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THE UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Originally published in the December, 2014 issue of DRIVENWORLD

Circuit of The Americas

November 8, 2014

F1 was once a gentleman’s pursuit contested by small, private teams funded by tobacco, liquor, and condom advertisements.

Aerodynamics were merely an accessory in those days . . . heavy, rudimentary wings bolted straight onto the significant rigid chassis structure known as the engine.   The F1 car at that time looked not much beyond the self realization of an engine that had grown appendages to propel itself forward around sweeping corners.

Motor racing was never cheap, but in the 1970’s man had hardly altered the virgin surface of the moon. Cars could be conceived and built in small workshops with a skeleton crew without high tech polymers, wind tunnels, capacitors, micro-processors, and software engineers.

Enzo Ferrari sold limited production road cars to finance his Scuderia, and relished his prideful war on the garagistas, small English teams . . . Tyrell, McLaren, Lotus, BRM, to name a few.

The United States Grand Prix was held in the fall at Watkins Glen in upstate New York, where into the mid ’70’s fans camped out for the race weekend, drank too much, and burned cars and buses in the muddy infield “bog.”

In a simpler world it was easier to believe in the potential of a David who could topple Goliath. In those days, Jody Scheckter could take Walter Wolf’s Cosworth powered, Doc Postlethwaite reworked Hesketh (christened the WR-1) to victory in its very first Grand Prix.

Today F1 is a completely different animal.   Under technology’s logarithmic progression, it is an endeavor that has grown more difficult to sustain even with prosperous financial resources. Aerodynamics have evolved from being an accessory to driving everything in a car’s development. V8 engines have been replaced by hybrid power units, merging combustion with kinetic energy recovery, requiring a fleet of technicians a mile long to monitor, manage, tune, and trouble shoot.

F1 garages now come complete with cloaked mission control centers driven by more gigabytes and telemetry than all of the manned moon missions combined, and a fleet of engineers to interpolate that data.

And as the scale of the endeavor now relies upon manufacturers as never before, so has the accompanying manner in which their PR strictly controls the dissemination of information. Advertising dollars have become harder to find and the sponsorships which remain come from ‘safe’ mega corporations; banks, consultants, logistics, energy drinks. The sport has in fact become anti-septic, politically correct and has lost some of the luster it once held.

All of this has also made it much more difficult for a privateer, a garagista, to enter the fray. Hardly privateers as in Walter Wolf’s day, it was announced prior the USGP that Caterham and Marussia, F1’s youngest teams, would not make the trip to Austin. Both teams, struggling with reduced revenue at the back of the grid, had gone into “administration,” a polite English reference for bankruptcy. What arrived in Austin in their absence, however, were some fairly nagging questions.

Simultaneously, Tavo Hellmund’s inspired, purpose built, hill country home for the pinnacle of motorsport, The Circuit of The Americas (CoTA), was set to host its third F1 Grand Prix. Known in smaller circles for sensational BBQ brisket and off beat, eclectic media, Austin has now found itself a player on a worldwide stage.

Defying skeptics and head scratchers alike, CoTA has proven itself an immediate hit on the F1 calendar.   It has also been saddled with political turmoil.  Hellmund may have been rudely pushed out by his venture capital bedfellows long before 2012’s opening weekend, but their combined reliance on Texas’ “Special Events Fund” to not only construct but operate the facility meant CoTA would never exist free of political agenda and scrutiny. As questions regarding the circuit’s management and the legitimate use of taxpayer funds greeted the USGP just two days prior an election, the financially crippled teams would not find immediate comfort for the future in Austin’s newspapers.

This untimely intersection of F1’s challenging economics with Austin’s challenging election year politics would give pause to anyone who has long hoped for a stable, secure home for F1 in the United States. One could not help but wonder if the real victim of political ambition and misdirected public ire in the coming months might be CoTA’s vastly unrealized potential.

