Signs of F1’s evolution present as COTA enjoys solid 2017 weekend

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Proof of the United States of America being a true melting pot of diversity was evident in the buildup to Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

How on Earth would you expect to fathom seeing former President Bill Clinton, Olympic hero Usain Bolt and quintessentially American pre-event host Michael Buffer to all be present in the same place at the same time?

You wouldn’t, but that’s the power of Formula 1, and the uniqueness of America on its calendar – a race that for the first time in Circuit of The Americas’ six-year history hosting the event, had something of a “normal” weekend in that the only abnormal weekend content was the weekend schedule, not debates or concerns about the race’s future itself.

The first event in 2012, of course, had all the buzz of being an inaugural event. A mild sophomore slump followed in 2013. The yo-yo continued with new cars in 2014 that lacked the same sound, and a reduced 18-car field as both Manor and Caterham were no-shows, then the rain-drenched 2015 debacle saved only by a dramatic race, and finally a big bounce back weekend for the event last year that featured Taylor Swift and Usher concerts.

For once, the 2017 edition of the USGP at COTA didn’t have questions about the race’s future itself as it enters the second five-year run of its initial 10-year plan. It did, however, feature the latest examples of new owner Liberty Media’s plans to shake up the format.

COTA again pulled in a big concert draw with Justin Timberlake performing on Saturday (and then Stevie Wonder on Sunday), but Timberlake’s set (recapped here by Austin American-Statesman) was scheduled sooner after qualifying finished.

Sure, there were complaints from the teams about qualifying running two hours later than normal – and the media who were left waiting longer to cover the session both during and afterwards – but that was small sacrifice to ensure the paying customers didn’t have as much lag time between that ending and the concert starting.

Call this a trial balloon to see if it’s something that can be utilized on other weekends, and as Liberty’s Ross Brawn said by helping COTA, this helped the overall weekend draw.

“Here we moved the qualifying back two hours to 4pm, and [circuit boss] Bobby Epstein told me this morning that he had 20,000 more spectators for qualifying than he’s ever had before,” Brawn said, via Eurosport.

“So we’re very receptive with how we work with the promoters, and I promise you that was not the case in the past.”

Where the race weekend turned quintessentially American though was in the extended pre-race buildup, featuring 30 Texas bands, marching bands from Prairie View A&M and Texas State, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and, of course, the Michael Buffer driver introductions. What this served to do was make the drivers seem like humans, for once, rather than the focused metronomes we rarely get to see outside of the car.

The fact it was Buffer, a renowned showman, uttering the words “Dany ‘The Torpedo’ Kvyat” in real life amplified this was truly the U.S. round of the series – what other country would allow the damning nickname of the now dumped Russian, again, to be publicized in this manner right before he raced? Kvyat promptly then turned in his best drive of the season, as if to blow aside the nickname and the controversy over some races in his past.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Boxing announcer Michael Buffer on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Daniel Ricciardo clearly got into it, the usually ebullient Australian who’s never made a secret of his love for the U.S. and Austin then hopping out and jumping with his usual enthusiasm. You didn’t even need the sound on to see how happy he was.

Last out, Lewis Hamilton continued his love affair with the U.S. crowd and then was staged next to title rival Sebastian Vettel for the final display before the drivers moved to their cars. It’s a shame, of course, the points gap is such that there is little to no chance Hamilton will lose this year’s title but the optics of the two drivers that will have won eight of the last 10 World Championships between them set as prize fighters made proper sense.

“I think it was amazing,” Hamilton said post-race. “There was a little bit of waiting in the hallway, waiting for everyone to go out. That part felt a little bit long but I think they just made the Super Bowl here, they made the race, I think the entertainment was the best I think we’ve seen, with the drum line, the whole band.

“Yeah, I think the whole set-up. It was great to see something different. For many many years, the whole ten years, it’s been the same old boring thing on the grid except for now you have the national anthem but not really too exciting.

“I think this one was just much more like an NFL game which is exciting, with the fireworks and everything so I think they did a really great job and I think even from this they will learn and grow from that but we also had such a great turnout today.”

As for the race, Hamilton dominated although he still needed a pair of passes to ensure his latest U.S. win – his sixth in seven attempts, fifth in six COTA races and fourth consecutive at this circuit. The post-race drama centered over Max Verstappen’s pass of Kimi Raikkonen for third, negated when Verstappen got docked a five-second time penalty for gaining an advantage by leaving the track.

That was the sour note but not something that, in the grand scheme of things, was the F1-centric portion of the event.

The event-specific elements of cool were that you had Clinton giving out the trophies on the podium, and Bolt conducting the podium interviews.

We all know Clinton has his detractors but there is still something special about a past head of state handing out the hardware; interestingly, it might have made more sense if possible to have native Texan George W. Bush handing out the trophies on home soil had he been there.

As for Bolt, when greatness recognizes greatness, it just amplifies the greatness quotient for everyone. We’ve marveled at Bolt’s heroics in Beijing, London and Rio the last nine years over three Olympic games. He is in the discussion for being the greatest athlete on Earth at the moment, even as he’s retired.

So seeing him in F1’s world, there with Hamilton, doing a hot lap with him pre-race and then handling the podium interviews was a special moment. F1’s had actors and paddock insiders primarily do the podium interviews since the format was changed to ditch the TV unilaterals from inside the press conference room a few years ago, but rarely do they have athletes from other disciplines. In that respect, having Bolt do so was a coup, and the payoff moment came when Hamilton learned to do “the Bolt” once the interviews were complete.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of the proceedings. Vettel downplayed the extra showy pre-race festivities. Raikkonen was peak Kimi, by contrast, saying it can work if done properly, even if he would prefer it wasn’t done at all!

“I really don’t mind it as long as it’s done at the right time in the right place but it doesn’t make everything a big hassle because usually we have to run around quite a bit on Sunday and it’s far from ideal but I don’t mind these things as long as they are done well and actually if it works out it’s nice.

“I think it’s something different but everybody knows my option, what I would take.”

Raikkonen is one of the last links to F1’s “old guard” of drivers – he, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa all debuted in either 2001 or 2002, the earliest years of action for drivers still on the 2017 grid.

The “new guard” though is coming both in the field itself, and in the presentation leading up to it.

“Easily the best U.S. Grand Prix,” track chairman Bobby Epstein told the Austin American-Statesman post-race.

If COTA was a sign of the future and a test case for other countries to add country-specific amplified events that snap F1 out of its state of normality, it was hard to disagree with him.

President Bill Clinton with Lewis Hamilton during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Getty Images