AUTOSPORT F1 Editor Edd Straw ponders local reactions and expectations ahead of this weekend's inaugural United States Grand Prix in Austin.
“Starting to feel the same about F1 as you were about the elections – tired of it?”
This question was posed by a local radio station presenter as we drove into the new Circuit of the Americas on Thursday morning. If there's someone complaining about there being too much chatter about something, that's always a good sign and, locally at least, Austin's first grand prix is a big talking point. Everybody in the city has a very good idea that there's a big race going on, even if it is showcasing a very different racing culture to the norm.
The same radio host went on to express his amazement at the number of private jet slots – over 250 – booked in nearby Houston. He claimed that this is a record and it's certainly believable given the mode of travel of choice in the wealthy surroundings of the Formula 1 paddock. So it was no surprise when he then floated the idea that, popular as auto racing is in Texas – citing NASCAR and drag racing in particular – F1 is “high class for snotty people.” That was more revealing about how grand prix racing is really seen in the United States than his suggestion that any fatigue might already be setting in.
But it's great news to hear people talking about F1 as the calendar already contains enough ghost town tracks where there's little sign that there's a race on until you get to the front gate. Driving from Houston to Austin yesterday, there was plenty of evidence that the grand prix circus had rolled into town. It was nothing overt – the odd sign here, a Mobil 1 advertising campaign there – but enough to prove that, in the area, it's on the radar. Inevitably, that attracts some of the wrong kind of publicity. It wasn't entirely unexpected to see certain groups seizing on their event to promote their own agendas, including, it seems, the Westboro Baptist Church, which has threatened to picket the event. An inadvertent endorsement if ever there was one.
But from an F1 perspective, the Circuit of The Americas is seriously impressive. Arriving at the track, the steep hill that leads to Turn 1 grabbed the attention. It's set to become the iconic image of the new facility in much the same way that the Paddock Hill Bend does at Brands Hatch, or the plunge through the Senna S at Interlagos. This is not a soulless Hermann Tilke-drome and the sight of 24 cars charging up the hill at the start will give the race an immediate identity within seconds of the red lights going out. Jenson Button has already raised some questions about the start, unusually suggesting that second on the grid might be the best place to be and fearing that there is plenty of scope for incident at the blind first turn.
Thursday is always a busy day at the circuit. There is no on-track action, but the paddock is a hive of activity with teams prepping their cars and garages and going through endless technical meetings. There's some of that for the drivers, too, although the most important part of their work is the press activity. As a journalist, of course I'd say that, but with promotion being key to making America pay attention, it's an important task here more than ever.
Button (LEFT) was asked if he'd enjoyed the relative anonymity in the U.S., but as he discovered last weekend, there are some people here who recognize him. “The funny thing is that most people in the States don't know about F1, but once they do know about it, they are really interested,” he said. “I did a half-marathon on Sunday in Malibu. I was running along and a few people were like “Jenson Button...” and that was amazing! They were were only seeing the back of my head as well, which was impressive! So there are people who are interested, it's just not like in Europe. But that will change and people will get interested. Indy was a good race, but this is a purpose-built circuit for an F1 car. When people see and hear it here and see what an F1 car can do, they will be very interested.”
It won't be until today that the fans who turn up for practice will get the chance to see an F1 car in anger at the Circuit of The Americas. While race day is a sell-out – great news – the number of fans who crowd into the stands for practice gives the best indication of whether F1 has truly penetrated the public consciousness. A good example of this was in China last year. It's a country that really hasn't embraced F1 and last year, one of my colleagues walked around the perimeter of the track during Friday morning practice and counted a total of 57 fans. Fortunately, it's not going to be like that here.
Those who do come along on Friday will be in for a treat. There are plenty of strategically placed grandstands, some apparently giving a view of a good mile of the track. There's also the chance to go up the 251-ft viewing platform in the middle of the track. It's not a discreet piece of architecture, but it's the first thing you spot as you approach the circuit and gives a great view, not just of the track around you but, thanks to a glass bottom section, of the strip of asphalt immediately below! It's a great idea that adds to the new circuit's character. Most importantly, it's got an elevator as well as stairs, so should be a popular attraction this weekend.
But, talk is cheap. So far, the fastest that any of the 24 F1 drivers have been around COTA is in a golf buggy or on a bicycle. At 9 a.m. Friday, they get the chance to sample the circuit in a grand prix car for the first time, a very different proposition even to the state-of-the-art simulators that some of them will have utilized as preparation for this race.
That's when the serious stuff begins. For all of the talk and excitement, F1 needs to deliver on track to make good on the interest that this race has built up. And for all the platitudes and soundbites suggesting that F1 in America is a done deal, everybody in the paddock knows how important it is to put on a good race.
It's just a shame that the race has been scheduled for the same weekend as the NASCAR finale at Homestead...