Has Formula 1 cracked the U.S. market in Austin?


How can Formula 1 succeed and flourish in America, the market that has always caused such a headache?

It’s the age-old argument that has been debated for decades, and despite being more suited to economists, it has a great deal of relevance to the money-spinning sport of that we know and love. It has been the ‘problem’ for many, and few have come up with a suitable answer.

Ever since the beginning of the official world championship back in 1950, the U.S. has always been a market that has been targeted and pointed at as being a lucrative outlet for Formula 1. It’s not somewhere it should or could go to, but must go to.

And so after so many false starts, it was easy to see just why following the final United States Grand Prix to be held in Indianapolis in 2007 so many believed that the damage had been done. The sport would never enjoy a similar status to either IndyCar or NASCAR, and should simply accept that. The costs were too high to host F1 in the U.S., and the benefits were minimal.

Fast forward seven years, and that has all changed. For many, Formula 1 has not only found a good foothold in the United States, but it has also gone a long way to cracking the problem child of a market.

The naysayers will point to both IndyCar and NASCAR and point at the great divide still existing, yet this is perhaps an unfair comparison. Given that Formula 1 is a highly Euro-centric sport, cracking the American market is always going to be a struggle. It often amazes me how many fans tweet that they’re up and ready with a cup of coffee in hand to tune into free practice one in the wee hours of Friday morning. It certainly acts as proof of a real consideration and interest in the sport from one of its most loyal fanbases.

IndyCar and NASCAR both have their own demographics, so instead of being a rival to them, F1 must be seen as something ‘different’ – it’s just as soccer will never be as big as football in the US. Twist that around, it’s just as American Football will never be as big as football in my native UK. The markets are different.

As with any good business, the product can be adapted to fit the needs of the different markets and consumers. This is more difficult with Formula 1, given that it is so Eurocentric, but with two North American races currently on the calendar, one ‘friendly’ timezoned event in Brazil, and another coming in 2015 in Mexico, all of the cards are stacked in favor of great viewership. The boom in TV figures certainly can act as proof of an increase in awareness and support for the sport.

Another big factor in helping Formula 1 crack the U.S. market is how successful the new event in Austin has been. It has been specifically designed and tailor-made for the sport. IndyCar and NASCAR haven’t been there in the first place, with F1 piggy-backing off of it (as per Indianapolis). Instead, it has been a brand new event. Other series may go there, but so long as the Circuit of The Americas is on the calendar, it will always be a Formula 1 event first and foremost.

And it’s for this reason that other races in the United States must be treated with caution. As fantastic as grands prix in New Jersey and Las Vegas may appear to be at first, they would need to be mainstays on the calendar to truly work. Spending two or three years in either place before dropping off the calendar – or, as it would be dubbed, “failing” – would only do harm to the U.S market and its perception. It would get the naysayers quipping how this is further proof that F1 cannot succeed in the United States.

What makes the race in Austin so special, though? The city itself is a pretty cool place to hold a grand prix, and is perfect as a major city with an airport. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone can be one of the hardest races to get to from overseas because the track is in the middle of nowhere. Austin does not have this issue. It is a buzzing city that embraces the sport.

Even venturing through the airport after a long flight, the checkered flags and posters prove that the race is something that is being supported and loved, not merely tolerated.

Look at Lewis Hamilton’s appearance on NBC’s TODAY Show yesterday. So many fans came down to the plaza in New York to see the event and meet Lewis, getting pictures and autographs from the world championship leader. They were draped in Mercedes and McLaren gear, with one fan even sporting a replica of Ayrton Senna’s overalls from the late ’80s! This is a passionate fanbase on display.

If further proof is needed, the fan events being organized – the COTA Forum, Will Buxton’s Big Time Bash, the Red Bull show run – are wonderful to see. Few races are doing so much to give the fans a good time as the United States GP in Austin.

This weekend’s race is due to be a big litmus test, given that it is going head-to-head with the NASCAR race in Dallas/Fort Worth. Although the markets and fanbases are different, it will be interesting to see how many fairweather fans opt to head south to Austin instead of to see the NASCAR race.

The only thing lacking at the moment is an American driver or team, yet we could be set to see both join in the next couple of years. Alexander Rossi has come close with Caterham and Marussia, and may be in line to race for the latter should it get its act together in time for the race in Abu Dhabi, although this does seem unlikely. However, he could yet race for Gene Haas’ F1 operation when it makes the grid in 2016. An American driver racing for an American team at the United States Grand Prix – it’s the stuff dreams are made of for U.S. fans.

With a wonderful facility, a great and growing fanbase, some brilliant events and a delightful host city, the United States Grand Prix has a great home in Austin, Texas. Time will tell how the race will develop and evolve, but after three years, the signs are very promising indeed.