Formula 1. The self-proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport, host to the highest paid drivers in the world. A worldwide entourage the likes of which dwarf even the security details of overly paranoid dignitaries. Yes, and so is life inside the bubble of Formula 1. Even with a yearly worldwide television audience edging perilously close to 600 million and the most exhilarating on-track action in decades (due in part to Pirelli tires), Formula 1 has failed to grow a sustainable, long-term fan base of any notable mass in the United States – a massive market for constructors like Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari.
But all of this is about to change according to Texas billionaire Red McCombs, whose money and influence helped to propel the soon-to-be-finished Circuit of the Americas from a barren patch of Texas topsoil into the only FIA approved grade 1 race circuit in the United States. Austin, Texas now can lay claim to being the home of Formula 1 in the United States for the next decade. And with the asphalt surface of the circuit in close to a race-ready state of repair, Pirelli and the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) were keen to show it off – in true Texas fashion.
COTA ambassador and racing legend Mario Andretti was given the honor of driving the first full lap of the circuit in none other than a John Player Special Lotus 79 Cosworth. A style very familiar to Mario, for it was in 1979 that he won his F1 world title. Lotus F1 test and reserve drive Jérôme d’Ambrosio also had the opportunity to drive a lap in the 2010 spec R30 Lotus before engine problems sidelined the car for the remainder of the day’s proceedings. Hollywood actor and avid race-car driver Patrick Dempsey, fresh from driving at Petit Le Mans the previous day was also on hand to drive the track in a few of the various other GT cars available for press rides.
While the grandstands around the track sat half finished, playing guard to the abundance of other unfinished Texas earth, the circuit itself proved to be a marvel of not just engineering, but willpower – something we were able to confirm first-hand. Oh yes, we drove it. Anyone with a casual familiarity with the project will be well aware of the circuit’s land mark corner – turn one. A mass of black asphalt that punches into the sky only to lose all elevation after a quick turn to the left. Spa has Eau Rouge, Monaco the tunnel – Austin has turn 1.
Professional race driver Jason Saini was kind enough to take me around for a lap in his race-prepped Miata, which he races regularly in the Grand-Am Sports Car Challenge Series here in the U.S. And what a first lap it was. The elevation change and circuit design are second to none. And with Herman Tilke, Formula One’s infamous circuit designer of late, penning the lines, those not involved in the project had a right to be skeptical. The saying that everything is bigger in Texas, while certainly cliché, is nothing but an apt description of what Pirelli treated us to. Belgian race driver Didier Theys was on hand as well, to treat local VIP’s and select media to an “exploratory” lap in a 2004 Jordan F1 car modified to hold two passengers, one on either side of the engine.
And it just so happens we were one of those members of the media. Oh yes. Our opportunity for the ride came nearer the end of the day, as the sun began to dip lower in the sky and a cool breeze began to breath over the Texas countryside. A perfect time to experience the track as it will be in less than a month’s time. Without a doubt, Didier was going nowhere near ten-tenths.
He would be silly to do so on a track draped in a fine mist of construction dust and dirt. But, needless to say, the experience, for someone who had never previously ridden in such a machine, wasn’t dampened in the slightest. I won’t go into the long drawn out detail of how immense the braking forces are, and how the acceleration whips your head back in such a savage manner that the uninitiated would fear the air intake behind of kindly removing your helmet from your head.
A quick change and a bottle of water later, in what can only be described as a blur, we were on the track behind the wheel of a few Pirelli supplied sedans driving the circuit we had only seen twice before – both times at well above an agreeable speed to truly appreciate the racing line and subsequent braking points. A point I found out soon after, as I became the first to briefly drop a wheel onto the astro-turf lined exit of turn 12 after the longest straight. A point that Pirelli research and development executive “Steve” took quite well, brushing it off as a “fun ride.”
November 18th is drawing ever nearer — the day when Formula 1 engines will grace the air of the United States for the first time in nearly five years. And with Pirelli already doing their part by hand-crafting tires that degrade to such a drastic degree, the fans are certainly going to be treated to a spectacle. Up until a few days ago, I would be one of the first to voice skepticism as to whether or not the F1 race in Austin would happen. I was wrong. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be big.