Will a new state-of-the-art track keep Grand Prix racing in the US for good? By Michael Frank
Naysayers may yawn that the expensive, twisty, turny, highly technical F1 racing that is so popular around the world can’t succeed in the States. The sport reached its peak relevance in the US in the ’60s and early ’70s when the Grand Prix took place at Watkins Glen and American drivers such as Dan Gurney competed with Europe’s best. The Formula One United States Grand Prix dropped off the calendar in 2007, but now the R3 billion Circuit of the Americas (COTA) track in Austin, Texas, is a big and bold argument that F1 can bring back American crowds. And COTA is well-positioned to succeed where past efforts have failed.
The track is an all-in bet on F1. Past US courses, such as Indianapolis from 2000 to 2007, have repurposed oval tracks, but COTA is purpose-built for F1. It’s a thrilling circuit, with blind rises; a huge, 300-km/h straight that dumps into a reversing-apex corner at turn 12; and masses of space to pass.
Fireworks flew in the inaugural contest last year, with constant midpack passes and drivers sliding all over (and off) the track. McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton proved the best tactician, out-braking other drivers through corners and sneaking by F1 points leader Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull/Renault–Infiniti to win the race.
Lasting success for the sport in the States largely depends on whether American racing fans will geek out to the engineering behind cars that have tiny, 2,4-litre hybrid-assist V8s that rev to 18 000 r/min and can push a car from 0 to 100 in under 2 seconds. But on race day last year 117 000 people paid an average of R3 500 to attend the sold-out contest.
What’s still missing? American drivers and teams. If F1 maintains a foothold in the US, that will likely change. With all the investment in the COTA track and talk of another circuit in Weehawken, New Jersey, in 2014, Formula One racing in the US seems to be trending up rather than out.
The 5,5-kilometre, 20-turn Circuit of the Americas track in Austin, Texas, is constructed like a 747 runway. It was excavated 3 metres down and then layered up with sand, clay, gravel, crushed limestone, surface treatment, more limestone and, finally, asphalt.
In all, 2,5 million cubic metres of earth were moved during construction.
1. Front stretch
On the first straight of the race Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso reached 290 km/h, then cut hard right across the cars he’d just passed, forcing them to brake early. He braked exceedingly late into Turn 1 and dropped to 100 km/h under 5 g’s of force.
2. Back stretch
On lap four McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton fi red out of Turn 10 and adjusted his rear wing to make his vehicle more aerodynamic.
This helped him catch up to Red Bull’s Mark Webber. He then out-braked Webber into Turn 12 and forced him wide to retake second.
Sebastian Vettel of team Red Bull was in the lead when he hit the chicanes on lap 42, but he got stuck trying to lap a much slower Narain Karthikeyan (HRTCosworth).
This allowed Hamilton in the McLaren Mercedes to overtake Vettel 4 seconds later to clinch first.