When the Circuit of the Americas held its inaugural Grand Prix in 2012, it was half expected to amount to nothing more than an addition to the long list of unsuccessful attempts at establishing a permanent home for F1 in America.
I explained the interesting love/hate nature of America’s involvement in F1 in a blog for American Independence Day in 2013, which you can read here.
With that backdrop considered, the Austin Grand Prix was expected to be yet another venue which tried and failed to attract an American audience.
In contemporary Formula One, that is to say the years since Ayrton Senna’s death twenty years ago, circuits tend to feature dull uninspiring and uniform sections and long straights, surrounded by large run-off areas – a trademark of F1’s resident designer Hermann Tilke.
In the 21st century, F1 has had ten new tracks added to the calendar. Of these ten, only six remain – and judging by the forgettable showing at the Russian Grand Prix a week ago, that number threatens to fall to five in the foreseeable future.
The older, classic circuits – such as the Nurburgring, Monza, Silverstone, Suzuka and Spa – prove to be fan favourites and usually host enthralling racing in legendary backgrounds. Meanwhile, the newer circuits tend to hold pretty basic races. In 2014, Bahrain opted to run a race under floodlights and the resulting race was arguably one of the best in the sport’s history, albeit at a track which rarely excites. I would suggest, however, that this year’s success was due solely to the pairing of two equally able Mercedes drivers to provide wheel-to-wheel fights, and not to the fact that the race time was delayed by several hours.
Taking the Russian GP as an example, it is formulaic and can be taken section-by-section as cut-and-paste copies of other tracks – namely Valencia, Istanbul, Yeongam and Yas Marina – which debuted in 2008, 2005, 2010 and 2008 respectively. As if to prove the unpopularity of modern circuits, three of the four listed Grand Prix venues no longer host a race. Also, Russia’s completely forgettable debut race, although playing host to a hugely important race recovery by Nico Rosberg, who drove from last to second after a first lap lock-up and pitstop, serves to show how dull the newer circuits can be.
Why do these new circuits, with lots of money but little audience, consistently fall down in comparison with the legendary tracks, which boast full crowds but have relatively little money to throw at hosting the F1 circus?
Perhaps it is exclusively down to the fact the newer circuits are indeed less interesting and leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps there is also a fear that the new circuits will buy the classics off the calendar, thus smashing through F1’s history and distancing ourselves from the romantic past.
For whatever reason, though, there is little expected of newer circuits. This, combined with the troubled past our sport has had in the USA, only went to shock us when the inaugural running of the Austin Grand Prix went down a storm – with it’s second showing meeting a similar positive reception.
The track layout sounds like yet another typical Tilke template, with its triple left-right sequence in Sector 1 and its 1km straight dominating sector 2. And, indeed, Tilke served as an advisory designer during COTA’s construction. But fortunately, COTA did not produce the same run-of-the-mill racing as some of its sister tracks.
The triple left-right section is inspired by the tricky first sector of Suzuka and is almost as popular. And in the era of DRS, where straights tend to provide far too easy an overtake –take the long straights at Korea, India and China, for example – COTA has perfected the construction of its straight so that time and time again we are treated with wheel-to-wheel racing in the braking zone of, and out of, the straight – rather than halfway down the straight seeing a driver breezing coolly past a colleague.
Amid a myriad of modern and largely unexciting venues, COTA stands tall above them, as its trademark observation tower stands above the track. Although too early to claim unreservedly that COTA is here to stay, its instant positive reaction from fans, media and drivers signals a bright future for Formula One – both at COTA and in America.
Image courtesy of Red Bull/Getty Images.