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In Austin, Formula One finds a new home deep in the heart of Texas

Neal Pollack
November 19, 2012

The track at the Circuit Of The Americas, which appeared in a field of Central Texas cow patties seemingly overnight like some sort of racing Shangri-La, had never felt the pressure of Formula One tires. Sebastian Vettel, two-time defending F1 individual champion and the prohibitive favorite to bring home a third, was running the course in a car painted like a can of Red Bull and built by Renault engineers to perform like a high-pitched rocket to hell. It was Friday, 9 a.m. Down in the pit, 20 or so clean-cut serious men, their clothing festooned with Red Bull and Infiniti logos, kept a steady eye on equipment so high-tech, it seemed to have come out of an espionage thriller. The paddock gleamed, looking less like a garage and more like a billionaire villain's lair.

"Decent gap ahead of the Lotus if you can get it," said one of the techs.

A video monitor showed the great Vettel doing a spinout. The track still had dust on it; this was, literally, opening day. In little more than 48 hours, it would play host to a real live Grand Prix, the first in the United States since 2007. Vettel and his fellow drivers were in the process of deflowering virgin asphalt.

"Stop in your box and lay rubber," the British-accented (or was it German?) voice said. This sounded vaguely obscene, but "laying some rubber" would be important on this track, which had about as much grip as a lacquered coffee table. "The infield is slow and slippery, really slow and slippery," the transom said.

As Vettel screamed around Turn 19, we heard, "Sebastian will be coming into the white pit, stopping four clicks, and rubbering the box."

Vettel zipped his Red Bull spaceship car into the dock and whipped out just as quickly, leaving a thick black tread on the white concrete. The more he and his fellow drivers did that, the more they'd be laying hot rubber down on the track. "Rubber the box, Sebastian," I heard. "Rubber the box."

Two cappuccinos later, our media minders from Infiniti ushered us into a private dining suite, where we'd soon be meeting with Christian Horner, who runs Red Bull's racing team, the best-funded and most successful in the world. For inexplicable reasons, a beautiful woman with short black hair served us sushi, miso soup, and green tea, all on real china.

"It's Christian's birthday," one of our minders said. "Though he doesn't eat sushi."

Then followed a five-minute conversation among my fellow car hacks about the ethics of the DRS, or drag-reduction system, deployable wings that F1 drivers are only allowed to use on the straight. They make passing easier, though F1 traditionalists regard them as impure. This interested me only marginally, so I was delighted when my old Peruvian friend Jorge Koechlin von Stein, a former racer and now a Spanish-language TV car journalist, joined us, looking stylish. He'd been walking the track for a couple of days and couldn't sing its glories enough.

"It's wonderful what they've done here," he said. "Absolutely marvelous the way they've set up the cars for Turn Eight. It's the same as Istanbul, but it's the other way around. You have to take it flat. Everybody is taking the Istanbul corner flat."

I had no idea what Jorge was talking about, but when the important Christian Horner, a handsome Englishman with a bit of a winner's glint in his eye, sat down, he continued the theme. "This is a great course," he said. "It's a bit of Suzuka, a bit of Korea, a bit of Istanbul. Nineteen is a tricky corner. It's about finding that balance between all the corners and the straights with the downforce that you run."

At a certain point, Horner began speaking non-racing English. When someone asked him about the stakes in Austin, he said, "It's hugely important. America is Red Bull's largest market. It's Infiniti's largest market. We have more guests and corporate sponsors here than at any other race." He wanted to show Americans that a racing team run by an energy-drinks company could compete with the likes of McLaren, Mercedes, and Ferrari. "The team is very focused," he said. "We've come here to do a job and win a championship."

Then a British journalist had the stones to ask, "Do you have any comments on the articles lately that have revealed the toxic properties of Red Bull?"

Horner didn't like that question much.

"As far as I know, Red Bull is a very popular drink in the United States and around the world," he said.

It's hard to find anything to complain about from this year's Austin Grand Prix, unless you're inordinately disturbed by helicopter noise. The Circuit Of The Americas facility was clean and classy, instantly hailed as one of the finest dedicated racing tracks in the world. We had perfect weather. Other than the long souvenir and shuttle bus lines and the tragic fact that some beer vendors fell short on supplies, everything ran smoothly. There were lots of fun celebrity sightings and thousands of fans who'd driven up from Mexico to cheer on genuine national hero Sergio Perez, "El Checo," who next year will be driving for McLaren. Even the much-dreaded traffic problems seemed manageable, with people getting back into town with plenty of happy-hour time remaining.

Austin residents, skeptical after years of seeing invading hipster armies destroy the town during South By Southwest, were happy, and visitors seemed charmed and amazed by the whole affair. Public-safety problems were minimal at best. As the track announcers said before the start on Sunday: "This is going to become the annual party race, like we had in the 60s and the 70s. Austin has a very good chance of being that." The event trumped cynicism. Austin had worked its feel-good magic on the racing world. We had a glorious, thrilling race. People were in love.

