It’s a testament to the fever, passion and commitment of the more than 113,000 fans in attendance Sunday at Circuit of the Americas that they all stuck around for the entirety of the 56-lap, encore edition of the United States Grand Prix in Austin.
Because on pure product alone, there was a clear gap in the excitement department from other races at Austin this year.
I’ll use my past trip to Austin for the combined FIA World Endurance Championship/American Le Mans Series weekend in September as a reference point, although there have been three other major weekends at the track this year besides that.
The ALMS race Saturday featured more than 30 cars in five classes; two of the five class victories were in doubt for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45 minute race.
The ALMS GT class – which features an open manufacturer grid of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari, BMW and Porsche – had all five marques in contention with a Corvette co-driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia emerging victorious over a Viper and a BMW.
Meanwhile the all-Porsche GT3 Cup GTC class witnessed an intense battle between, and this still sucks to write, the late Sean Edwards and underrated Irishman Damien Faulkner. Faulkner took the win there.
And all this occurred while the faster three prototype classes were slicing through them like butter to overtake.
Sunday for six hours, the WEC event featured a chess match between the stunning Audi and Toyota LMP1 prototypes, a three or four-car battle at any time in the lower cost LMP2 ranks, and Aston Martin sweeping the GTE categories. It wasn’t stunning at all times, certainly, but it packed its action at various points, and at various corners, throughout the day.
But here’s the kicker: more fans attended Friday practice for F1 (58,276) than the entire three-day weekend for the international sports car doubleheader (33,591). F1 may still have a ways to go to achieve more mainstream coverage in the U.S., and sports car racing’s climb is even higher.
Other weekends at COTA – the MotoGP weekend, Australian V8 Supercars/Pirelli World Challenge event and GRAND-AM race – had more moments at any points. There were a number of tweets on Sunday salivating at the idea of an IndyCar race in Austin, given how well that series’ new car races on permanent road courses.
And F1 had but perhaps two or three “moments” on Sunday. What F1 packs in spades – the glamour, the exclusivity, the spectacle of the buildup on the grid, the sheer pinnacle of technology – it cannot overcome by its current on-track product after the lights go out.
Essentially, as soon as Mark Webber lost the pole to teammate Sebastian Vettel on Saturday, the race was good as decided. Vettel’s starts are flawless and Webber, who always seems to struggle off the line, was stuck on the dirty line of the track and couldn’t put the grip down. Vettel did his usual checking out once the safety car period ended and that was that, job done for an eighth straight clinical race-winning performance we’ve come to expect.
The full-time members of the F1 press corps have already lamented how most of the field on Sunday needed to conserve their tires to cope with the unexpected high temperatures, north of 85 degrees ambient. With a one-stop race and a limited window of operation for peak performance, drivers had to either go hard early in the stint on the mediums and risk them going off, or save them for later in the stint. The hards would obviously last longer, but not offer the same pace on potential. And all that made Sunday’s Grand Prix something of a dreary, processional affair at times.
Whether it’s the conservative tire choices, or the DRS (which didn’t even get that much usage on Sunday with many gaps larger than 1 second in the DRS detection zone), or the Red Bull domination at the front of the field, a race like Sunday’s will not have done more to attract the casual American fan given the available choices of viewing (Sunday’s race conflicted with NFL football and the NASCAR season finale in Homestead).
Perhaps the uncertainty of the new 2014 regulations – where reliability may be an issue – will shake things up a bit.
But from my view here, it was only the allure of a once-a-year circus and the attraction of a simply awesome city, Austin, that as many fans have turned up this weekend as did.
The track, and the city, deserve a better show in 2014. And that includes a post-race act other than Pit Bull…