Editor’s Note: John Olsakovsky attended the inaugural USGP at the Circuit of the Americas this past weekend, and he has returned with some good things to say about the event and some places where COTA could improve.
Many thought it wouldn’t happen, and despite lawsuits, work stoppages and an extremely tight deadline, Bernie’s circus came to Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas for the return of Formula One to the United States after a seven year absence.
Many have said that Austin is an odd locale for a date on the Formula One calendar, but it makes a lot of sense when you look at it in detail. The proximity to Mexico is a huge plus, considering Sergio Perez is from there. There’s also a lot of land surrounding the track that allows for development to support CotA. In the next several years, expect to see everything from hotels and restaurants to speed shops to retail.
The track itself is a gorgeous design, in my opinion. Sure, it’s a Tilke design, but it is arguably his best design. One thing that CotA has is lots of elevation change, using the natural terrain. Most of Tilke’s other circuits are flat as paper and have no natural terrain features to work with, so they end up being rather dull. Pleasingly, Circuit of the Americas is the exception and should be a big feather in Tilke’s cap.
The tire choice by Pirelli was a conservative one, going with the silver hard compound and the white medium compound. The decision made sense, considering the only laps on the new surface were by service vehicles and a few ceremonial laps during the grand opening. With no rubber worked into the surface, tire durability was an unknown, so the most durable compounds were chosen. The harder tires combined with unseasonably cool weather made grip hard to find, especially during the morning practice sessions.
I will say it’s entertaining watching the best drivers in the world (according to the FIA, at least) fishtailing out of corners and fighting excess wheelspin under hard acceleration. Granted, as the day wore on and temperatures came up, grip improved for everyone. Like it or not, the die was cast and the teams had what they had for tires. Ultimately, it did make for exciting racing and contributed to a number of on-track passes throughout the field.
From the beginning, the general consensus was that Turn 1 would be the biggest problem for the drivers, as it’s uphill with a hard-to-find apex and a nearly blind corner transitioning into a fast sweeping downhill corner. It turns out that turn 19 caught everyone off guard, with drivers transitioning from a high-speed triple-apex complex into a slower turn 19. Couple that with the hard tires and low temps and off-track excursions were frequent.
Things settled down as the weekend progressed, and we ended up with Vettel on pole, which wasn’t surprising, as he was at least a half-second faster than everyone else in every session. Red Bulls were both fast, with McLaren, Ferrari or Lotus not quite able to match qualifying pace. McLaren came closest, which wasn’t all that close.
The big story after qualifying was the starting grid. Drivers complained that starting from the even-numbered grid spots was problematic, as the track surface was dirtier on that side of the grid. Assurances were made by CotA that they would do their best to clean that side of the starting grid to give all the drivers the same grip level for the start of the race. Sunday dawned to a broken seal on Massa’s transmission, which is an automatic penalty of five grid spots. After everyone was jumbled around, it moved both Ferrari drivers to an odd-numbered starting spot on the “cleaner” line. Some said it was a cop-out, but Felipe dutifully played the role of sacrificial lamb in support of his teammate, Fernando Alonso.
The race itself couldn’t be better for a brand-new circuit. Everyone played nice going into Turn 1, despite going three wide. As expected, Sebastian Vettel marched away, but the award for the best start has to go to Fernando Alonso, moving from Seventh to fourth, nearly getting around Lewis Hamilton for third! Everyone got it sorted out heading downhill into turn 2 and the esses, and the race was on.
Mark Webber suffered a KERS problem early on, and retired on lap 17. The cause was reported to be an alternator problem, indicative of the electrical problems that have plagued Red Bull Racing all year. The only other race retirement was Jean Eric Vergne who had an off that damaged front suspension, putting him out on lap 14. Considering the hard wheel-to-wheel racing throughout the field at nearly every location on the track, it was pleasantly surprising that there were no incidents to bring out a local yellow, let alone a safety car.
The race ended up being a one-stop affair, since the hard tires had no degradation whatsoever. Fernando Alonso had a problematic pit stop, as did Kimi Raikkonen. With Webber out of the race, that left Lews Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel to battle for the win, and what a battle it was!
Everyone expected Vettel to rocket ahead and have enough of a gap to prevent anyone following him to use DRS. He never did get a huge gap, and eventually Lewis starting reeling him in as the laps wore on. The Red Bulls aren’t known for their straight line speed, so Hamilton made up ground on the long ¾-mile straight with the DRS zone. Hamilton was also making up time in the esses, possibly because Vettel didn’t have the availability of DRS in that section like he did during qualifying.