As the empty garages and hospitality structures fueled questions as to how and why, chatter began to filter through the Austin paddock of a potential boycott by the remaining smaller teams. Visions of 2005 and the ultimate failure of Indianapolis hovered like a dark cloud. The long journey of F1’s search for a stable home after so many ill-fated prior attempts did not need the threat of a greatly reduced grid at this race.   No matter what the reasons, it would be catastrophic and probably represent a death knell to F1 in the US.

Fortunately, CoTA is a truly outstanding racing track, one that every driver relishes. Getting the cars on circuit Friday morning did a lot to refocus attention on the pursuit of raw pace and the World Championship title fight between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton: riding high with a 17 point margin and wall art around his neck

Hamilton arrived in the US having enjoyed four straight victories from Monza and held a 17-point gap over his teammate.   With momentum on his side, he appeared relaxed, confident and poised at Thursday’s Driver press conference, even if this was something Lewis was hesitant to acknowledge. “It doesn’t really feel any different to several races ago. As I keep saying: just fighting and chasing the ultimate goal.”

Verstappen: 2nd gen DNA, but only 17?

A couple of new faces who will be on the 2015 grid took to the circuit on Friday morning. Max Verstappen, the highly touted seventeen year-old son of former F1 pilot Jos Verstappen took over Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso and Felipe Nasr, who over the weekend put fresh ink to a race seat with Sauber, took over FP1 duties for Williams’ Valtteri Bottas.   Both pilots finished the session in the top ten.

Both Friday sessions ran under gorgeous cool blue skies, but with a great deal of wind.   Valtteri Bottas, who did not drive in FP1, found his Williams slightly off expected pace, “Today was tricky conditions with the wind. Mechanically the car didn’t feel that well balanced, and aero-wise today the windy conditions it was not easy but in the end if we look at the gap it’s not far from our normal Friday so I’m still hopeful we can improve a lot tomorrow.”

Bottas had limited track time on Friday

Jenson Button regarded the influence of the wind with caution, “It was tricky this afternoon with the car with the wind. We seem to struggle a bit more in the wind and me personally as well. So it’s tricky to set the car up and you have to be very careful with what you do with the car because it’s not going to be as windy tomorrow.”

Bottas concurred, “All I know is that the wind direction is going to change, so I think the balance we’re going to have tomorrow will be different, so we’ll see.”

Hamilton led both Friday sessions, but Rosberg quietly claimed that he had speed in his pocket. Nico indeed took pole position on Saturday, checking Hamilton’s title momentum, and providing hope that Austin would weigh in the title fight. Rosberg’s close work with his engineers again proved the difference, and he credited a front wing adjustment made after Q1 for his pole pace.

Another Pole for Nico

The Mercedes powered Williams duo locked the grid’s second row, with Bottas bettering his teammate Massa by three tenths in Q3.   The usual suspects, including Red Bull’s Ricciardo, Alonso, and both McLarens finished out the first four rows.

Threats of boycott and memories of 2005 faded on Saturday night as reasonable thought prevailed. Few believed that the smaller teams would play such a destructive hand.

Clean start. Vettel departs from pit lane

In spite of everything that could have derailed the race, the slightly reduced grid of 18 cars (17 on track with Vettel starting from pit lane), lined up to take the lights on Sunday before a modest Austin crowd. Nico got a great start and managed to initially keep Hamilton at bay. That is, until just past the half-way point. Recalling his tenacious pursuit of Sebastian Vettel in 2012, Lewis applied that experience into hunting Nico down and took the lead away on braking into turn 12.

Although Nico kept Hamilton in check into the closing stages, he was never really able to return the fight. “It feels horrible to finish second after starting from pole,” said Rosberg in the post race press conference.   “Conditions were very different compared to yesterday and it took me too long to find my rhythm.” Some pundits raised an eyebrow to Nico’s remarks, prompting questions as to whether Nico was truly up to the title fight.

