I drive to Texas and watch some fast cars – my 2012 USGP trip

Well, I know I said that I was going to blog from the United States Grand Prix in Austin, but I didn’t. In my defense, the data network at the track sucked, and the WiFi at my hotel was nearly as bad. Plus I didn’t bring a computer, and the iPad couldn’t handle the thousands of pictures that I wanted to upload. Also yes, this article is embarrassingly late (and very long). But anyways..

The day they announced the new track in Austin, Texas I was planning my trip. Bought tickets they day they went on sale, booked a hotel room nearly a year in advance. I was pumped for my first live Grand Prix. Had pretty high expectations going in, but I think that its safe to say that they were totally blown away. Here’s my trip in a few words.

Thursday:

Thursday was a lot of driving. It’s about 900ish miles to Austin from my house, and that’s about 16 hours. We didn’t leave until the other two (my Dad and Girlfriend) got off work, so that meant we would drive through the night and straight to the track – hopefully in time for Free Practice 1. Long day, but far cheaper than a flight+rental car for 3 people. By the way, it’s true what you hear…Texas is HUGE. MASSIVE. we only probably spent 5 hours in Colorado/New Mexico….the remaining 11 were in Texas.

This was the view of the drive down there.  Just about this for....forever.

This was the view of the drive down there. Just about this for….forever.

Friday:

Just as planned, we got to the track just as FP1 was underway – about 9am.  I rolled down the windows as we exited the 80mph toll road SH130 onto FM812 that runs by the track, and it was aural heaven. The

The first thing we saw when we got to the track..Turn 1.  Amazing.

The first thing we saw when we got to the track..Turn 1. Amazing.

glorious sound of 18,000 rpm F1 V8s was echoing across the Texas hills, and it was awesome. That was when it really hit home…I was at a real, live Formula 1 race! Park, board the shuttle, and our first glimpse of the Circuit of the Americas was at the top of the now famous Turn 1 – the tight hairpin that rises some 130 ft. We stood at the top of this imposing hill for the rest of FP1 just in awe of the impossibly short braking distances of these cars. And the noise, oh the noise! Vintage F1, Porsche GT3 Cup and Ferrari Challenge were the support series that weekend, so there was plenty of action when the F1 cars were in their garages. During FP2, we spent a bunch of time marveling at the impressive change of direction and grip the F1 cars had through the fast ‘esses’ (turns 3-9) and the tight hairpin at turn 11.

Tired from the 16 hour drive, and weary from the countless miles of walking dome exploring the track, it was time to find our hotel. And of course, we spared no expense on this trip and booked a luxurious room at the fabulous Motel 6 in Austin. And of course, I’m joking…have you ever been in a Motel 6?!  But it was also the only hotel that wasn’t totally gouging the F1 fan with a rate 3x the normal, so that was nice. We all wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed until FP3 the next day, but the night was young. There was a huge ‘tweet up’ (and fundraiser to benefit Meals on Wheels) hosted by SPEED pit reporter – and all around awesome journalist – Will Buxton at a downtown Irish Pub. That was a great time, it was basically just a huge karaoke night, but Buxton made it a ton of fun with his massive (heh) enthusiasm. A couple more beers, some shepherds pie, and some sightseeing at the Austin Fan Fest (the city had a few square blocks closed off for this big F1 related block party) and it was back to the hotel for some well deserved sleep.

Will Buxton: SPEED Pit Reporter, Journalist, Tweet-Up organizer, decent karaoke singer

Will Buxton: SPEED Pit Reporter, Journalist, Tweet-Up organizer, decent karaoke singer

 

Saturday:

Our seats at Turn 19.  Note Turn 1 in the distance to the left!

Our seats at Turn 19. Note Turn 1 in the distance to the left!

