What is it like to attend a Formula 1 race weekend? In a word – busy. Nearly one week and one holiday later, I’m still processing everything that happened during the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Austin.
Not a minute is wasted in the paddock, the central hub where so many events are taking place under the banner of a World Championship racing event. In addition to a Grand Prix, the Circuit of the Americas also played hosts to hundreds of corporate functions and political exposés – not entirely different than a NASCAR weekend in that regard.
But unlike NASCAR, hospitality within a Formula 1 paddock is clearly more formal, providing some of the classiest productions in entertainment.
That’s how I came to attend the Formula 1 weekend at Circuit of the Amercias, as a guest of Infiniti and Team Red Bull Racing as they attempted to capture a third-straight drivers and constructors’ championship in Austin, Texas.
It takes a lot to win championships at the highest level, a trait shared by both NASCAR and Formula 1.
Our hosts at Infiniti explained that teams travel over 100,000 miles a year between test sessions and the final race of the season in São Paulo. For races taking place across the Atlantic, equipment has to be flown out on specialized planes. Rather than use conventional aircraft containers, teams have constructed their own specially designed jets, designed to fill all available space in the cargo holds.
The United States is actually the first of a two-country American swing that will actually end this weekend at the Interlagos Circuit in Brazil – the 2012 Formula 1 finale.
Circuit of the Americas
Formula 1 has a surprisingly rich history of racing in the United States, conducting events in the country since 1908, but never on a course designed primarily for Grand Prix racing. Events have been staged on the streets of Long Beach, Watkins Glen International and even legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But never before has the country had a permanent foundation -- a purpose built track designed exclusively for Formula 1 and now they have it in Circuit of the Americas.
My first observation of the Circuit is just how easy it was to get in and out of. It was just over a year ago that I attended the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, a race that saw thousands miss the race as a result of poor planning and deficient infrastructure.
There were no such problems for the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Austin, a race that saw 120,000 fans attend the main event on Sunday.
The facility itself is new in every sense of the word. Some veteran reporters even told me over the weekend that it's the most impressive circuit currently on the schedule.
The track feels distinctively European and that’s a positive. One of the major flaws of both Indianapolis and Phoenix was the impression that F1 was just stopping by for a vacation. Circuit of the Americas felt like a legitimate American home for Formula 1 last weekend.
Garage and paddock area
Our first stop each morning was the paddock area to meet with team officials and tour the garage.
Because Formula 1 operates all over the world, a constant state of jetlag is the norm. So it’s important that a track’s facilities mirror each other from weekend-to-weekend. The paddock area at Circuit of the Americas is no different, designed to look just like those teams will find at any other permanent circuit across the schedule.
Because security and R&D is so important in Formula 1, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside the garage stall.
A winding path of two lefts and a right took us into the garage itself, a glass wall separating us from the working team members just a foot away. The stall provided 10 headsets so that we could listen to radio transmissions and was placed directly in front of two monitors with a live video and timing feed for our entertainment.
It was here that we learned that Friday’s opening free practice was going to be more active than usual. The new surface provided a lot of questions and track time was going to be paramount in winning Sunday’s Grand Prix.
The new surface also had no buildup of rubber, the equivalent of skating on ice for the drivers. The pit stalls were equally bare on Friday morning, requiring both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber to take turns laying rubber on the pit stalls.
With that, our 15 minutes were up and we were ushered back to the paddock club.
That was our routine over the next three days as we got to experience the Formula 1 lifestyle. Meanwhile, there was still a race to win as Sebastian Vettel dominated every track session leading into Sunday’s Grand Prix. He led all three practice sessions and qualifying, with Lewis Hamilton the only driver able to keep pace with the German Red Bull driver.
When the race began, I stood at a perch overlooking turn one, expecting the first lap to provide the most compelling action of the afternoon. Boy was I wrong.
The track was designed by Hermann Tilke, a track designer noted for generally uneventful races, leaving many drivers, including Mark Webber expecting little-to-no overtaking after the opening laps. Instead it was the first lap that was uneventful with passing occurring at a tremendous pace throughout the middle stages of the race.
In the end, Hamilton finally clipped Vettel for the lead and went on to win the penultimate race of the 2012 season. That combined with a third place Fernando Alonso finish delayed a Sebastian Vettel drivers’ championship celebration but successfully clinched the World Constructors’ Championship for Team Red Bull.
The podium featured Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso – arguably Formula 1’s three most successful superstars over the past decade. Surprisingly, the United States Grand Prix was the first time that these three talented drivers were on the podium together.
And they shared it with Mario Andretti – 1978 World Champion and podium moderator. That’s four World Champions on the podium in Texas.
Sitting on Red Bull’s perch during the podium presentation is like being backstage at a U2 concert, especially with performers like Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. Toss in Mario Andretti as the moderator and it was closer to witnessing U2 perform with Sir Paul McCartney.
The atmosphere was pure pandemonium, especially in the Red Bull club where champagne was free flowing and freshly minted championship tee shirts were being passed around the room.
But the celebration was short-lived. With the drivers’ championship still in doubt, the party quickly subsided.
And just like that, the United States Grand Prix was over. The stands emptied and the paddock again became a construction zone as teams, with bulldozers, began disassembling the garage area, preparing to send the pieces off to São Paulo.
The track was nearly abandoned within two hours of the checkered flag, a testament to the city’s logistical planning and the teams’ haste to prepare for Interlagos.
Traffic was quick-flowing the entire way back and we returned to downtown Austin in just a half-hour. Our hotel was also home to Team Red Bull and Lotus GP and you could feel the somber mood permeate from every pore of the building, not because of Webber’s bad day or because of Lotus’ disappointing follow-up to Abu Dhabi.
But rather, the mood came as a result of knowing that something really special had taken place that weekend in Austin and that it was time to leave. Formula 1 had a blast in Austin, Texas and it’s something the racing community hopes to replicate in 2013 and beyond.
At last, Formula 1 has found a home in the United States.