Austin for F1, kid — Don’t Hate!

The start/finish straight at the Circuit of the Americas.

I attended college at the much-esteemed University of Delaware.  One of the many great things about that school was its geographic location: it sat just off I-95, which meant it always felt like you were mere minutes from anything on the east coast.  Many evenings, we found ourselves blasting north to Philly, where we would gorge ourselves on cheesesteak at the original home of said confection: Pat’s King of Steaks.  My buddy Charles was my most likely companion on these journeys.  He was one year behind me, and so after I’d graduated, I’d often find myself IM-ing him (AOL Instant Messenger! How ancient and quaint, I know) and getting the following away message: “Pat’s for cheesesteaks kid, don’t hate.”  And then I would be not only nostalgic, but jealous.

Many Americans felt the same about Formula 1.  Something great existed solely in our past; it was gone and sorely missed.  There were many who wished for the opportunity to see Formula 1 racing on US soil again.  For those people, Tavo Hellmund and Red McCombs conceived and constructed an absolutely monumental, purpose-built racetrack in Austin, Texas.  They overcame countless trouble spots and obstacles to get it completed on time, and then, on a beautiful, sunny weekend in November, hosted the world’s greatest drivers for the Formula 1 US Grand Prix.  They built it, and people came.  In fact, on race day, over one hundred seventeen thousand people came—including Charles and myself.

The Porsche and I loped ten hours cross-country on Friday to reach the San Antonio area, where we would be staying—even the most modest hotels in Austin were beyond ridiculously priced.  Charles and I were joined by a quintet of five British gentlemen, F1 fans all, a pair of whom I have the honor of being employed alongside.  We all enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the San Antonio branch of Texas de Brazil on Friday evening, and shortly thereafter retired for the night in order to be up early for qualifying the next morning.

For us, the process of getting to the track was somewhat complicated.  There exists a lack of available parking trackside, so the vast majority of spectators would need to be shuttled to the track on school buses from two park-and-ride locations.  With the trip from San Antonio and the traffic in and around the park-and-ride, it consistently took us about two and a half hours one-way to get to the track.  Still, we spent very little of that time at a complete standstill, and on Saturday after doing it for the first time, we arrived—as planned—just in time for qualifying.

Probably was about a 3/4-mile hike from the park-and-ride drop-off point to the track entrance.

It was glorious.  The noise these machines make is an amalgamation of a wing of TIE fighters, all the cop sirens in The Blues Brothers, and an earthquake.  They sound just like they do on TV, just to a degree that violently tears small gravitational singularities into where your eardrums used to be.  There is absolutely nothing else like this noise, and it is utterly intoxicating.

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Qualifying was fantastic, if completely predictable.  Sebastian Vettel hung around and hung around and then, with about three minutes left in the third session, laid down two blistering laps that secured pole position—the second of which made him the only driver to break into the one-minute, thirty-five second range.  Lewis Hamilton was forced to wring every last drop out of his McLaren Mercedes to qualify second.  Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber locked down third.

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The major controversy of the weekend revolved around Scuderia Ferrari opting to voluntarily break a seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox.  Per the rules, Massa was thus penalized five grid positions.  More importantly for Ferrari, though, the penalty actually moved their championship contender Fernando Alonso up one grid position (in reality two positions what with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean also getting a gearbox penalty), and from the “dirty” left to the “clean” right side of the starting grid, where everyone agreed grip for launch was significantly better.  This move could not have worked better for Ferrari; on Sunday when the lights went out and the cars rocketed out of the grid, Alonso catapulted himself from 7th to 4th by the exit of turn one.

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There was action throughout the field for the entirety of the race.  Williams drivers Bruno Senna (nephew of the late, great Aryton) and Pastor Maldonado had a friendly duel for 9th place which lasted until Maldonado secured the spot with just four laps to go.  Felipe Massa, despite quite literally taking one for the team, ran a brilliant race, moving all the way from eleventh on the grid to finish in fourth position, just behind Alonso.  But the biggest drama took place at the very front of the field, where two of the highest-profile drivers in the world mesmerized the audience with a display of pure excellence over all fifty-six laps.

Starting on the dirty side of the grid in second place, Lewis Hamilton dropped to third at the start, with both Vettel and Webber pulling away in the Red Bull Renaults.  It quickly became apparent, however, that Webber could not deny Hamilton for long.  Just a few laps in, Hamilton got by the Australian, who shortly thereafter retired with alternator problems.  And then the world watched as tenth by tenth, Hamilton reeled in reigning world champion Vettel.

The two drag-raced down the back straightaway lap after lap, Hamilton utilizing the Drag Reduction System on his McLaren to narrow the gap.  Finally on their forty-sixth turn of the circuit, Hamilton danced past Vettel on the straightaway, bulls-eyed the braking point for turn twelve, and never looked back.  He would take the checkered flag with his fourth victory of the season.  Red Bull would clinch the 2012 manufacturer’s championship on the day, but their celebration was muted as the driver’s championship will come down to the wire between Vettel and Ferrari’s Alonso (who finished third in Austin) on the weekend of November 25 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Lewis carrying on the tradition.  Oh, and they hand out pretty sweet podium hats in Texas.

Overall, the entire event was simply stunning.  Our seats were in the Turn 15 stands, with an overview of all the slow corners from 12 through 15.  This was where a large part of the overtaking action took place, so we certainly got our money’s worth.  Our British friends were over in the Turn 12 stands, which were a temporary fixture (benches only, as opposed to our folding seats) and prone to swaying with the tide of the crowd—a rather unsettling feeling, they reported in typical understated fashion.  Still, their seats were the prime spot for Hamilton’s overtake of Vettel, as they could see fully down the back straight.  And with their countryman taking home the victory, they could hardly complain.

Naysayers said that the track location would prohibit successful crowd ingress and egress, but the logistics seemed to win out on race weekend.  While it was undoubtedly slow to get into the park-and-ride locations, there were plenty of shuttle buses, which minimized the wait to board said buses and get to the track.  For the high rollers, there was almost nonstop helicopter activity to the track from Austin and points beyond.  Each day—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—the volume of visitors exceeded expectations.  As a result, there were tales of concessionaires running out of food and beer, but we never had a problem.  Lines were long, but to avoid waiting, we simply found the shortest one (which happened to be for a delicious chicken and shrimp paella bowl—all those who waited an eternity for a burger missed out) and ate what they served.  We also brought our own water via CamelBak.

The only downside?  It’s a whole another year until we can do this again.  Unless we rent the track ourselves, which is fifty grand per day.  Still, it’s an awesome facility, the race itself was incredible (no crashes and not a single full-course caution—just wall-to-wall speed), and the logistics came off pretty well without a hitch.  I believe I can speak for almost everyone when I say I’m very much looking forward to the 2013 Formula 1 US GP.  Welcome back to the United States, Formula 1.  We missed you.