F1 goes troppo in Texas
As far as a weekend of motor racing goes, the 2017 United States Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas had just about everything — including the key ingredients of a successful Formula One future.
Austin prides itself on being weird, and its inclusion on the F1 calendar from 2012 certainly fit that bill. With the sport historically finding it difficult to crack the US market, taking a European-centric race and dropping it into the middle of Texas seemed to make little sense.
Indeed even today talk of F1 in America is as much about the addition of a race in a so-called destination location — New York or Miami or the Californian coast — as it is about the success of Austin as an unlikely home for the pinnacle of international motorsport.
And the Circuit of the Americas is a success, have no doubt about it — and this year’s sixth edition of the event was not only another feather in the cap of organisers, it was also an important marker for Formula One as it embarks on its next chapter with its new commercial owners.
Most pertinent is that two-thirds of the ownership hierarchy — CEO Chase Carey and commercial chief Sean Bratches — is American, making the 2017 race something of a homecoming for them. But, more to the point, the weekend’s grand prix was also an opportunity for them to demonstrate, even if indirectly, some of their much-hyped vision for Formula One.
Any regular follower of Formula One knows only too well how little effort the sport has typically made to engage its audience. Despite being its global promoter, Formula One Management did next to no promotion under the regime of former controlling owner CVC Capital Partners. F1 was an asset to cash in on, not invest in.
This formed part of Liberty Media’s justification for buying the sport at its multibillion-dollar price — put simply, the quantity of low-hanging fruit, especially for directors of the calibre of Carey, Bratches and Ross Brawn, made F1 a relative steal.
America and self-promotion, of course, are natural partners, and so it is that not only great optimism has come to be held for the sport but also great expectation has been placed on Austin, now a de facto totem of Formula One’s new era.
The call, as summed by Carey earlier in the year, is to turn F1’s 20 grands prix into 21 Super Bowls — “week-long extravaganzas with entertainment and music events that capture a whole city,” he said — and Austin had no difficulty answering it.
The Circuit of Americas went full American, and for a sport used to the stuffiness of minute regulatory detail, it was a fantastic breath of fresh air.
I dare anyone to sit through the legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer’s introduction of the grid and not feel even the slightest tingle of goosebumps. Sure, it was rough around the edges and some drivers (Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton) got into it more than others did (Sebastian Vettel), but the concept was excellent not only for its pre-race hype but also for its local flavour.
The Austin race is already famous for all things Texas — and America. Barbecue is in bountiful supply. Southern hospitality is turned up to 11. A US defence force rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner invariably precedes the race.
I was even lectured, though not in an unfriendly way, about the benefits of Texan secession last time I was there.
Added this year were Buffer and former president Bill Clinton, born in neighbouring Arkansas, alongside Texan actors Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson.
It was a larger-than-life event in a style only America can execute, and that’s the key — taking all those good, renowned things from the host nation of each race and blending it together with the sport.
Remember the ushanka hats that appeared on the first Russian Grand Prix podium or the sombreros that so excited at the 2015 Mexican Grand Prix? These are only minor kitschy examples — and Mexico injects its culture into its race similarly successfully without the hats — but they are starting points from which Formula One can enrich its schedule of otherwise samey events by emphasising its worldliness.
Questions are often asked of those races that struggle to find traction in their local markets, in particular the various United States grands prix. Not every race can have a local driver nor be run on an all-time classic circuit, and in some cases — Sebastian Vettel and Germany, for example — these don’t necessarily have any impact anyway.
But if more Formula One events were more colourfully tailored to their environments, if Formula One gave in completely to the local vibe and atmosphere as it did in Austin, then maybe the sport really can have its 20 Super Bowls envisioned by its new leaders, just as it did in Austin.