Hamilton got around Vettel on lap 42, and was able to gap Vettel by about a second, but no more. Their cars were decidedly equal, and Hamilton had it in the bag. Vettel was complaining that Narain Karthikeyan interfered and allowed Hamilton to make the pass. Honestly, if KittyLitteran wasn’t there, the pass wasn’t more than two laps away at that point, so Vettel was just dumping out his frustrations.
The final results had three world champions on the podium: Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. If you count Mario Andretti who did post-race interviews, there FOUR world champions, a great sight to behold. Pirelli deviated slightly from the race winner’s headgear by providing black cowboy hats festooned with appropriate logos and finishing place, adding to the Texas flair. It was a neat idea, but it was a bit too gimmicky for my taste. I suppose we should expect no less than the grand sport that gives us DRS.
Despite the fantastic on-track racing all weekend (including Ferrari Challenge, GT3 and Formula 1 historics), a gorgeous new facility and an impressive crowd all three days (65 thousand on Friday, 83 thousand on Saturday and 117 thousand on Sunday), there were some issues.
Cell service was great… Unless you use AT&T. Considering AT&T setup all of the communications for teams, drivers, media and officials including wireless signal, you’d think they would make sure there’s enough capacity for all the iPhone-wielding fans to have a strong signal so they can tweet or check Facebook or even send a text message. Service was in and out, not only on my AT&T cellphone, but also on my Fanvision unit. Every so often, the video would lock up or get all pixilated. I don’t know if Fanvision uses the AT&T infrastructure, but that was frustrating. Apparently Sprint or Verizon users had no issues. I spoke w/ a Verizon engineer Friday morning who said they brought in extra mobile towers for all Verizon bands, but AT&T declined to make use of them.
The lines for everything from merchandise to food to toilets (at least the ones in permanent buildings) were ridiculous, especially when there was no on-track activity. To make matters worse, the lines extended out into walkways that people were trying to use, annoying everyone involved from the guy that is running to catch up with his buddies to the lady that needs a glass of wine. For the most part, the fans were pleasant about it, but there was an undercurrent of annoyance, to be sure.
Vendors weren’t stocked well enough, and they ran out of product. It was merchandise vendors (CotA & event merch was the worst) as well as food vendors. One beverage stand had nothing but beer available. In addition, there were reports of the credit card processing going down track-wide, forcing everyone to use cash only. It is apparent that nobody adequately planned for the volume of fans and their desire to purchase goods and services.
Another area where planning was minimal was transportation. The on-track transportation was handled by open-sided shuttles pulled by a tug that ran loops around the circuit on a ring road. It’s a similar setup that is used at many road courses and it works well, for the most part. The problem here is that these tugs struggled to make it up some of the steep grades on the far side of the property between turns 11 and 1. I heard of an incident where a tram had to turn around on a hill, holding up everyone that needed to use the ring road. Another incident I heard of involved a tug driver that asked the passengers to get out and push the tram up the hill. Supposedly one tram driver stopped his tram and quit then and there. The underpowered trams were replaced with city buses for Saturday, and they seemed to fare much better, which is a lot more than could be said for fans exiting the track after the race Sunday.
The free parking was off-site at two locations: Downtown and Travis County Expo Center. Most fans opted for the free parking, which included shuttle service to and from the track. The number of shuttles was positively staggering, and we saw school buses from as far away as Dallas moving people back and forth. The problem was the walkway to get to the shuttle points was hastily carved through some rugged terrain. While the main walkway was paved, it was also too narrow to accommodate the flood of fans leaving the track, so many ventured onto the gravel next to the walkway. The walkway had no lights, so anyone leaving the track after sunset might have had issues. Add in native wildlife that may include reptiles (we’re talking rattlesnakes, boys and girls!), and there was potential for some.
There was no signage or organization for how to her to the appropriate drop off point. By Sunday, I knew where we needed to go, but this wasn’t the case for everybody. Making matters worse, there was a bridge over a dry creek that created a choke point along this route that needed to be shared with golf carts carrying passengers who were elderly or had small children or health issues. All told, it took over three hours to get from our seating location in turn 1 to the parking area, despite the fact that they were loading eight buses at a time. It was a mess of the highest order.
Final report card for the 2012 United States Grand Prix:
- On-track action: A
- Facility & Amenities: B-
- Transportation (inc. Ingress/Egress): D
- Fan Experience (including Fan Fest): A+
Overall, I give the inaugural event a low C. There’s plenty of room for improvement. If Circuit of the Americas pays attention to what didn’t work and improves it and leaves everything else alone, it will be one of the best event s on the F1 calendar, at least for the fans.