AutoMatters: Formula 1 returns to the United States

Fast sweepers at the Circuit of the Americas - Inaugural F1 USGP.
Fast sweepers at the Circuit of the Americas - Inaugural F1 USGP.

By Jan. R. Wagner

The Formula One World Championship is at the pinnacle of global motor racing. The circuits are legendary: Monaco, the Nurburgring, Monza, Silverstone and Watkins Glen, to name but a few. The drivers are national heroes, including Fangio, Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and the newest rising star, three-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel. The manufacturers include motorsports icons Red Bull Racing, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, Lotus and Mercedes.

Many drivers perished because early F1 cars were dangerous, prone to explode in flames when involved in accidents. Jackie Stewart, among others, has worked for many years to make F1 safer. Thanks to increasingly rigorous safety improvements, as chronicled in the soon to be released F1 documentary entitled “1,” Ayrton Senna’s tragic death in the 90s is the most recent F1 fatality.

These days, Formula One racing is glamorous, ultra-high tech and stupendously expensive. It has a long, rich history in the United States, which began in the 1950s when F1 cars raced in the Indy 500. Over the years, F1 races were held at Sebring (Florida), Riverside (California), Watkins Glen (New York), Long Beach (California), Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix, ending back where it began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007.

In November 2012, after an absence of several frustratingly long years for the fans, drivers and sponsors alike, Formula One returned once again to the United States. This time the venue was the brand new, state-of-the-art, world class, Circuit of the Americas (COTA). F1 fans from across the country (myself included) and around the world converged on Austin, Texas. After recording impressive attendance numbers for practice and qualifying, the venue was filled to capacity for the F1 race on Sunday. Not even general admission tickets were available. The weather was picture perfect.

The Circuit of the Americas road course is nearly 3 ½ miles in length with long straights, high-speed sweepers, hairpin turns and a lower-speed stadium section where fans can get a long, close look as the F1 cars race each other back and forth. According to the drivers, this circuit is among the very best in the world.

The stadium section is where I stood for the entire weekend’s racing, at the very top of a grandstand. The vantage point was the best I’ve ever had for a major race, and the close racing was absolutely spectacular. I literally took several thousand pictures.

Turn one is the track’s signature turn, and it comes at the end of a very long, steep, uphill straight. That hill quickly became known, at least on SPEED TV, as “Phil Hill” — named for the only US-born F1 World Drivers’ champion, in 1961, and also for the large volume of fill dirt that was removed from the rest of the track during construction and used to add to the steepness of the hill. I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Hill for AutoMatters several years ago (see #147 in the Column Archives at www.AutoMatters.net).

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