Austin year three sees F1 rise to some challenges, face new ones for future

12 Comments

AUSTIN – Despite having two very successful cracks at its first two United States Grands Prix, the third edition of the race at Circuit of the Americas almost felt as though it had something to prove by comparison.

Leaving the track Sunday night, it felt as though the circuit and Formula One had delivered – in spite of some challenges and obstacles that threatened to upend the weekend.

The first obstacle to overcome was the noise. Say what you will, but it was hard for some – this writer included – to get over the reduction of noise from the ear-splitting, hair-raising V8s to the softer, calmer and less melodic V6s for the first time. But there was enough positive feedback from those on the ground to make me feel as though this wasn’t a catastrophic blow to the fans in attendance. They come for the spectacle, and the noise is a part of the spectacle … not the only part.

The second was a greater obstacle – the team reduction and possible boycott threat. Perhaps the greatest and most discussed talking point entering the weekend was about the drawdown of Marussia and Caterham, who by no means were favorites but have grown to the “plucky underdog” status as the tail-enders.

It seemed to bother the fans more than the paddock at large that they were each suffering their plight at the same time; particularly in the case of Marussia, who were due to have American Alexander Rossi make a popular, and overdue, Grand Prix race debut after running only in a handful of first free practice sessions the last couple years. Rossi, for his part, at least served as an excellent ambassador for the race all weekend and thanked the Americans for their support.

The boycott threat was just noise. It seemed to only emanate from Force India’s deputy team principal Bob Fernley, who either spoke out of turn or was playing some media, who made it out to be more than it was. Perhaps it was no small coincidence then when both Force Indias retired from the race, including Sergio Perez making a daft first lap move and taking out the hapless, luckless Adrian Sutil in his Sauber.

A boycott could have made for an untenable future for F1 in the U.S., given the 2005 race doubled as a six-car Bridgestone tire test session, so it was good that sanity prevailed. Perhaps just the talk of a boycott did the other bit of business it was setting out to accomplish: getting F1 to look in the mirror and acknowledge that there is a budget problem in the paddock, it is real, and it needs to be addressed. F1 desperately needs leadership on this issue as it sorts through ensuring the grid doesn’t lose any more bottom-feeders, and figures out a better distribution of dollars from the commercial holder among all the teams.

The third obstacle was making a better race itself. The first year in 2012 had all the added hoopla of it being an inaugural race, coupled with an intense championship battle and Lewis Hamilton making a pass for the lead. Last year you didn’t have any of those elements, plus you had Pirelli’s medium and hard tire compounds making for a largely processional one-stop race. And you had Sebastian Vettel’s singular dominance, which while impressive did not do the U.S. any favors in terms of witnessing a great show.

But the ingredients needed to improve were fixed for 2014. On top of the new cars themselves, Pirelli’s soft and medium tire strategy was brilliant as strategy re-entered the form of two-stop races. Then you had the drama of a championship battle returning – in this case, the inter-team Hamilton/Nico Rosberg battle at Mercedes instead of the Vettel (Red Bull)/Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) showdown two years ago. The fact the pass for the lead this year had direct title implications – Hamilton’s Lap 24 pass of Rosberg made for a 14-point swing – only enhanced the action.

Beyond the leaders, there was some great racing down in the pack, as Alonso and Jenson Button put off their potential end dates on the grid with a several-lap scrap over eighth, while Lotus’ pair of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado mixed it up with the Toro Rossos of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat. Kvyat made mincemeat of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in the final stages of the race, and you almost wondered if this was real life – it certainly was intriguing to watch. The race wasn’t a classic, but it was certainly better than some other F1 races this year.

The fourth, and perhaps most critical issue from an event standpoint, was the attendance. This was a weekend where I figured the race could suffer a 15 to 20 percent attendance drop-off year-on-year, and potentially not even be north of 200,000 for the weekend. Fears were exacerbated when I found out Friday one grandstand at the outside of Turn 11 had been dropped, vendors down, and attendance figures were not released either of Friday or Saturday, as they had been last year.

So when the circuit released attendance figures on Sunday, and a number north of 237,000 was revealed, I was both pleasantly surprised and relieved. This was a weekend where F1 was up against NASCAR Sprint Cup in the same state – and Eddie Gossage of Texas Motor Speedway made noise all weekend posturing against COTA, saying he didn’t want NASCAR or IndyCar to race here for fears it would take away from his race.

But he got his crowd – NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures but an estimate of about 75 to 80,000 there wouldn’t be far fetched – and COTA got its crowd. NASCAR and F1 are as disparate as beer and champagne, but they both are still a draw, and they both still were a draw even though there was the direct head-to-head conflict.

For F1, which generally gets big attendance numbers but has struggled in some of the traditional European markets – Hockenheim most notably this year – it was critical to have a major number for year three in the U.S. A drop-off from north of 250,000 to 237,000 is an acceptable one; it is not ideal, but it is not bad, either.

Other U.S. races of late have struggled in year three, either attendance-wise or otherwise. Indianapolis’ third year in 2002 was marred by the Michael Schumacher/Rubens Barrichello photo finish fail when Barrichello edged ahead by accident to win. Phoenix’s third year in 1991 saw the race outdrawn, and I’m not making this up, by a local ostrich festival. Las Vegas didn’t even make it to a third year in 1983 after two years at the regrettable car park circuit that was Caesar’s Palace.

So COTA has three years worth of races, data and fans in the book that it can be proud of. And in the city of Austin, it has an amazing hot spot for local festivities that add to the fan and visitor experience.

The question I wondered 12 months ago was whether F1 could get its house of cards in order to better serve this market. It has done that.

The question I ponder now is whether F1 can shape up its own house to avoid further team reductions and all-out chaos within the paddock. It seems to need more visible leadership from FIA President Jean Todt and along with the commercial rights holder, a better figuring of how to spread the dollars.

To play off a quote from George Costanza, an F1 divided against itself cannot stand. Or else it may ultimately cease to exist in the same fashion as it does today.