Austin FP2: View from the ground

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AUSTIN – As last year, I spent the majority of today’s second 90-minute free practice session at Circuit of the Americas perusing the grounds and scoping things out. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith has the details on the latest Mercedes 1-2 practice sweep on-track. A few observations to follow, after the changes from last year:

THE SOUND CHANGE

I’m really torn after this session. When you’ve had a taste of the visceral, screaming, blow-your-eardrums-out V10s and V8s, it’s impossible not to feel a little bit disappointed after hearing the softer, quieter V6s. Yet at the same time, there are positives.

You can carry on a couple conversations while the session was ongoing. If you’re thinking of catering to families, particularly young children, the V6s are brilliant… because that noise is no longer something that is jarring and affects their ears at a young age. You’re also still aware there is mind-blowing technology currently in the new V6s, they’re in their first year of a several-year development process, and F1 remains on the cutting edge.

But a comment I heard from IMSA prototype veteran Guy Cosmo, here in Austin coaching in the Ferrari Challenge this weekend, I would tend more to agree with: “You want this to be a spectacle in every way, shape or form. The sound right now isn’t that.”

Hear hear, Guy… and of course I heard him so much better because the sound was that much quieter.

SPEED AND DIRECTION CHANGE

The noise change affects the visceral, on-the-ground perspective because even though the cars are faster than other series here, and appear faster, they oddly don’t feel faster.

Allow me to explain. A year ago, pairing the noise of the V8s with the intense, rapid-fire change of direction through the esses was just mind-blowing. It was surreal to witness.

And although the change of direction and speed was evident again this year, it didn’t feel as intense as it did some 12 months ago because you don’t hear the shrieks coming at you – you hear more of a whistle. It’s an intense, cool whistle more than a ground-pounding whistle, if that makes sense, of an Audi, Toyota or Porsche hybrid.

The speed of course is still there. Although the fastest lap in COTA history was recorded by Sebastian Vettel – with that pesky V8-powered Renault in the back of his Red Bull in 2012 at 1:35.657 – times are down thus far this year to the 1:39 range. Lewis Hamilton was fastest today at 1:39.085 in FP2, in the all-conquering Mercedes W05. That was on Pirelli’s medium and the times will go down once they get onto the softs.

By comparison, the WEC pole this year was a 1:48.993 from the Toyota TS040 Hybrid; the TUDOR Championship saw best times of 1:57.808 (P2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda) and 1:58.643 (DP-spec Corvette DP) in qualifying.

CROWD GAUGE

I think there’s a good chance the Friday crowd numbers are down from last year’s announced total of 58,276, but I hope I’m wrong.

Judging from a walk through from the paddock across the bridge at Turn 3, up to Turn 11 and then back down to Turn 1, it was noticeably lighter on the grounds and definitely lighter in the grandstands. Notable here too is that at the west side of Turn 11, a grandstand has been removed and vendors in the area have been reduced.

The upside for COTA? If they can get more than 50,334, which was the announced total for the Lone Star Le Mans WEC/IMSA weekend in September, the Friday of the Grand Prix weekend will have outdrawn an entire sports car weekend for the second straight year.

Overall though, the passion and intense knowledge of the fans was there, and there were some great costumes given it was Halloween. One that stood out to me beyond the obvious was a young kid in a McDonald’s French fries suit, except instead of the McD’s “M” it had a Scuderia Ferrari Prancing Horse. Brilliant stuff.

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