November 16th marks the restoration of the United States Grand Prix on the Formula 1 calendar. The race is held in the recently built Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which hopefully will help to enforce the sport further in America. F1 has never seemed to crack the affection of the crowds in the US. The history runs long, but is deeply wounded with misfortunes, financial troubles and the existence of national substitute sports such as NASCAR and IndyCar.
The US has never had a very spirited participation history with F1. The lack of US-based team participation and a consistent crop of American drivers have left the US crowds more familiar with racing series that involve domestic drivers and teams. NASCAR and IndyCar dominate the motorsport culture in the States, drawing more spectators to events than F1 races do.
Of further impairment is the fact that there has not been an American Grand Prix winner since Mario Andretti back in the 1970’s, who in all fairness was excellent, but his early retirement prevented to sport from truly sinking into the American motorsports domain. Furthermore, the most notable US-based team was Eagle, racing in the 1960’s having little relevance to today’s modern motorsports audience. The plans of a US F1 Team were developed and the team was expected to participate in the 2010 season, however due to a lack of financial funding the project collapsed.
Much like in Europe, the venues for the races have changed since the introduction of the sport in 1908. However, none of the venues have been very successful. The 1990 Phoenix Grand Prix was a fiasco by all standards. Being based on a street circuit, already disliked by a majority of the drivers, only 15.000 spectators showed up to the event, instead of the expected 100.000. To add insult to injury, over 75.000 people attended an ostrich race just 25 miles away from the circuit the same day.
The Indianapolis Grand Prix was aimed to rectify all this. Based on the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to NASCAR and Indy500 the track was familiar with the spectators and was perfect for raising the attention of businesses and fans alike. Record numbers of spectators attended the races and the racing was successful between 2000-2005, however the 2005 season race was a PR catastrophe which diminished the newly established reputation of the sport. Michelin, the partial tire provider for the event (Bridgestone being the other one) concluded that it’s tires would not be able to handle the high-speed Turn 13 of the track, arguing that they would put the drivers at risk. The race was run with only six cars racing, leaving the fans stupefied of what had happened. The fans filed lawsuits and demanded compensation. The 2005 US Grand Prix isolated the American fan even further from the sport, and by 2007 the US Grand Prix was over.
Financial difficulties have shadowed the US F1 racing history. Such was the case with the Austin circuit, however after some pressure from Ecclestone the track was built, and what a track it is.
The track designer Hermann Tilke has ensured that the spectators, for the most part, are able to see large chunks of the race track from the carefully placed grandstands able to seat 0ver 120,000. A further 900 acres of land surrounding the race track has been utilized for the same purpose.
The track itself has massive elevation changes up to 40 meters. Turn 1 of the track is expected to be the signature turn, comprising a long straight leading to an uphill with a first gear left hand turn. The rest of the track pays homage to the greats around the world, such as Silverstone and Hockenheim.
The relatively long straights conjoined by medium to tight-end corners beg the question of what set-up strategy teams will choose, especially Red Bull. Vettel was forced to start at the end of the grid in the Abu Dhabi GP, due to failure to comply with fuel regulations. The team decided to change the set up the car to have longer gear ratios. Red Bull’s general strategy has revolved around shorter gear ratios, allowing faster acceleration and more speed out of the corners, enabling them to grab pole positions in the qualifications and then stir away from the pack in the beginning of the race and avoid the DRS zones. However, as Vettel’s heroic climb to third position proved, longer gear ratios have advantages.
Guessing aside, the racing in Austin should be entertaining by all means. Alonso’s troublesome fight to keep up with Vettel’s incredible pace will by no doubt be seen in the States and this will hopefully sparkle further interest from the American fans.
With only two races to go, what everyone seems to be hoping for is a classic battle-royale in Brazil to decide the World Champion, between Vettel and Alonso. This would serve justice to a riveting season and build up the atmosphere for the next one.