Five minutes before the start of Friday morning's first Formula 1 free practice session in the United States since 2007, the public address system kicked in. “Welcome to the Circuit of The Americas...”
A healthy round of applause from the impressive Friday crowd followed this momentous announcement. With the first session starting at 9 a.m., an hour earlier than normal to reduce the time gap to Formula 1's European heartland for broadcasting reasons, the sense of anticipation was palpable.
When the first engine fired up, there was another ripple of applause that quickly intensified as Kimi Raikkonen's black and gold Lotus-Renault, glistening in the morning sunshine, crept out of the pitlane. And creep is the right word to use, for the track surface was as slick and greasy as anything any of the drivers had ever encountered outside of wet conditions. Even breathing on the throttle pedal invited wheelspin early doors and several drivers likened conditions to those seen in winter testing.
Marussia driver Timo Glock and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi both had early off-track excursions as they searched desperately for front-end grip on the virgin circuit. They weren't the only ones to hit trouble. The quest for adequate friction was certainly not helped by the twin factors of Pirelli rather conservatively allocating its two hardest tire compounds and pretty low track temperatures.
The start to the session was pretty quiet, with most completing a single installation lap before diving back to the pits. Some in the grandstands were getting noticeably – and understandably – restless after so many days of build-up. After all, there's only so long that you can spend absorbing the panoramic view, including the distant high-rises of downtown Austin, and listening to F1 cars crawling awkwardly around a new circuit before your attention wandered.
But then Kobayashi completed the first flying lap of COTA and the crowd really had something to enjoy. This was the moment that Austin had been waiting for. F1 had been front-page news for several days by now and everything had been building to the moment when the crowd could really see what the sport was about. One local paper ran the line “what the hell is F1 anyway” on its cover. Another, the Austin American-Statesman, ran “F1's Roar Builds” as its main line, following it up with the question everybody has been asking: “As race fans pour into Austin, the question is: How successful will Formula 1 be here?”
Amid the saturation coverage, there was plenty of moaning from local residents about extra traffic in downtown Austin. But that was probably just reward for their city hiking hotel room prices through the roof for the weekend...
The important thing was that proceedings were underway. For the spectator, the track is superb. The majestic climb to Turn 1 is picturesque enough, but the sequence from Turn 3 to Turn 6 is now the best place to watch F1 cars, bar none, on the calendar. If you're booking a grandstand seat for the race next year, the one on the outside at Turn 5 is the place to be.
The drivers were impressed, too, with Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg paying tribute, unprompted, to the impressive attendance today. While he slightly over-estimated the size of the crowd, which was officially put at 65,360, his sentiment was well-placed.
“It's so nice to see how many people are out there,” said Rosberg shortly after Friday practice came to an end. “Not even in Europe do you get so many people and the grandstands are already full on a Friday. That was very special. It has been a great welcome for F1 here.”
It's no surprise to see that a few of that number were very well known outside of motor-racing. Of course, there was the living legend that is Mario Andretti (RIGHT), but he was far from the only familiar face. Ron Howard, better known to some as Richie Cunningham from Happy Days
despite being one of Hollywood's finest directors, was an interested observer. It's far from his first visit to F1 and his next movie, Rush
, which is set to be released next year, tells the story of the epic 1976 James Hunt versus Niki Lauda World Championship fight.
There was also Michael Johnson, whose Michael Johnson Performance Company has a tie-in with Williams. In the build up to the race, Johnson's company did some work with all three Williams drivers. As it turns out, Bruno Senna has faster reflexes than Pastor Maldonado. But that's hardly a problem seeing as driving an F1 is, contrary to popular belief, all about being proactive and getting the car to do what you want, rather than being reactive.
Also in attendance was America's most successful Tour de France rider of all time. No, not local fallen hero Lance Armstrong, now officially a zero-times Tour winner, but Greg LeMond. Considering this is only a Friday, that's not a bad start, and by the time race day comes around you can guarantee that there will be several dozen celebrities who are significantly more famous than the drivers in the USA.
But for the fans, it was the guys on track that were the true stars. Michael Schumacher earned a ripple of applause when he cruised out of the pits for the first time this morning. There was plenty of support for the five-times United States Grand Prix winner, with a banner on the front of the grandstand in the vicinity of Turn 5 reading “God save the King. Schumacher the best of all time. We'll miss you.”
It was an appropriate spot to pick, for the seven-time World Champion loved this section of the circuit. He wasn't the only one. Having spent some time watching there this morning, the only conclusion you can draw is that it's a breathtaking showcase of the capabilities of an F1 car.
“The track is challenging, a nice layout...very interesting,” mused Schumacher. “It's very different from when you walk around it or ride on a scooter to finally sitting in an F1 car. Sitting low, the vision is much more compromised. That was a bit of a shock the first lap out.
“As usual, the corner that looks outstanding from the outside [Turn 1] is not the one that is outstanding from the inside. It's much more the part from Turn 3 into Turn 9 that is the big excitement of this track. The back part, Turns 17, 18, 19, are [also] much more of a challenge.”
Schumacher wasn't the only driver with an obvious fan base. As expected, there was plenty of support for the closest thing F1 has to a home driver this weekend – Sauber's Sergio Perez. While lapping the track perimeter road this morning, there were several Mexican flags on display. Expect that number to increase dramatically once we get into qualifying and the race.
But whoever you were cheering for, the new track, both in terms of the configuration and facilities, was a hit. The vital question now is whether it can produce a race worthy of announcing F1's re-emergence in the USA.