Formula 1 will return to the United States in 2012 thanks to the deal struck with Austin earlier this year. The task of living up to the hype will not be easy, but the Texan city is determined to make it a success. AUTOSPORT talked exclusively with Tavo Hellmund, the man in charge of the project.
Q. At Silverstone, you attended your first race since the announcement was made about the grand prix in Austin. How is progress going with the race?
Tavo Hellmund: Everything is great. The Tilke guys are there pretty much non-stop and I think that we are on track right now. All the permitting with the waste water has been done and a lot of people are wanting to know about the land and its location.
Although I feel that that is nobody's business, I understand that we are going to have to release news about it soon, so we will do that. The design of the track is pretty much approved from us. The layout is awesome, better than I had hoped, and the FIA is going to be to get that submitted at the Circuit's Commission.
Q. When do you think you will release the layout plans for the circuit?
TH: We will have to check with the FIA to make sure that we are the first that can do that. I am not sure about that. I know the drawings have been done – and we made a personal modification for aesthetic reasons to Turns 1 and 3, but other than that it is pretty close. I think that in the next few weeks we should be fine.
Q. What can you tell us then about the layout? What sort of circuit will it be?
TH: It will be at least three miles long – and probably a bit longer. It is going to have a really fast section, which will have some pretty challenging corners. I am partial to a couple of sections that I've seen at Silverstone, so you could see those turn up, too.
There is also going to be significant elevation – probably more than 100 feet of difference from top to bottom. There will be pretty views, and I think it will be a bit of a departure from the tracks that have been built recently for F1. So, in that regard, I am excited.
Americans will be proud of it – and it won't be a "cookie cutter" track. I think people in Texas will be proud of it as well.
Q. So what sort of characteristic will it have? What current track has a similar feel?
TH: What we did was take maybe seven or eight of our favorite things from other tracks – some of them that are no longer in play in F1, but three or four of them are. And we said we want this corner on this track, and this corner on this track.
I would say that, hopefully, people will view it as a throwback to some of the older, traditional tracks – although obviously with the added safety features and requirements that the FIA has. It will be a track that the drivers will walk through and think: "Man, I have to be on my best game today!"
Q. So you want it to appeal to the drivers as well?
TH: Yes. When you really get down to it, the drivers should be your best endorsement. They are the ones who talk, and everyone wants to hear what they have to say. So I think between access, mobility, location and then obviously the asphalt within both fences, I think we're going to be good.
Q. Bernie Ecclestone said last week that he was 100 percent sure that the race was going to go ahead, even though the skeptics remain about getting the finances in place. What can you tell us about your funding situation?
TH: With all due respect, I think it is interesting – because it is nobody's business what my funding is. I can tell you this: the group we have together is world class. Some of them are well known individuals who will probably never appear publicly – which is for a reason, because their privacy and anonymity is part of the deal.
But, I can tell you that Mr. Ecclestone would not have embarked on a deal if he was not pleased with the financial package. And the state of Texas would not have done what they have done without that, either. And I want to be clear about what Texas has done, because there are a lot of misconceptions there. They are not subsidizing anything – the state of Texas has basically passed legislation, just like they did for the Superbowl, that allows for the contribution of incremental sales tax revenue that is created by that event. So, some of the liberal media in Texas have been trying to take shots at that, but that [the subsidy claim] is a fabrication.
We are excited, because it puts Texas on a platform with the great global events – the Olympics, the Superbowl and the World Cup. They would have not been doing it either if they thought it was a bit wishy-washy.
Q. You were in the paddock at Silverstone talking to people. What was the reception like from F1?
TH: Fortunately, I knew a lot of the teams already, and I knew a lot of people at FOM and the FIA when I was a kid, and they have gone up through the ranks. So, it has been wonderful.
I know that F1 is a tough business. I've been around it my whole life, and I am not naive to think that it is going to be like this all the time. I am sure we will butt heads with teams and officials occasionally, but I think everyone knows that our objective is to be a great partner for F1, and to put it on a platform in America that really helps this sport.
I don't think too much traction needs to be had. There are a lot of fans who need to be given a reason to continue to be supportive to F1. Indianapolis proved that in its early stages, and you only have to look back to Watkins Glen to see what a success it was there. It is a shame that F1 outgrew the Glen at that time.
I am excited by the fact it is the first purpose-built facility for F1 in the U.S. Everyone has been very nice and hopefully we are going to do everything to keep it that way.
Q. Can the F1 teams do anything to help you and help make the event a success?
TH: Yeah. I think so. Some of the teams I spoke to at the weekend, and talked to before this, understand the need for activation and traction in the United States. It is not something that is done in a week. We have a lot of really cool things planned, starting in January, so that for 18 months we are just feeding the beast.
I think we are going to get a lot of help from some of the teams, and especially those that have partners that are American-based or at least with an American presence. So I couldn't ask for more.
Q. So what is your next step? Are you coming to more races this season?
TH: Here is the thing that I love: I don't really understand these promoters that go to a lot of races – because if you are doing your job at home, how do you have time? To me if there is a need or we have got a guest, or a partner that needs to come, or Mr. Ecclestone needs me to come, then I would be happy to. But more recently I am too busy building my track!