Formula One finally finds an American home
fter two years of tortuous legal wrangles and boardroom jostles, the $400 million Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, Texas, passed its final pre-race inspection on September 25, 2012 (60 days before the first planned race on the track), and Formula One racing, also known as F1, finally had a dedicated American home. The first US track built for F1, Circuit of the Americas was designed by Hermann Tilke, a German architect and circuit designer who had previously worked on several of the newer F1 circuits, including those in Shanghai, Bahrain and Yeongam, South Korea, as well as the reprofiling of the venerable Hockenheim and Fuji Speedway venues. The design incorporates nods to several existing tracks, re-creating a famous sequence of turns at Silverstone in the UK, the arena bends at Hockenheim and Istanbul’s turn eight.
Behind the scenes on race day
At 3.426 miles in length and with 20 bowel-scrambling turns and an elevation change of 133 feet, Circuit of the Americas is said to be one of the most exciting racetracks in the world. Within five seconds of leaving the starting line, the cars reach a blind left hairpin turn at 188 MPH before decelerating down to 60 mph – the downforce of the shift glueing their Pirellis to the asphalt as 3G's slam the drivers' bodies into their seats. Some call it the most challenging turn in all of motor sports. Some call it the most challenging turn in all of motor sports. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who raced under the McLaren Mercedes banner last year, confirms, “It’s already one of the best racetracks in the world, maybe even right up there in the top three.”
The US has not hosted an F1 race since 2007, and many American motor sports fans have little understanding of this exotic sport, with its caviar-rather-than-ketchup sensibilities. The cars themselves are stripped-down exotics crafted from carbon fiber and composites. Current regulations demand that they weigh at least 1,415 pounds, including driver, fluids and onboard cameras. However, some cars weigh as little as two-thirds of that, so ballast is needed to bring them up to minimum weight. Engines are restricted to naturally aspirated V-8s that generate about 800 horsepower and rev up to an astounding 18,000 rpm, creating the distinctive high-pitched scream of F1 cars at full speed (in excess of 200 mph). The aerodynamics of the cars are crucial with so much power in so lightweight a vehicle; each car creates so much downforce that at 120 mph, one could be driven upside down on the roof of a tunnel.
An F1 race takes place over three days, with Friday for practice, Saturday for qualifying and Sunday for the race itself. When the drivers arrived in Austin for the November 2012 race, they had only ever driven the Circuit of the Americas on simulators at their training facilities. One day of practice and one day of qualifying is all they would get before their honor and their engines were tested in the second-to-last race of the closely fought 2012 season. It was a crucial contest for Ferrari’s aggressive pit bull of a driver, Fernando Alonso, who trailed Red Bull’s sweaty-haired German wunderkind, Sebastian Vettel, in championship points.
n Sunday, 100,000 fans packed the stands to watch the world’s best race-car drivers battle it out under the Texas sunshine. The Circuit of the Americas was tailored to accommodate the refined tastes of the F1 fan, with $4,000-a-head grandstand balcony suites and six helicopter landing pads for those unwilling to drive to the track. Unlike NASCAR, which races in a big oval beneath a massive grandstand, F1 circuits are significantly longer and include changes in elevation and turns that follow the natural topography of the land, so it is impossible to see the entire track from one location. A grandstand suite allows you to follow the more remote action on an HDTV with a gin and tonic in your hand while still experiencing the sonic blast and the aroma of high-octane race fuel as the cars cross the start/finish line at full speed on the straightaway below the stands. It’s really the only way to take in the spectacle in person. My own hospitality, provided by the Italian rubbersmiths (Pirelli) was second to none and the Circuit of the Americas had no learning curve when it came to luxury.
The start of an F1 race is like nothing you will ever experience. You might come close by taking a squadron of F-16 fighter jets and having them all race at full throttle down a runway. It’s an explosion of noise, a violation of the senses.
As the race progressed, spectators settled into a natural rhythm of watching the screens then stepping through the suite’s soundproof glass onto the balcony. There, they were met with the sight of a McLaren Mercedes piloted by Lewis Hamilton entering the straightaway and shrieking past at close to 200 mph before he got on the brake hard for a four-G left-hander to cheers from the crowd.
That day’s racing was incredibly skillful and extremely strategic. Ferrari knew that drivers starting in the even-numbered grid slots would suffer loss of traction due to the tire debris that had accumulated on that side of the track over two days of practice and qualification. So they sacrificed their number two driver, Felipe Massa (who had qualified faster), in favor of Alonso, their championship contender. They deliberately broke the seal on Massa’s gearbox, thereby earning him a five-place penalty and promoting Alonso from eighth to seventh place on the grid, which was on the more desirable side of the track. Ferrari’s fears were justified as the even-numbered starters fell behind early. Vettel took the lead right away and held it until the 42nd lap, when Hamilton, in his beautiful McLaren Mercedes, caught him and took the lead. In the end, the checkered flag was brandished for Hamilton. Vettel arrived 0.06 seconds later, taking second place, and thereby closed the door on Alonso’s championship hopes. Massa, despite his penalty, finished fourth.
US Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton salutes the crowd
British driver Jenson Button, a true gentleman of F1 racing, had clawed his way from the 12th spot on the starting grid to a fifth-place finish and described his day thusly: “It was great to race in front of so many fantastically enthusiastic American fans. Before we arrived here, we knew we were going to have to put on a good show, and I think we did just that. There was action and suspense all the way through, which is exactly what you need to create a great sporting spectacle. I really hope the US will now embrace Formula One at last.” It is quite possible that 2013’s planned US Grand Prix, a dramatic Monaco-style road race to be held on the waterfront of New Jersey, will bring Button’s wish to fruition. With the foundations (literally) laid in Austin, the future of US F1 looks to be loud, fast and very, very glamorous.