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United States Grand Prix Roars Off Into the Sunset

Two and a half year road lead to successful event
Richard Whittaker, 9:51am, Mon. Nov. 19, 2012
Daniel Ricciardo of Team Toro Rosso unbuckles from his car at the first United States Grand Prix at the new Circuit of the Americas
Photo by Richard Whittaker
The first United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas can be summed up in one Tweet from a friend of mine in the UK. "Well this Austin #f1 clearly misses the point of GP track design. They've built something that allows overtaking." The first autorace at COTA will go down as the arrival of a remarkable new track. As Autoweekly's Mac Morrison wrote, "we knew the track held promise for a nice race, but not that nice."

It was a spectacle. It was 117,000 fans on stands and hills screaming as one when the lights went out and the first US Grand Prix in five years kicked off. This was the weekend where Red Bull Racing-Renault was supposed to lock down the constructors' championship, and Sebastian Vettel was going to snatch the driver title. After all, they dominated practice. But not so fast, bulls. Yeah, the team took the title, but Vettel's run for a third title was put off until the next race in Brazil. The challenging track played to all of Lewis Hamilton's strengths, while further back in the pack his McLaren-Mercedes team mate Jenson Button pushed from 12th on the grid to a stunning fifth place. As he told the press in the paddock afterwards, this was a race filled with wheel-to-wheel driving, and that's what fans and drivers love.

Turn one was, as everyone expected, spectacular: The rise from the grid into a sharp turn and back down, with the view of Downtown Austin and the Hill Country behind it. That was exactly what circuit creator Tavo Hellmund envisioned when he first dreamed up the the track, to make that the signature curve. The insane back straight became the massive test of engine strength that everyone foresaw. But no-one expected turn 19 to be such a breaker of men. Wheels locked all weekend, and it became the next go-to viewing site for the 117,429 fans in attendance.

But possibly the biggest thing you can say about the event is that people were talking about the race. Remember a year ago, when wild-eyed predictions of 12 hour waits to get off the track were all the rage? The longest waits were generally to get on and off the shuttle buses into and out of the circuit at peak times, like just after the main race finished. The traffic plan, designed out of the green deal struck between the city and the track, and then turned into a reality by the same team that handles parking and transportation at Silverstone, seemed to work well within what the track expected – even though more people attended Friday and Saturday than predicted. Even the downtown helicopter pads (which will be less used next year, thanks to council) fell short of the image of the evacuation from Hanoi. Local transport activist Brad Absalom, who lives in the center of what he called "Helicoptergate Land" and Tweeted to me that "it's basically been a non event, minor annoyance at worst."

The event also defused a lot of myths about the F1 crowd. Is there money floating around the sport? Absolutely. But it's not like the folks in the boxes at Longhorns games are short a penny or too. The majority of the crowd in attendance were, like any other F1 race, polite, mostly middle and working class tourists. Oh, and a lot of locals like Alamo Drafthouse boss Tim League, who admitted he has become an F1 convert. Locals who went out saw what a Formula One race is, saw that it's a full three days of racing and practices and qualifiers and support races. They got it, and that's been the biggest challenge to date, just explaining what a Formula One weekend looks like.

Now they know, and it simply wasn't that scary. With general admission running at a comparable cost to an ACL pass, and one day passes for Friday's practice sessions and qualifiers on Saturday running for a lot less, it seems likely that many more will attend next year, or head out for MotoGP in the spring.

The big complaint coming out of the weekend may be that the exaggerated predictions of traffic turmoil and massive crowds may have scared Austinites from heading Downtown themselves.

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