The U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, where can I start with this? I know that thousands of fans have awaited the return of Formula 1 to the U.S. In my eyes, the last real Grand Prix held here in the States was more than 20 years ago at Watkins Glen in 1980. From there on, it bounced around multiple cities trying to establish a home that never flourished as well as the organizers anticipated. It is still shocking to know that Phoenix held 3 races! (Here in Phoenix!) It is unfortunate that I was not living here during those years. Indianapolis was a big joke, I was never a fan of the track and even the name didn’t sound right. In some ways okay maybe most ways I was glad Indianapolis didn’t work out.
Personally, I have been following Formula One for a VERY long time. There were times when I would favor Formula 1 races over cartoons. I don’t know how it started or what it was that engaged me but it was something that I ended up loving. I remember going down to the garage and pretending to be Ayrton Senna or Damon Hill, inside my dad’s VW bus. After a really long time I was finally going to my first Formula Grand Prix, I was ecstatic! Like I said, it had been in the works for a very long time.
I won’t lie, when the track layout at Circuit of the Americas was released, I was a little skeptical. I don’t know what it was; it is not as if I was going to be driving it – right? Maybe it was because some of the turns at COTA were carbon-copied from other European circuits? Maybe…
I showed up at Paul’s house on Wednesday somewhere around 7:00 p.m. for the final preparations of our trip. After a quick nap, Paul, Simon, CJ and I left Phoenix on Thursday at 1:00 a.m. We were driving 1000 miles in one shot. Ambitious?…yes. Crazy… of course. Simon took the first leg, the plan was to rotate every 3-4 hours to keep it fresh but then we remembered that we had Paul, so scratch that idea!
Although we had multiple drivers, the drive seemed like it took 4 days. Even when you were not driving, you still felt as though you were being held hostage. The trip of course had its memorable moments. Somewhere around the 8th hour, while (unwittingly) driving on the wrong highway, we decided to stop, stretch our legs and take some photos.
Since I was somewhat bored, I decided to amuse myself. There was a medium-sized brick fence that, for some reason, I decided to jump off of. I asked Paul to take photos as I jumped off. A combination of sitting in the car for many hours, old-age and just being dumb, contributed to a colossal failure! I ended up ‘wadding- it’ pretty bad. When I landed, my legs gave out/lost traction and went backwards. Since I was holding the camera in my hand, I shifted all my weight to the opposite side to avoid damaging the camera. Camera was ok, few scratches here and there, I was a little bruised but mainly my pride was hurt.
So how did we end up there? According to our navigator (Paul), we were supposed to take Highway 290. This would allows us to save some time cutting across instead of continuing south east and then back north. I’d like to point out that I was sleeping when the folks up front saw the exit for Highway 290. However, it must been an exit for the old-Highway, because our exit was not for another 150 or so miles. The only good thing that came out of that was the old highway was a big loop so it basically ended up taking us back to Interstate 10. Oh and me falling.
Our arrival at Austin was shortly celebrated. We ended up taking, yet again, the wrong highway and ended up way north during rush hour. This prolonged our trip by another hour. I swear I was starting to lose it! All I wanted to do was get out of the stupid Jeep and stretch my legs! Funny thing is, if we had taken the long route to our hotel, we would have gotten there much sooner. Go figure. Our arrival to the hotel was glorious! Quite frankly it could have been a roach motel and I wouldn’t care, my legs were free! We met our party – the Robles’ and then went out for dinner and beer. We called it early that night, we were tired and we had an early morning ahead.
Day One – Meeting COTA and Practice
We arrived at Circuit of the Americas with anticipation and eagerness. From far away you could see the Observation Tower which stands at 251 feet providing a 360-degree panoramic view of the track. As we got closer to the track, the main Grandstands and the Grandstands at turn 1 came to view. Since Friday was a Practice day, there were not many people. This made the traffic and the parking procedures move rather quickly. As we made our way to the entrance, our excitement grew, getting bigger with each step we took. We heard the engine noises coming to life as they warmed up in the garages. Some of us were getting chills. If you saw us at that point, you would see adults looking like little kids entering a Toys R Us store at Christmas time with an unlimited budget and ice cream. You get the point.
