As one who has loved both Formula 1 and the USA all his waking life, I’m delighted to see the two reunited in 2012. And the more I learn about the forthcoming US Grand Prix in Austin, the more enthusiastic I become. For one thing, Tavo Hellmund, the man behind the project, goes way back with Bernie Ecclestone. And that, as we know, can count for a lot.
Since first going to the US GP in 1971, I have seen virtually every F1 race run that side of the water, and while some of the tracks used – Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix – were duds, others – notably Watkins Glen and Long Beach – became classic Grand Prix venues. I’ll accept that the F1 circuit at Indianapolis was not the greatest test of man and machine, but still it was always a pleasure to go there, because Indy is Indy, the atmosphere is overwhelming, and the thing was always so well organised.
And then there was Dallas. We only went there once, in 1984, and the race was unsatisfactory in a number of ways. For one thing, the track surface broke up appallingly in the blazing heat; for another, there was a certain shortfall in the monies which should have reached Bernie, and thence – in part – the teams…
Thus the Dallas Grand Prix was never held again, and I was one of many who regretted that, for although the surface resembled a dirt track by the end of the race, the street circuit itself was not bad at all, and the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. More to the point, F1 rang a bell with Texans to a far greater degree than in most other parts of the US it has visited. Remembering deathless venues, with tiny crowds, like Vegas and Phoenix, it’s easy to forget that on race day in Dallas the place was packed.
Austin, too, is in Texas – in fact, it is the state capitol. I haven’t yet been there, but American friends tell me that, although not far from such as Dallas and Houston, it’s a very different sort of place. “English people would probably call it ‘a university town’,” one said recently. “It’s very big on music and the arts – a civilised sort of place…”
Then there’s the forthcoming track. Hellmund says he is well aware of the need to build a ‘proper circuit’, rather than some of the cookie-cutter tracks lately arrived on the World Championship schedule. Although Hermann Tilke – inevitably – is to design it, an attempt is being made to duplicate certain great corners from other circuits, and the track is expected to be quick. Also up and down, which is another plus.
There seems little doubt that the project has keen support, at both local and state level, and that the necessary finance is in place – as also is a firm contract with FOM (Ecclestone).
Ever since the days of Long Beach in the spring and the Glen in the fall, F1 has sought a permanent home in the USA. I must say I thought that had been accomplished at Indianapolis, where the crowds may have been small compared with that at the 500, but still dwarfed those at any other Grand Prix. In the end, having spent a fortune on modifying the place to satisfy F1 demands, Tony George, then the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ultimately found himself unable to contemplate Ecclestone’s ever greater fiscal requirements, and that – after eight years – was the end of that. I would still like to see Indy return to the World Championship one day – to my mind, there should be at least two Grands Prix in the USA.
For now, though, it seems clear that the Austin project is bona fide, that F1 will return to America the year after next, and the assumption is that the US Grand Prix will be twinned with Montréal (as Detroit and Indy used to be), enabling the races to share the enormous costs of transportation across the Atlantic. The teams and sponsors are – not surprisingly – delighted, and so, I think, should be all F1 fans. It’s good to be reminded that there are areas of the world other than the Far East…