After two years of tireless planning, re-planning, construction work and sheer willpower, the first United States Grand Prix in Austin is over.
So how did Austin do?
There’s always been a tentative attitude towards the U.S. in European Formula 1 fan circles. After so many false starts and disappointing crowds at various circuits (none of which seemed to suit the characteristics of F1) many thought the last race at Indy in 2007 could well be the last race in America. Thanks to Tavo Hellmund, Bobby Epstein, Red McCombs, the Circuit of the Americas team, and certainly Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s powerbroker, we were persuaded to give it one last try.
The enthusiasm from the largely American crowd was unbelievable and even sitting 5000 miles away and watching on television the atmosphere was palpable.
We were in no way let down. Speculation was rife right up until the moment the gates opened to the fans on Friday morning for the first of the three practice sessions. 65,000 fans poured through the gates that day alone, whether they were repressed Formula 1 fans thirsty for some stateside action, or F1 virgins wondering what all the fuss was about.
That number increased over the weekend to 82,000 on Saturday and 117,000 on race day for the all important potential championship deciding U.S. Grand Prix.
That attendance is nearly a Silverstone level of support.
I was at the British Grand Prix in both 2009 and 2011, when support for British drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton was on the crest of a wave. Never have I seen such passion, excitement and anticipation from such a huge number of people, and I thought I probably never would again.
Until this weekend that is. The enthusiasm from the largely American crowd was unbelievable and even sitting 5000 miles away and watching on television the atmosphere was palpable.
For me the defining moment was when the five red lights above the grid were extinguished. The wall of noise generated by 24 Formula 1 engines revving for the start always fills you with a surge of adrenalin, but when those lights went out and the clutches were dropped, for a second there seemed to be an intense silence. The second the revs built back up and they were screaming toward the first corner I realized it wasn’t just the cars I was hearing; the roar was from the banks of cheering spectators lining the circuit as they finally saw what they wanted to see — a race.
What of the race itself?
For those of you still unsure of exactly how F1 works, or unsure of what eventually happened, here’s a little recap:
Formula One is a global championship, and Austin played its part with aplomb. On behalf of European fans, thank you for a brilliant show.
Sebastian Vettel made a solid getaway from the pole position, while Lewis Hamilton was outgunned into the steep turn one by the other Red Bull car of Mark Webber. Fernando Alonso immediately got off to the start he needed by jumping from 7th on the grid to 4th by the first corner. Remarkably behind the leading pack there was no contact between the other drivers jostling for position.
Webber initially held 2nd place but couldn’t keep the faster Hamilton behind and after only a handful of laps the Mclaren squeezed past the Red Bull beginning his pursuit of Vettel.
Further back, a full-scale war was being fought over 7th-8th-9th-10th places involving Mexican hero Sergio Perez, the two Williams cars of Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna, and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. Surprisingly, this fight didn’t claim any casualties with all concerned ducking and diving without mishap, although Lotus driver Romain Grosjean lost his head soon afterwards and ruined a promising race by spinning off the circuit. A wheel dropped onto a painted kerb was his undoing.
Jenson Button had started on the harder compound Pirelli tyre and was unlucky to get blocked by other drivers at the start, but incredibly, was going faster than many of those in front of him. By half distance, the 2009 World Champion was up to 3rd after a series of brave and hair-raising overtaking moves. He eventually pitted and rejoined the race in 6th, soon catching Kimi Raikkonen for 5th place.
At the front meanwhile Hamilton edged close to Vettel several times after their one and only pit stop at half-race distance, but couldn’t quite get close enough to make the move for the lead.
His chance came when the German was briefly delayed by backmarker Narain Karthikeyan, and Hamilton was able to deploy his DRS (Drag Reduction System – an aerodynamic device that ‘stalls’ the airflow over the rear-wing and adds up to 15km/h to the car’s speed) and sweep past Vettel to take the lead.
Although the German kept close behind, it wasn’t to be his day and Hamilton eventually took the honors with Vettel 2nd, Alonso 3rd, Massa 4th, Button 5th, Raikkonen 6th, Grosjean 7th, Hulkenberg 8th and the Williams duo of Maldonado and Senna 9th and 10th.
Mark Webber was forced to retire after the third alternator failure on a Red Bull car this season. All this meant that there was no driver’s champion crowned in Austin; that goes on now to the Grand Prix next weekend in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Red Bull did however gain enough points to take their third Constructors Championship title to add to their success in 2010 and 2011.
I was startled to see the top three drivers donning Stetsons on the podium; I suppose I should have expected such a move to celebrate F1’s return to the United States. Maybe the victor of the next British Grand Prix should be given a celebratory bowler hat? Or a winner’s turban for victory in India? Then again, it probably wouldn’t catch on.
The mood is best summed up in an anecdote heard Friday afternoon. SkyF1 television commentator David Croft remarked how his driver bussing him in and out of the circuit, known simply as ‘Jeff’, displayed no interest in what was happening in Austin. "I know nothing about Formula One." he wearily decried. Despite this, Croft managed to persuade the reluctant man just to have a quick look at the cars as they raced around the track for the first time. Within seconds, ‘Jeff’ was calling his family and friends. "F1 is awesome!" he excitedly babbled, "You gotta come see this!"
‘Jeff’ serves as a very real example of what Formula 1 was trying to achieve in the United States this time round. Interest would always be higher if there was an American driver to cheer on, but that will only come if the interest and support for the sport is nurtured. The sheer passion for Formula 1 in the United States has surprised and convinced me that the sport is so much more popular there than we ever imagined. It’s a heartening prospect to witness, and the future will bear much fruit for Austin and its people should the race continue to be a success.
Formula One is a global championship, and Austin played its part with aplomb. On behalf of European fans, thank you for a brilliant show. That passion must be sustained and I hope you will become part of the F1 family as we continue on to the Brazilian Grand Prix next weekend.
Besides, there’s a championship needs winning.