Most of the day was spent scouting for the best spot to watch F1 qualifying and Sundays race.  After debating between the esses, turn 11, and the infield we settled on the nice grassy hill between turns 18 and 19. We figured this was probably the ideal place for a General Admission bum (like ourselves) to watch the race from for a few reasons; grass (! Seems silly, but most of the spectator hills were dirt and weeds, so grass was a welcome luxury), a huge jumbotron tv, and great views of turns 18,19,20, and 1. My first live F1 quali was a blast to watch, seeing things live obviously gives you a much more detailed perspective than what you see on TV, but it was great to see these guys obviously pushing their cars hard. If you watched the race on TV, you know that just about everyone had trouble with turn 19. It’s tougher than it appears on TV largely because the apex drops away slightly, so it’s tough to get the car turned in, and once you do there’s a good chance that there’s some decent oversteer waiting for you on the other side. Turns out that turn 19 was the place to watch in quali for that exact reason, you could really see a fast lap made or broken in that one spot, and it really highlighted car/setup flaws.

At the end of the day, it was Sebastien Vettel on top, with a heroic last gasp lap from Lewis Hamilton to secure second place barely a tenth behind. After a few support races, spending way too much on ‘merch, and more exploring, we left for the Taj Mahal….er, Motel 6. Later that night, we went back downtown to explore the Fan Fest a bit more, wandered aimlessly for a bit for some pizza, and a couple beers too. But it was back to the hotel for some sleep for the main event…

Sunday:

IMG_7600The race wasn’t until the early afternoon, but we wanted to get there early to get a decent spot. Good move too, because the crowds were easily double/triple what they were the previous two days. Our gate at the top of turn one made us realize just how many people were going to be there (sellout crowd of ~120,000, by the way!), as the turn one hillside was packed by 9am…keep in mind this is some 4 hours before the race. Really cool to see such a strong reception to the race for its first year back!

We staked out a spot on the turn 19 grass area pretty close to where we watched qualifying. After an early morning race from both the Ferraris and the Porsches…it was time. I won’t bother recapping the race for you – you’ve probably already seen it, and if you haven’t, there are much better synopsis’s out there than I could do. But it was awesome, spectacular, unreal, just one of the coolest things ever. After the race was done, we worked our way to the main grandstand to see if we could possibly get on the track. We couldn’t (well, legally that is). But we did get to see a bunch of the TV networks doing their post race broadcasts! Martin Brundle, David Coulthard, Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Jordan, and Will Buxton (among others) were all down on the front straight doing their thing for the BBC/Sky Sports F1/SPEED…that was pretty fun to see. Red Bull were also celebrating their third consecutive constructors title, so we got to see that, as well as the teams packing up their kit for the trip to Brazil.

Monday:

More driving. This time in the daylight (mostly). Shit, Texas is big. See Also; flat, boring, straight. Did have some excellent BBQ for lunch though…how could we miss that!

As a first time F1 attendee, I was pretty much on sensory overload for the whole weekend, but here are a few more thoughts…

The Track:

I’ve been to Road America, I’ve been to Miller Motorsports Park. Both phenomenal world class tracks, but they look like a local go kart track next to the Circuit Of The Americas. Seriously. I knew the layout would be good after seeing the initial maps, but actually seeing it in person puts it in a whole new perspective. It sounds cliche, but you truly have to see this place to believe it. The elevation changes are quite dramatic, and TV flattens them out quite a bit. As a matter of fact, very little of this track is flat. The perspective and sensation of speed are so much greater in person as well, watching the F1 cars through the esses is jaw-dropping and awe inspiring. Some of the corners are truly mighty indeed.

The track was – like most modern F1 tracks – designed by German architect Herman Tilke (sort of. he didn’t actually pen the layout). And Tilke gets a lot of flack in the diehard F1 circles for his ‘boring cookie cutter’ designs, which I think is a bit unfair. He’s created some true masterpieces, CotA included. He also gets blasted over his ‘stadium sections’ where the track winds through a sort of flat, start-stop section flanked by grandstands. Keep in mind that’s where we sat for the race. It truly was the best place to watch the race, no wonder they’re a hit with fans. Much as I love flowy natural terrain road courses, they can be an awful place to watch a race….because you can’t see much.

The general buzz around the weekend was that most everyone loved CotA. Drivers especially praised the layout, some even called it a future classic. And I must say that it seemed well suited to some exciting wheel-to-wheel racing, though that doesn’t guarantee anything in the future. Hell, even legendary tracks like Spa-Francorchamps have had dull races. The entire facility seemed well received too – as it should have been for a brand new state of the art $300m racetrack!

