Austin booms as popular Formula One stop for fans and drivers with USGP at COTA

Austin Formula One
Clive Mason - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas — Fernando Alonso remembers the quiet times for Formula One in Austin.

Back when the two-time F1 champion could jog the city streets without being noticed, move through a hotel lobby with ease, and drive to the Circuit of the Americas for the U.S. Grand Prix without planning for traffic well ahead of time.

No more. If anything demonstrates the explosive growth of F1 in the U.S., it’s the projections of more than 400,000 fans expected to pack the city and the circuit this weekend for the 10th anniversary of the Texas race that put the series’ footprint back on American soil.

“In the last four years or three years, there’s a lot of fans. It has changed everything. It changed the traffic, it changed the hotel,” Alonso said this week. “I ran this morning in the city and everyone recognized us now.”

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The U.S. Grand Prix has been the foothold for F1 in the U.S. since the first surprise announcement that a $300 million racetrack was being cut through the rocky soil a dozen miles from the state Capitol. The series’ explosive growth in America has led to an additional race in Miami that started this season, and another coming in Las Vegas next year.

Sunday will be the final race of the original 10-year agreement in Austin because the COVID pandemic canceled the race in 2020. But F1 isn’t going anywhere. A five-year extension was already announced last year.

“I spent most of my adult life putting the pieces together for F1 to come to my hometown,” said Tavo Hellmund, the founder of the Texas race and its initial promoter.

“My vision was for F1 to be the success it was the inaugural year in 2012 and last year in 2021. My wife used to say to me, ‘Gosh, when Americans get to see F1 the way you do, they’ll be hooked.’ ”

The Texas race has had its share of ups and downs.

Lewis Hamilton won the first race in 2012, overtaking eventual season champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull. Vettel returned in 2013 to spin donuts after a victory in a dominant year that saw him tie Michael Schumacher’s single-season wins record of 13.

That was also the last of Vettel’s four championship seasons and he’s set to retire this year. Red Bull’s current champion, Max Verstappen, can tie the single-season victory record if he wins Sunday. Even with this season’s title already in hand, Verstappen plans to push for the victory and the record.

“I still want to win,” Verstappen said.

Hamilton clinched two of his seven championships here.

The first came with a rainy victory in 2015 amid a bitter rivalry with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg. Hamilton’s postrace cap toss to a dejected Rosberg in the cool-down room – and Rosberg throwing it back past Hamilton’s face – is memorable. Hamilton clinched his sixth championship here in 2019.

Attendance dipped for several years. But it began to rebound when Circuit of the Americas President Bobby Epstein started tying major entertainment acts into the race weekend. Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Billy Joel are among the pop stars who have performed Saturday night concerts on the midfield in recent years.

“We learned from the fans what they wanted. We started out thinking this was just about motorsports,” Epstein said. “What we should have been doing is saying, what do the fans want? How do we make this about entertainment? That’s why we see such huge crowds here.

“Of course, we were worried about it a lot between years four and seven. And then the pandemic hits just when we were getting on our feet and getting successful and profitable,” Epstein said.

The year away and the gripping championship fight between Verstappen and Hamilton in 2021 brought a massive crowd.

Fans love the place and so do the drivers.

“This is one of the better circuits we have,” said Hamilton, who along with Vettel, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo have raced in Austin every year since it opened.

“We get this crowd that just keeps growing year on year. They just do it differently here. Us Europeans, we’re good at sports …. but the sport is growing as a whole in how we put on a show.”

Ricciardo, an Australian, embraces the Texas atmosphere like no one else. Every year, he mimics a Texas drawl and finds a way to connect with the locals.

He rode into the paddock Thursday on a horse while wearing a cowboy hat and jacket made to look like an American flag ahead of what may be his final race in Austin. Ricciardo won’t return with McLaren next season and currently doesn’t have a seat for 2023.

“The U.S. Grand Prix is one of my absolute favorite races of the year,” Ricciardo said. “The extra energy I get from the atmosphere is immeasurable and I love everything about it.”

NEOM McLaren Formula E announces Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast for 2023 season

McLaren Formula E Hughes
McLaren Racing
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Doubling down on their commitment to electric auto sports, McLaren Racing announced Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast to compete in the 2023 Formula E Series (FE), which completes their driver lineup.

The NEOM McLaren FE team was formed by the acquisition of the Mercedes-EQ Formula E team that won the 2021 and 2022 championships with Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries behind the wheel.

“Today’s announcement feels like a long time coming,” said Ian James, managing director of NEOM McLaren Electric Racing in a release. “Since May this year, when we first announced McLaren Racing’s entry into Formula E, we have been working tirelessly to get in place the best possible team and structure for sustainable success.

“On the one hand, we have been working on the retention of the amazing talent that already was in place before going into the transitional phase. I’m proud to say I think we’ve done a great job on that front.

“On the other hand, we have been focusing on putting in place new processes and new talent – and the latter includes the drivers.”

The driver lineup clasps the two hands together.

Hughes brings 10 years racing experience in single seater cars, including a role with the acquired Mercedes-EQ team as a reserve and development driver for the past two seasons. He is the 2013 BRDC Formula 4 champion and has multiple wins in Formula 2, including two in 2020.

Announced in August, Rast joins the team after earning two podium finishes and six top-fives in 22 career Formula E starts for Audi Sport ABT before returning to the DTM Series last year. Rast’s best finish in Formula E came in the Puebla E Prix when he finished second to teammate Lucas di Grassi by less than a half second.

McLaren’s commitment to Formula E comes one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour in the driver lineup. After a modest start to the season, the McLaren XE drivers crossed the finish line first in Round 4 in Chile, but were assessed a time penalty that dropped them to fifth. Last week in the season finale in Uruguay, they held onto a hard-earned second place finish.