On Saturday, I stood on the upslope facing the soon-to-be-famous Turn One. The fan area was all dirt and rocks. Maybe by this time next year, the grass will have grown in a bit like it has on most of the interior general-admission space, which is as lush as a country club lawn. The track splayed out before us in all its twisting splendor, with turns and hills and verdure out of some sort of racing fan's fantasy, with a mammoth, crane-like red steel tower standing at the center of it all, announcing that the COTA is an Austin landmark now and forever. "Gawd dang," a guy from North Carolina said to me. "I've never seen anything like this in all my life."

By Sunday morning, the field had been set. Vettel claimed the pole in qualifying and McLaren racing's Lewis Hamilton, the British stud with his diamond-stud earring, was second, followed by Vettel's Red Bull teammate, the Australian Mark Webber. Spain's Fernando Alonso, the lone driver sitting between Vettel and a third straight title, lurked back in seventh.

Up in the Red Bull Racing luxury paddock suite, we found ourselves tortured by a loud DJ and a breakdancing team fronted by a guy who kept yelling things into a microphone like, "Red Bull you rock! Yeah, baby, Formula One, what up Red Bull Racing!" The Dallas businesspeople enjoyed the show.

This nonsense was mercifully interrupted by a special visit from Mark Webber, winner of this year's Monaco Grand Prix, who'd come for a special pre-race chat with the people who pay for his wheel-temperature control gauges. The host asked him about Turn One, which, immediately upon race launch, would send the drivers up a steep hill, followed by a thick apex with a massive spinout area. All the racing cognoscenti were predicting, or a least hoping for, massive six-car pileup.

"It looks more impressive than it is to drive," Webber said. "We've managed to get on top of it pretty easily."

Then followed some answers of stunning candor.

On F1 making its return to the United States: "North America is important, but the sport is doing very very well. It's survived without America and it's not going to die if it's not here. It doesn't really matter what people think on Monday. We'll see how it's perceived in the year 2020."

On the COTA facility: "In terms of racing and putting pressure on each other, it's not the best track, to be honest. But hopefully, events from today will prove us wrong."

Then someone from the crowd asked, "So, Mark, what's going to happen at the top of the hill there with Hamilton at the start?"

"Hopefully I'll have taken care of him before that," Webber said.

The money from Dallas loved that line.

By 11:30, the air above COTA had begun to audibly hum as the crowd swelled toward its maximum of more than 117,000. Noise screamed out of the pits as the cars began final preparations for their onslaught. "Grid Girls" wearing frilly cowgirl skirts, white cowboy boots, and too much makeup appeared, bringing forth ritual catcalls and whistles. Then the 24 F1 circuit drivers appeared on the track, wearing jeans and their team caps, and the crowd roared with appreciation. The University of Texas marching band played The Yellow Rose Of Texas with a full cheer squad while Texas Gov. Rick Perry glad-handed into the pits. It was as though we'd been transported into the final reel of The Right Stuff. I descended into the maw.

It took me a half hour to make it to the open area outside Turn One, where the action was supposed to run hot the first four laps. The crowd was thick with flag-wavers from many nations. I found a spot in the dust just to the right of the bleachers, where I could see the starting line and most of the turn. The cars took their warmup laps. Vintage fighter planes flew overhead.

"AUSTIN, TEXAS!" the announcers yelled.

"WHOOOOOO!" the crowd yelled back.




There was a massive roar, and the cars came screaming up the hill. Immediately, Webber took out Hamilton in the turn, with the sneaky Alonso coming in fourth. The rest of the cars, none of them with a chance in hell of passing Vettel, followed. Then they went away for a couple of minutes, and we heard,


This went on for a few laps. Hamilton re-passed Webber, getting rid of that turgid little drama. Eventually, people started sitting down. As with most European-born sports, this one was low-scoring. I headed back to the paddock.

In Lap 17, Webber said the words "KERS has failed," and pulled his Red Bull car into the turnout. This stands for "kinetic energy recovery system," and is better known in consumer cars as regenerative braking. Obviously, this knocked him out of the race, and he exited the car to begin a long, dejected walk back to the garage. This moved Alonso into third place, where he'd stay for the rest of the afternoon.

I was in the luxury suite watching the race on a little handheld Fan Vision set when Hamilton, who'd been crawling up Vettel's backside for an hour, finally took the lead during the 41st lap. You could have heard a breakdancer drop in the Red Bull suite, because this meant the race was effectively over. I went upstairs, which had a spectacular view of the finish line, and 15 minutes later, saw Hamilton cross in first, fists pumping in victory.

By the time I got back downstairs, the victory celebration was already well in play. A high-school student handed me a glass of champagne. Lewis Hamilton was on the podium, wearing an awesome black cowboy hat with "Pirelli" written across the brim, and then Vettel and Alonso joined him. Vettel and Webber, who'd earned enough points to claim the "Constructor's Championship," the team award for Red Bull, held their trophies aloft, but the atmosphere in the Red Bull suite was still kind of subdued. Everyone had to go to Brazil next weekend and do it all over again.

In the McLaren area, the champagne sprayed and people danced in celebration of Hamilton's huge win. Formula One had made its triumphant return to the United States, and Austin could have a few months to breathe until the next enormous international cultural festival rendered its streets and bars impassable for ordinary citizens. The COTA has entered the realm of legend and would be part of the city's life from here on.

Gawd dang, I'd never seen anything like it in all my life.