The City:

Whenever I go to a new city for a race, I’m always a little sad that I didn’t book an extra day or two to actually take it in a bit more. With this racing stuff, you’re often so wrapped up in the event all day that you only get a little bit of time to explore the city after everything is done (and you’re really tired). It’s just like that at the SKUSA Supernationals in Las Vegas (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Vegas for Vegas’ sake…), and CotA was no different. We were at the track or driving to it from 7am to 7pm.

With that said, Austin seemed like a great place. I really wish I could have spent more time there! I was very impressed with how welcoming Austin was for the F1 circus. Everywhere around town there were businesses welcoming the F1 crowd with signs and promotions, there were even billboards up along the highways with sponsor adverts!  Downtown Austin was positively buzzing all weekend long, and the nightlife was electric.

The locals really seemed to be embracing the event, rather than turning their noses up at it, which really was important for this races success.  It’s often said that F1 needs the USA more than the USA needs F1.  This race could have easily been ignored by the Austinites, and a cold reception for F1s return could have been fatal…again.  The huge weekend-long Austin Fan Fest block party in downtown was a great way to host a (free) party for the whole city and show what F1 really is about.  I’m brimming with confidence that this race has a very bright future.

IMG_7272

The Cars:

This was the big draw for me.  It could have been the dullest race imaginable, but I still would have been captivated by these amazing machines.  Obviously, F1 cars are very, very fast.  That much is evident from watching on TV, but you really don’t get a sense of their true capabilities until you see it with your own eyes.

They are mind boggingly, unbelievably, fantastically quick.

The TV sanitizes some sense of speed, but it also masks the individual personalities of each car.  The noise is immediately apparent; the Ferraris have an ear-splitting scream, the Force Indias pop and spit on each downshift, the Caterhams have a gutteral, mechanical wail to them.  And then there are the subtle things you cant see on TV, how each driver turns into each corner a little differently, different braking points, how some cars struggle for traction in certain places.  And also, they’re much, much smaller than they look on TV.

IMG_6993It was fun to watch the cars evolve over the course of a weekend.  Watching FP1 at the top of turn 1, we could see that mechanical grip was paramount when the track was so green.  The HRTs had an almost comical lack of grip (relatively), the Loti were able to get pointed at the apexes really early and get back on the power, the Ferraris had dramatic understeer that they picked up mid corner…the Red Bulls were just stonking fast.  By the time qualifying came around, most of the cars looked well set up, but you could still tell the subtle handling nuances had followed them throughout the weekend.

They’re true prototypes, these cars.  Its pretty cool watching a machine that’s in a perpetual state of development – a living and breathing entity, almost.  And its just plain fun to watch them attack the fast corners and just stick when they really shouldn’t.

The Event:

For a first time event, I really expected more teething pains than I experienced.  There were port-a-potties everywhere, the people flow was well managed, and the traffic really wasn’t so bad.  Seriously, the traffic was a huge concern for everyone (those country lanes weren’t designed to handle 120,000 people/cars in one day) but they really managed it well, there was maybe 30 minutes of waiting in traffic.  All of the CotA workers/volunteers were hugely friendly (Texas hospitality, y’all), and really I don’t have a bad thing to say.  Best event i’ve ever been to, period.  For a first time, it was absolutely fantastic.  Hats off to all the people behind it at CotA, they did one hell of a job!

Texas, meet Formula 1

Texas, meet Formula 1

 

The 2012 United States Grand Prix was, needless to say, an unforgettable experience.  They say that you never forget your first time, and that is so true.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge F1 geek, but i’ve run out of adjectives to describe my weekend in Texas.  If you’ve never been to a live F1 race, you must go.  If you have, you must go again.  And I can think of no better place than Austin, Texas.

 

..now about that race in New Jersey in 2014…

 

 

(Finally, I leave you with a small selection of pictures from the weekend.  Thank you so much for reading!)

5 responses to “I drive to Texas and watch some fast cars – my 2012 USGP trip

  1. Wow John…what a fantastic job! I saw the practice, qualifying, and race on TV but I think you’ve shown me more!

    Thanks,
    Bob Stewart

  2. Pingback: The off season, all season long « the slip angle·

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