Formula 1’s growth in the United States of the past three years has been unprecedented. Since the return of the grand prix in Austin, Texas, the sport has enjoyed a boom in interest, with fans flocking to the city each year for the race.
As with any new grand prix, there was a certain amount of novelty at first, but it appears to be more sustained than that. The problematic American market may not have been totally cracked yet, but the event has gone a long way to helping make this happen.
So why have Austin and COTA become such firm favorites of the sport in such a short space of time?
Let’s start with the city: Austin. The slogan is “Keep Austin Weird”, and it a great hive of activity and interest around the grand prix weekend. For some races, there is zero marketing or even acknowledgement of the race beyond the circuit. In Austin, from the moment that you step off the plane, the adverts, posters and checkered flags are there to see. The event is embraced by the city.
The very fact that it is a city does go a long way to helping make it a firm fixture on the calendar. The big problem with the Korean Grand Prix in Mokpo was that it was located a four-hour train journey away from Seoul. Originally, the plan was to build a city around the race and the track, but this ultimately fell flat, resulting in its removal from the calendar for the 2014 season.
Austin is a well-connected and buzzing city, meaning that fans can get in from pretty much anywhere – not least Mexico, which is an enormous market for the sport to tap into.
And this was clear at the COTA Forum last night, which saw Felipe Massa, Esteban Gutierrez and Sergio Perez face questions from fans before signing merchandise and posing for pictures. In the case of the two Mexican drivers, Gutierrez and Perez, there was an enormous amount of support from their native fans who had made the journey to the race. For both drivers, this is part of the appeal of Austin.
Gutierrez was asked what the best part of the US GP weekend was, and he answer: “To have the Mexican support!” before the fans broke out into cheers.
“I would say the same,” Perez said. “We wait so long to have a race in Mexico, and this is the closest we can get to one. Definitely the support we get here is fantastic.”
“Hand on heart, this is probably the date on the calendar I look forward to the most,” said Daniel Ricciardo ahead of the weekend. “I’ve loved every minute of being in Austin: when they picked this place for the US Grand Prix, they absolutely nailed it.
“The city is awesome. I love listening to live music and this is a great place for that, plus Texas feels like real America, and that’s something I’ve really enjoyed just sinking into the last two seasons.”
Austin is a place that the entire F1 community relishes visiting. Much like the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, the whole weekend is enjoyable both at the track and away from the circuit.
The Circuit of the Americas itself is another reason why the return of the United States Grand Prix has been so successful. It is widely acknowledged as being one of the better circuits designed by Hermann Tilke (renowned for his ‘Tilkedromes’), featuring a number of the great corners from other circuits such as Silverstone, Hockenheim and Suzuka.
“The Circuit of the Americas, in my opinion, is the best of the new breed of circuits,” Ricciardo said. “The nature of the corners is interesting. It’s also a very busy track where you don’t get much respite.
“The first sector is very special and that first turn, blind up the big hill is like nothing else in F1. It’s also a good example of the excitement a late-apex can create: you can have a really good lunge there. They’ve done a very good job.”
Speaking at the COTA Forum, Perez and Gutierrez agreed that the iconic first sector, featuring the uphill run to the first corner and the fast-flowing esses right the way through to turn 11 – over half the circuit without a chance to relax.
“The first sector is definitely my favorite,” Gutierrez said. “The fast corners, the esses, yes, very nice. The last sector is pretty challenging, you have the triple apex, it’s a very quick corner.”
“I think the first sector is amazing,” Perez said in agreement. “It’s really fast and fluid. When you get into a couple of corners like turn one, you really cannot see the apex, which makes it really difficult to get it right. It’s one of the more difficult parts of the track to get the corner right lap after lap.”
It’s a circuit that both can both punish and reward drivers, though. “When you start the high-speed corners, if you start wrong or not in the right line, you destroy everything,” explained Massa. “If you start well there, I think it’ll destroy your lap.”
Year three will be the true test for many, with the race going up against NASCAR in Dallas/Fort Worth on the same weekend. However, attendance figures are unlikely to plummet given the different fanbases on display here, with only those holding an interest in both being left with a tricky decision to make.
The United States Grand Prix continues to be a booming success, though, giving the fans, drivers and entire F1 community a fine weekend to look forward to.
A great circuit with a poor location doesn’t work for a grand prix. Similarly, a great location with a poor track is difficult to get in the sky as a good grand prix. Austin, however, combines all of the needed factors. Throw in droves of passionate and excited fans, and you have the ingredients for a very successful and popular grand prix indeed.