Expectations are high in the world of Formula 1 and brand-new circuits never, never gain universal approval. But the Circuit of The Americas has shattered that rule and set a new standard. Austin delivered a venue, race and, most importantly, a major sporting event that blew everyone away.
In the build-up to the weekend, everyone in F1 was talking about how vital this race is for the long-term future of the sport in the United States. On the other side of the coin, Austin residents were demanding to know why F1 was here and, for that matter, what the hell was F1, anyway? Race day satisfied the demands of both sides. And then some.
F1 people never miss an opportunity to snipe and criticize, particular to an upstart new circuit. But it was impossible to find anyone who would argue that Austin has produced the permanent home that F1 has been searching for in the United States ever since the last grand prix at Watkins Glen back in 1980. To shatter paddock cynicism takes something very special.
The sense of anticipation built up from dawn. When we arrived at the circuit pretty early on, we could see a line of silhouetted spectators making the long climb to Turn 1, ready to pick out the best spots for the start. Some new F1 venues of recent times haven't been able to convince people to turn up at all, let alone when the sun has barely risen.
By the time the pitlane opened 30 minutes before the start of the first United States Grand Prix in five years, the atmosphere was electric. It stood comparison with Monaco, Silverstone, Singapore or even Brazil as one of the most feverish pre-race grids of the year. A few minutes before the cars were allowed to venture onto the track, the prerace ceremonies that everyone associates with a major American sporting event had set the tone perfectly. Now, the marching bands and the parades were done and the engines were roaring into life.
There's a 15-minute window between the pitlane opening and closing again, during which the cars can complete a few reconnaissance laps before being wheeled into their grid slots. At this point, throngs of team mechanics, engineers and the odd technical director pour onto start/finish. They are joined by the usual hangers-on, celebrities, officials, photographers and even journalists. At this point, I made a point of ducking and diving my way past the great and the good to head to polesitter Sebastian Vettel's grid slot.
From a few yards in front of where Vettel would, 25 minutes hence, blast away at the start of the race, the climb to Turn 1 looked less of a hill than a mountain. Atop it were packed grandstands packed with some of the vast 117,429 crowd who had filled the circuit for the big race. Now, there are some spectacular runs to the first corner among the 20 rounds of the Formula 1 World Championship, but this stands alongside the best of them.
The grid is an assault on the senses that captures the prerace vibe perfectly. In some countries, the feeling is flat and barely even reaches the level of anticipation you'd get before the average amateur club race. Not in Texas. There was a World Championship at stake, with Vettel hoping to wrap it all up, but that was only part of the intoxicating race day environment. There was something unmistakably American about the build up that made this feel very different to a normal race.
Above the hubbub of the last-minute preparations, the engines being turned over and the final TV interviews and live grid walks, the Star Spangled Banner could be heard over the public address system. A few minutes later, a parachutist trailing the Stars and Stripes fell gracefully to earth at the exit of Turn 20. Before we knew it, it was time to leave the grid with this dose of Americana fresh in the mind.
Up until this moment, the Circuit of The Americas had delivered everything it had promised and more. The track was popular with drivers, the facilities superb and the crowd massive. What happened next would be the crux of the whole project. The worth of the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in bringing the United States Grand Prix to Austin hinged on what happened in the next couple of hours. As a headline in the Austin American-Statesman had rather dramatically put it earlier in the weekend “Austin's world reputation at stake.”
Well, despite the odds being that it would be an average race, with little scope for dramatic tire strategies and a Vettel walkover predicted, Austin's reputation was not just safe, but enhanced. The details of that tense scrap between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton don't need to be repeated here, but it had the crowd on the edges of their seats all afternoon. This was exactly what America needed from F1 – a great motor race.
The organizers continued to find ways to set the United States Grand Prix apart from the rest even after the finish. At every other race, the drivers are forced to wear ubiquitous Pirelli-branded baseball caps as they celebrate. This makes every post-race celebration a soulless, homogenized experience. But not in Texas. Here, they got to wear Pirelli Stetsons, satisfying both the need for corporate exposure and a dash of local flavor. And who else but Mario Andretti could be on the podium to greet Hamilton, Vettel and Fernando Alonso?
“The fans have been amazing this weekend, so thank you so much,” said Hamilton. “The warm welcome we've had has been fantastic and I think this is probably one of the best, if not the best grand prix we've had all year.”
Few could argue with him. One F1 paddock luminary of many decades standing described it as the best first attempt at a race by a venue that he'd ever experienced. He had a point.
F1 has a long way to go in the United States and nobody is going to be fooled into thinking that one great events means that the sport has cracked it. But the Circuit of The Americas has laid the foundations for what can now rightly be considered one of the best races on the grand prix calendar.
There's a long way to go, but thanks to the efforts of Austin, F1 just might have a chance in the USA after all.
•Source: Edd Straw is F1 Editor for AUTOSPORT magazine.