The number of celebrities who come to a Formula 1 race is usually a good indicator of the success of the event. The British and the Monaco grands prix always attract swathes of stars of stage, screen and sports, but the Circuit of the Americas is well on its way to joining them as a superstar haunt of choice. No surprise that the near-unanimous opinion in the Formula 1 paddock was that this race has proved itself as one of the rare genuine “glamour” races of the season.
There were a few well-known American faces unfamiliar to European eyes, but some of the drivers were star struck by certain individuals. I was chatting to Bruno Senna after qualifying…until he dashed off to get his picture taken with a certain George Lucas. The Brazilian is something of a Star Wars fan and, on his return, only half-jokingly described his moment with the bearded Hollywood magnate as “the best part of the year.” It's safe to say that Lucas was less thrilled about having his photo taken with a grand prix driver.
Among the other star names was former Friends and now Episodes star Matt Le Blanc, (LEFT, with rally star Ken Block in the Lotus garage) who was there as a guest of Pirelli. Whether he had any useful insights to offer following the Italian company's decision to go conservative on its tire compound allocation is unclear, but he had the good grace to look very interested every time the cameras were on him. They also had a man with better motoring credibility, Ken Block, who Pirelli still hopes one day to give a blast in an F1 car after he turned out to be too big to fit in the Toyota test car he was hoping to have a run in last year.
But the various celebrities (that's Rush director Ron Howard being shown around the McLaren garage, RIGHT) were just the icing on the cake, proof either that the race was attracting the interest of the great and the good, or that the various companies involved in F1 felt it worth the investment to pay them to be there! The real highlight was the sight of so many fans lining the track. The official attendance was a mighty 82,710 and as the cars blasted onto the circuit at the start of the one-hour qualifying session, Turn 1 looked stunning.
Estimates of the anticipated race day crowd start at 100,000, with 120-125,000 probably a safe bet. For a sport that has a relatively small following in the United States and which many people in Austin seem a little puzzled by, that's incredibly impressive. Estimates indicate that around 80 percent of that number come from out of town, which is good news for the race from an economic standpoint. That's certainly enough to drown out some of the vocal locals who oppose F1's presence.
Local media took a more cautious approach.
“The slow-moving traffic leaving the circuit Friday provided a glimpse, however, of the circuit's challenge,” read the lead article on the front page of Saturday's Austin-American Statesman. “As the numbers of fans swell, the recent improvements to the area's roads will be put to the test. The success of the race weekend hinges partly on whether the crush of people leaving the track don't overwhelm what are still country byways surrounding the track.”
The concerns were well-founded. The approach roads are the least impressive facet of what is a superb facility. When leaving the track late last night, we spent 10 minutes waiting at traffic signals that refused to turn green and it seemed that the traffic plan was creaking. But today it seemed much sharper, indicating that the lessons of yesterday had been learned. Add to that the increase in shuttle buses for Saturday and, considering the size of the event, it was a good effort.
On-track, things went very smoothly, much to the delight of the spectators. Qualifying produced an unexpected duel for pole position between Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton. It was no surprise to see world championship favorite Vettel on top, but for Hamilton to end up just 0.109sec off pole was a great effort.
So far, so good. All of the boxes have been ticked. The one question mark now is over just how dramatic the race will be. Making predictions in F1 is a dangerous game, though. After all, in the build-up to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix two weeks ago, the smart money was on a processional and uneventful race. So while race strategy is likely to be a relatively straightforward one-stopper, which might reduce the potential for overtaking, don't assume it's going to be a quiet afternoon. The track surface, which started off so slippery as to be near-undriveable on Friday morning, will make things interesting. You can expect there to be more errors than you'd get in a usual race, which could in itself lead to plenty of passing opportunities. Then there's the challenge faced by the drivers on the even-numbered side of the grid, who will struggle to get a good launch.
“It will be the biggest difference that you ever saw in any start, it will be massive,” said Ferrari's Felipe Massa. “This morning, I did a practice start on the left side and I was slower than in the wet.”
Massa was exaggerating, but while several of his rivals were a little surprised by his phraseology, they did share his view about a scrambled order off of the grid. Combine that with what everyone expects to be an incident-strewn first corner and you could have the ingredients for a great race.
But even if the on-track action isn't fierce, there's every chance that Vettel could make this a race to remember. The World Championship has been clinched on American soil six times in the past – but the last time was 30 years ago in Las Vegas, at one of the most ridiculous tracks in F1 history, set in a parking lot at the Caesar's Palace hotel. What more fitting way to expunge that memory and christen what many already consider the best “new generation” F1 circuit than by having the World Champion crowned here?