F1 Racing Wrap and COTA's Tech Future

A replica of the winning Formula One race car on view during the weekend's Fan Fest activities Downtown
A replica of the winning Formula One race car on view during the weekend's Fan Fest activities Downtown (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Last weekend's United States Grand Prix was one for the record books. The second Formula One race at Austin's purpose-built Circuit of the Americas saw driver Sebastian Vettel reinforce his grasp on the championship with his eighth consecutive winning race. However, off the track it was business as usual, as the city absorbed the second of at least a decade of annual F1 races at the Circuit.

For fans, the event followed basically the same formula as 2012, with shuttle buses transporting the majority of attendants to and from the site. Fortun­ately for both drivers and fans, there was no repeat of the deluge that washed out the second weekend of Austin City Limits. Instead, temperatures peaked in the unseasonably high 80s. Not that the weekend transportation went completely without hiccups. In a reminder that southeast Travis County is still farming country, on Saturday morning a cow wandered onto FM 812. That may have been the biggest traffic delay of the day – a surprise to many, since there were concerns that having an F1 race and a UT football game on the same weekend would cause a transit meltdown. There were actually bigger problems on Sunday, with slow-moving traffic out to the track, and a brief security concern. COTA management delayed opening the gates for half an hour while agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire­arms, and Explosives responded to what track spokesperson Julie Loignon called a "suspicious incident" at turn one. ATF quickly gave the area the all-clear for the crowds, and the gates opened at 8am.

Unsurprisingly, attendance was down a little from 2012. There was no longer the first-year novelty, plus the championship had already basically been settled. Even before his dominating performance on Sunday, Vettel was in an unassailable position for the driver's title, as was his team Infiniti Red Bull Racing in the constructors' championship. That translated into a drop-off in bodies through the gates. Friday's practice sessions took the biggest hit at 58,276 – down from 65,360 in 2012. Business picked up for Saturday's qualifying at 78,886 (down from 83,710), and track management will probably be happy with Sunday's race day turnout of 113,162 (a 3.6% drop from 2012's 117,429).

But off the track, the big question remains about the circuit's overall economic and environmental impact. After one year in operation, COTA has hosted multiple car and bike races, but the long-term plan is to create a research and development campus in its shadow. Last Friday, the British Consulate in Houston invited a blend of Texas politicos and IT entrepreneurs to an evening of mingling at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. It was a two-way pitch, to showcase Texas to international investors, and British technology to potential U.S. customers. The day before, UK Trade and Investment held the GREAT Tech Rally at the UT AT&T Conference Center, using the F1 brand to attract attention. Event moderator Fred Schmidt, founder of Austin-based start-up-incubator/realtor Capital Factory, called F1 "the world's coolest traveling circus."

There was one repeated theme about Austin and tech – that, for a town with a major IT community, the cell phone network is busting at the seams. Even COTA Director of Sustainability Edgar Farrera got questioned about the state of the cell network out at the track, yet it's a broader issue. As anyone who has tried to tweet or send email during any large Austin event or even just a busy workday knows, coverage anywhere in Travis County is sketchy at best. Add on the USGP or ACL or SXSW, and it's a major problem.

As for the track's carbon footprint, Farrera says the circuit's baseload demand is around 500 kilowatts, and it buys half of that through Austin's wind energy program. At last year's inaugural U.S. Grand Prix the energy demand peaked at 4 MW – less than half the 10 MW peak demand of a Dallas Cowboys home game, which has all kinds of power requirements, like AC and lighting, that the circuit does not require.

As the first track with a full-time sustainability officer, COTA trailblazed in hiring Farrera. However, there's still a conservative edge to the sport. In a recent survey, F1 fans were asked if they support greener racing: Absolutely, they responded – but not if it means changing the distinctive "angry hornets" whine of the engine. The question was raised: Is that just old-school fans who fear change, or something endemic in the sport? "I don't know," Farrera said, "but it's a reality."

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