Iconic backdrops and challenging sections give COTA USGP chops. (LAT photos)
Whenever Formula 1 visits a new grand prix venue, positive noises are made by all in the paddock. It’s just the done thing to welcome a new race promoter into the fold that way, even if private mutterings might be less upbeat. So the real measure of a new circuit’s appeal is how everybody feels when they have to return there 12 months later. The greatest testament to the popularity of Circuit of The Americas ” not to mention how big an impression host city Austin, Texas made in 2012 ” is that even after nine months hurtling around the world, the return to the United States is universally welcomed.
As an “event” race, this one is almost unparalleled in F1. Sure, Monaco is still on everyone’s bucket list, with the whole of the tiny principality on the northern coast of the Mediterranean consumed by the greatest of all the classic grands prix. But Monaco is a tiny place with a population of under 40,000, compared to Austin’s near-850,000. To make somewhere the size of Austin all about a race taking place a decent drive from downtown is remarkable. That’s what makes the United States Grand Prix one of the highlights of the year.
Driving to the circuit on Thursday was a reminder of what a great facility it is. Unlike so many modern tracks, it has several signatures that should, over the years, become the calling cards of F1 in this country. The 252-ft observation tower in the center of the track is the first thing that catches your eye. Then there’s the uphill run to Turn 1, which evokes the steepness of the climb at Eau Rouge at Spa, or the tumble down through the Senna S at Interlagos. To steal Melbourne’s race slogan, Circuit of The Americas is a great place for a race.
For the first time since the grand prix glory days at Watkins Glen from 1961 to 1980, F1 in the USA has a hint of permanence. Since being forced away from the Glen, Long Beach kept the F1 flame alive for three more years, but other than that it spent the 1980s and early ’90s hopping between temporary venues ” Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit and Phoenix. Even when the U.S. Grand Prix went to Indianapolis in 2000, there was the feeling it was hanging on the coat-tails of the 500. Now, COTA has given F1 a sense of belonging. It’s only the second time here, but it feels like home.
The most disappointing thing is there is no home hero for the fans to cheer on. The closest thing is Caterham third driver Alexander Rossi (ABOVE RIGHT), who will take to the track on Friday morning having ?borrowed? Giedo van der Garde’s car for the first 90 minutes of the day. He will surely have the honor of being the first to take to the track when the green flag flies but, sadly for the event, that will be that for the 22-year-old Californian.
But in the absence of a genuine home hero, F1 can at least provide a couple of next-best-things. A strong Mexican contingent will be in the crowd to cheer on Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez, who has been looking increasingly comfortable at this level, and soon-to-be-ex-McLaren pilot Sergio Perez.
Perez finds himself in a horrible position in his “home” grand prix. In Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, he had every reason to be confident he would be staying at McLaren for a second season in 2014. But since then, things have changed dramatically, with rookie Kevin Magnussen, the son of sometime F1 racer turned sports car ace Jan, being selected to replace him. While the decision was a surprise given the encouraging noises the team had been making and with the man himself certain he was staying on, Perez’s performances this season have largely occupied the middle ground. Not terrible, not brilliant and with some good moments, such as his fifth place in the Indian Grand Prix, offset by some less impressive ones. But in the circumstances, it was hard not to feel sympathy for the likable 23-year-old given he was the star attraction in today’s press conference!
?It was definitely not what I was expecting,? was his summary of the situation. As for the fans who will flock here to see him ” many of whom were already streaming in by Thursday (RIGHT) ” they will probably be more worried about whether he can find himself a drive for 2014 than whether he can grab a decent result in what he has rightly pointed out is one of the less impressive McLarens in living memory.
But the bottom line for Perez is that what matters are results. There haven’t been enough good ones for him this year even when you take into account the uncompetitiveness of the car. He has just over half of teammate Jenson Button’s points tally (35 compared to 60) and while he has evolved as a driver this year, McLaren has not been impressed enough with his rate of progress. And if the engineering team is not convinced by you, your days are going to be numbered at a top team like McLaren.
But McLaren and Perez’s progress will only be a footnote this weekend. The question everybody is asking is whether Sebastian Vettel can extend his winning run to eight races. Or to be more precise, can anybody stop him doing so?