Once we made our way between turn 15 and 19, we were greeted by very friendly staff members who directed us to where we wanted to go. Right off the bat, we noticed the different booths with their relative merchandise. The more popular ones were Ferrari, Red Bull and the Circuit of the Americas. They also had other “general” booths that contained a variety of merchandise from several teams in one stop. Since we still had some time before practice started, we opted to make some purchases. We were glad that we did this early on because it got worse as the days and weekend progressed. Some of the items had colossal price tags but people bought them left and right in order to support their favorite team/driver. Once we made the rounds of the booths and gathered what we wanted, we proceeded to scout some areas for us to see the action.
At turn 19, there were some cars already doing laps, it was clearly visible that they were having a hard time with grip. The cold morning and the brand new track were giving all the drivers a hard time with grip. Some of the drivers were even reporting almost rain-like conditions. As the day got hotter and the track got more rubber, the times started to drop drastically! The first thing that I noticed as the cars braked to hit turn 19 was the noise of the engines as they downshifted. It honestly sounded like a small explosion, with a loud Blap, blap, blap followed by the whine of the V8 as they hit their stratospheric 18,000 rpm redline. My description doesn’t justify or fully describe this sound and the reality is T.V. does not capture some of the downshift noises. You had to be there! It was absolutely incredible. At times, the small explosions sounded to me as though the engine was trying to gasp for some air; a quick breath, just for a millisecond. Only to get punished one more time with a trip to that crazy redline. The engines liked the abuse, as though they are so high-strung, they take an incredible beating. After we watched practice, we walked around the track to see if we could find a better spot.
We started our way down to turn 12 where you could see some over-taking after the long straightaway but we were not be able to see anything more. At that point we were ready to reunite with the Robles’ since they ended up parking at a different location, we had a little wait. While we waited the Historic Grand Prix was out for practice, to my surprise, the Tyrell P34 “six-wheeler” was out on full force. I honestly was not expecting this and it was incredible, to see this car around COTA – WOW! Other surprises included the black and gold John Player Special Lotus and the 1976 Ferrari 312, and 312 T2. The Historic Grand Prix had cars ranging from 1966-1983.
Subsequently, we needed to get some grub before the start of the 2nd practice. That was a monumental task; the lines were long and even though the temperature was mild – the sun was scalding. There was no escape. Luckily, we got our food just in time and we rushed back to the action. At the end of the 2nd practice was over, the fastest time belonged to Sebastian Vettel with a time of 1:37.18, which was far from the high 1:40’s during the morning practice.
We chose to go check out turn 1 for the Ferrari Challenge and the Pirelli GT3 practice. Getting there was a little harder than what we first anticipated. However, once you got there you had a nice view of the finish/start, the pits and of course the cars flying up and braking hard for turn 1. From this point, you could also see sections of turn 2, 18 and 19. This looked like a promising spot but as the practice for the Ferrari Challenge and the Pirelli GT3 continued, we realized that turn 1 lacked the speed we saw at turn 19.
Hence began the debate of what would be the perfect location to see the race, hopefully day two of qualifying would provide another day to scout the perfect spot. After the track went cold, we explored downtown Austin and I have to say I was very surprised at how much I ended up liking Austin. I wish that I had a little more time to go explore but we had to be up again the next morning for another early start.
Day Two – Qualify
We arrived at the track a little later than the day before. This time it took us a little longer to park and get inside the track. Thousands of people were waiting in line to get in and although it was only 7:00 a.m., the atmosphere was already vibrant with fans with their flags, wigs and crazy hats, all prepared to witness their favorite drivers go out and rip some laps.
The only thing I forgot to mention about the track is that, they really pushed to the very end and some areas were not fully completed (fan-areas). Though I was not perturbed by this, I could not help but think of all of the people that came from different countries to see this event. I would have been a little disappointed if I were in their shoes and traveled that far. I understood that they had a very short deadline but I do hope that the track is fully completed next year.
