webber is a consistently high finisher (he’ll have run close to 200 races by the end of this season) who has yet to nab a championship. A win in Austin could give him the momentum to finally snap that streak.
Kimi Raikkonen (Finland): Think LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez are extravagantly paid athletes? Their eyes would bulge out at the estimates that Raikkonen was paid—somewhere in the ballpark of $51 million when he won the F1 championship in 2007. Boyishly handsome at 32, he’s another of the sport’s top personalities and in contention this year for a second title.
Romain Grosjean (France): A Lotus teammate of Raikkonen’s, the 26-year-old Grosjean is all unpolished potential so far, but a series of promising finishes in early 2012 suggested he could be ready to break in to the sport’s upper echelon. Doing so would let him leave his day job at a bank in his current home of Geneva.
F1 Car Technology/Research
Just about any Formula 1 enthusiast will answer that the biggest difference between the sport’s open-wheel cars and all other racers is the amount of technology and advanced research involved in every aspect of a grand-prix vehicle. Those advancements not only pay off on the track, but have a way of trickling down to the everyday road-car market and beyond to increase fuel efficiency, comfort and more. Below are a few of the advancements Formula 1 teams have brought to everyday driving.
Aerodynamics: This might seem like a no-brainer now, but the streamlined, gas-saving contours of modern cars were born in the wind tunnels of F1 testing centers, where eking out a few seconds of efficiency could mean all the difference at the finish line.
Materials: The lighter, the better. Widespread use of carbon-fiber technology began with F1 teams, and while the high cost won’t translate to massproduction automobiles, it has bled in to the cycling and medical-equipment worlds.
Disc brakes: The caliper-style disc-braking system that’s almost standard on today’s roads? Largely innovated for use by Jaguar at LeMans in 1953.
Advanced telemetry: The use of sensors to monitor and automatically respond to internal and external conditions helped medical professionals develop more advanced equipment to monitor patients’ vital signs.
Flywheel energy conservation: The most recent leap allows racecars to store up to 80 horsepower worth of energy and apply it for speed bursts on straightaways. This could translate in to making trains, trams and buses run more efficiently.
A look at the recent history of Formula 1 winners shows that even though there will be lots of $200 million cars taking off from the starting line at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, the day will more than likely come down to a three-team race. Those teams, who have won a staggering 86 percent of all races during the previous five seasons, are Red Bull-Renault, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari, with only Lotus-Renault putting up much of a fight this year. In recent years, the leader of that gang of three has been the one backed by the energy drink in royal blue and red, claiming close to half the races it’s competed in since becoming an F1 player just a couple years ago. That means the Red Bull cars of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber will be good bets on race day.
Ferrari and McLaren hope a win in Austin will seal another championship season for Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton, respectively, while Lotus will look for continued improvement brought on by this year’s return of Kimi Raikkonen.
RACE BY THE NUMBERS
3.4 miles in one lap around the course
6 confirmed number of helipads at the track to ferry in ample-walleted race fans by air, though some rumors have the number as high as eight
12 estimated number of hours Austin police say some race fans may have to wait to leave the track due to traffic and huge crowds
20 number of turns on the track, six of them being either hairpin or almost as difficult
133 feet total vertical rise of the track from the starting line to the first turn, making it a distinguishing feature from other Formula 1 tracks
200-plus miles per hour expected top speeds of cars in the straightaways
$545 cost per person for a there-and-back helicopter ride to the track
$5,500 cost of a 15-year license for premium seating at the track
40,000 number of international travelers expected to fly to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for the race, necessitating the construction of a temporary additional terminal
120,000 most commonly referenced estimate of the total crowd for the race
300,000 expected number of visitors to Austin during a week of pre-race festivities
$350 million estimated total budget for the track
$400 million lowball estimate by Austin officials of the race’s annual economic impact
$500 million annual budget of a multi-car Formula 1 team like those fielded by Red Bull, Lotus, McLaren or Ferrari