Lewis hunted Nico down to take his 2nd USGP victory

Conversely, Hamilton has shown nothing but fight over the past few rounds and once again drove with the same conviction that allowed him to rise above his previous hiccups in qualifying. “Once I got past Nico it was really just about controlling it. Coming here today, just having that same determination and hunger to get that win.”

There were several notable drives behind the Mercedes duo.   Daniel Ricciardo drove sensationally early on to lift himself above the Williams cars on his way to claim the final podium spot.   Alonso put on his usual good show dicing early on with Button and later engaging his old rival Sebastian Vettel to take sixth. Räikkönen looked certain to achieve a sorely needed points finish, but eventually dropped out of scoring position. In another lessor moment of his baffling season, Kimi fell prey to inspired driving by Kvyat with but a few laps to go.   One must wonder what fortunes 2015 holds for the popular Finn.

Ricciardo…early heroics

Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne gave everyone something to cheer about with one of the most aggressive moves we’ve ever seen into CoTA’s turn one. Vergne flew into the apex from seemingly nowhere, stealing ninth from a startled Romain Grosjean, who had put forth a good drive in the struggling Lotus. Vergne finished in the points while poor Grosjean could not hold on and eventually crossed the line in 11th despite his noble effort.

Vettel had a strong finish and topped the race speed trap on the long run into turn 12 at roughly 209.4 mph late in the race on his way to posting the race’s fastest lap.

a critical step closer

In the end, Hamilton took his tenth win of the year and extended his consecutive victory streak to five grands prix from Monza. His championship lead now stands at 24 points, with only Abu Dhabi’s controversial double points result posing a true threat to his title hopes.

It’s been a challenging year for F1. To describe this as a time of transition would be an understatement of monumental proportions.   F1 faces 2015 with fewer teams, fewer opportunities for drivers with more talent than purse strings, and in great need of a major rethink to allow revenue sharing among all entrants in the paddock.

The guard is changing.   Luca di Montezemolo is gone, as is Adrian Newey.   Sebastian Vettel’s run at Red Bull is over, Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button may soon be facing retirement.   The great mystery surrounding Fernando Alonso’s 2015 whereabouts has moved beyond silly season intrigue to bordering on ridiculous theater.

what McLaren-Honda secrets remain in wait?

Sadly, Jules Bianchi, the talented Frenchman and future Ferrari driver, remains at this time hospitalized in Japan. Bianchi’s Suzuka accident marked the first serious loss for the sport in over 20 years – that fateful weekend in Imola 1994.  Forza Jules.

The F.I.A. tested a new Virtual Safety Car system in Austin with good result.   This system appears to offer an effective, constructive response to the Bianchi tragedy. However, in their charge to improve safety, the temptation to over police racing incidents remains, and the F.I.A. must focus upon governing the sport with a measured hand.

And although there is probably no real danger of CoTA dropping from the schedule, the circuit faces steep challenges. Whoever emerges from the political fray in Texas to guide the facility into the future, let’s hope that they respect the investment and recognize Hellmund’s vision remains but a work in progress.

The 2014 Grand Prix season has delivered some of the closest wheel-to-wheel racing we’ve seen in years.   Never stagnant, through challenge and change, F1 yet remains a spectacle of sport, commerce, and theater. It’s been a fantastic honor to cover the World Drivers Championship for Drivenworld this year, and I hope next year will bring even more opportunity.

2 Comments

  1. Steve C

    Very well written article except one thing. The Texas funds, in this case the Major Events Trust Fund, had zero to do with building or operating the facility. The METF only exists because of the sales taxes created by having the Large event, SO, without an event – there would be no money to give back.

    Looking forward in reading more future posts…

    • Flat12

      Thanks for the clarification. Although well intentioned, my attempt to condense and simplify for the sake of relaying a broad observation on the overall climate may have taken too much license. I am somewhat confused, however, as I would swear I’ve got a quote from Tavo a couple years back stating that the fund would be used to operate the facility, not merely cover FOM fees. I’m a big supporter of CoTA and desperately want to see this succeed as it should . . .

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