The guys and I had previously decided to go out to the Esses section to see turn 3, 4, and 5. In order to get there, we had to go across the track through a bridge, twice! As we crossed the bridge, cars were on full throttle below, it was an exhilarating and deafening experience, but I simply could not stop smiling. Awesome! It was a mad dash to get there quickly but once we were there, we were highly rewarded. The cars came really fast and changed directions so quickly, only lifting a little and downshifting to exit with full speed after 5. That section gave you a full appreciation of just exactly what Formula 1 cars and drivers are capable of. All of this was taking place about 25 yards away from us. The only bad thing was that we were almost at track level so that, it was a little hard to see over the fence.
The Qualifying session was super intense. The driving, the noises, the gear changes were done just a tad quicker, they were pushing their cars to the limit and at the end, Sebastian Vettel ran away with pole position, a time of 1:35.657. Almost 2 seconds faster than the day before. His closest championship challenger; Fernando Alonso, could not keep up with Vettel’s pace and ended up qualifying in 9th spot. After checking out the rest of the track, it was decided that the race would be viewed just before turn 19.
Day 3 – Race Day
The day started super early, by 5:45 a.m. we were on the road for some coffee and then on to COTA. The plan was to get there early, set up camp and have a premium spot. By the time we got there, the cars and the fans were already lined up and ready to go in. We got a nice spot; set our things down and waited for the races. The first race was the Pirelli GT3 Challenge, then the Ferrari Challenge and followed by the Historic Grand Prix. There was a small gap between races where we couldn’t help but take a nap. The area around turn 18-19 filled up rather quickly, it was hard to believe that only a couple hours ago, there were only a handful of people around us. We literally had people almost on top of us. 12:30 p.m. rolled around and the cars started to make the final practices before the race. The fans were fired up; the noise and the atmosphere were absolutely amazing. I haven’t been to an event where you felt this kind of atmosphere, everywhere the tension strained – everyone was waiting for the main event. The only event that evens comes close; one that we are waiting on to return states-side was the Red Bull Air Race that took place in San Diego a few years ago.
Once the warm-up lap was completed, everybody got on their feet waiting for the lights to go off. The sound of 24 cars thundering down the main straightway is just crazy. We had a perfect view of what was going on in turn 1, all of them – hard on the brakes and then carefully trying to overtake the driver in front of them without creating chaos. As they made their way around to our section, well it was impossible to even hear the person next to you talking. One after another; that same crazy backfire as they found lower gears. Only this time, you had 24 cars almost bunched up…indescribable. I remember looking to my right and getting a glimpse of Phil, he had this huge grin on his face and he was shaking his head. Is this real? We had been waiting a long time for this.
As the race went on, the cars started creating gaps in-between themselves and it felt as if there was a car in front of us at all times. We were also in perfect view of a massive television trying to catch up to the rest of the action around the track. At times you would hear the sounds of the crowd going crazy as a result of a driver having an-off or just an intense battle between drivers. By that point the heat was sweltering, the temperatures were not as high but the sun was just brutal. The race went by so quickly, much quicker than what it feels like when you see it on TV. At one point, Phil asked me “hey how many laps left?” 2 left chief, 2 left. As the cars made it around for the last time, the crowd was on their feet cheering, screaming, and applauding. At the end, Lewis Hamilton was the one who got the win. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso placed 2nd and 3rd respectively. What an amazing race, what an incredible experience.
Their cool down lap was the slowest we saw the drivers; they waved and thanked the crowd for their amazing support. Just like that, it was all over, just way too quickly. They promised us a track appropriate for Formula One and after being there for three days, I have to say they delivered what they promised. The track lives up to that of a Formula One Grand Prix. Bravo!
After the race, we went back to downtown Austin for dinner and one last goodbye. Our 16 hour drive Monday morning went without any hiccups, wrong turns or people falling down. Though it still felt like forever, we had a good time driving back.
When I first started watching Formula 1, Michael Schumacher was just starting his career with the Jordan team back in 1991. How fitting for me to see him for the first time on his last season now with the Mercedes AMG Petronas team. I can say I got to witness one of the best drivers Formula 1 has ever seen.
Formula One has an aura; it is a glamorous event that is not easily matched. You can’t help yourself to feel somewhat enamored with a Grand Prix, even when you don’t have a $10,000 ticket. In the end, it took me back to the feeling of being a kid with an uncontrollable excitement over something minimal….it took me back where it all started; making race-car noises inside that VW bus.
I can’t wait to go back…hopefully flying this time.