What a fabulous United States Grand Prix. There was excitement from start-to-finish for the 117,429 fans that lined the Circuit of the Americas and the result – Lewis Hamilton from Seb Vettel and Fernando Alonso – keeps the world championship battle alive until Brazil next weekend.
But this was much more than just a motor race; it was one of the biggest sporting events on the American 2012 calendar. The race has dominated the nearby city of Austin since the middle of last week and you couldn’t swing a (paddock) cat on the grid prior to the start due to the number of celebrities roaming around.
In no particular order, these were the stars from the silver screen: George Lucas, Ron Howard, Rupert Grant, Kyle Chandler, Luke Wilson, Patrick Dempsey, Matt Leblanc, James Woods, Erik Valdez, Todd Allen, Virginia Welch, Billy Miller, Max Meggs and Scott Elrod.
And from the worlds of music and sport, as follows: Enrique Inglesias, Jack Ingram, Lupe Fiasco, PSY, Mario Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Robby Gordon, Michael Johnson, Ben Spies, Rubens Barrichello, Bucky Lasek and Tony Kanann. According to Formula One Management, never before has such an impressive list of celebrities attended a race.
“It’s cool having so many celebrities here,” says Mercedes AMG Petronas star Nico Rosberg. “But the crowd has been fantastic as well. We all got a massive reception from the crowd on the drivers’ parade, and it’s been like that all weekend. There are lots of South Americans here too and they always create a good atmosphere because they’re very passionate.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh didn’t mince his words after Lewis Hamilton’s victory. “This was a brilliant day for motorsport in the United States,” he said. “The Austin racetrack is a magnificent one, and today it staged a wonderful motor race. The city of Austin has welcomed us and our sport, and on behalf of everyone at McLaren I want to extend our friendship and gratitude in return.”
As the chequered flag dropped at COTA, the party started in Downtown Austin. Red Bull Racing were planning a celebratory bash to pay homage to their third straight constructors’ championship, which they clinched this afternoon, and the drivers were planning to let their hair down too. “We’ll definitely have a few beers tonight,” said Seb Vettel. “The team really deserves this because everyone has worked so hard all year.”
One driver who wasn’t planning to party in Austin was Kimi Raikkonen. The winner of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix hot-footed it to Los Angeles on Sunday evening, but not before he’d handed out some t-shirts to everyone at Lotus-Renault. “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” were the words emblazoned on the front, in deference to his radio message while en route to victory in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago.
A sense of humour is important in F1, and Kimi has it down to a tee. Let’s hope the American fans were laughing as well after a brilliant inaugural US GP at COTA!
There were smiles all round at the Circuit of the Americas on Friday night. An awesome opening day of action ended with Red Bull Racing on top, but the timesheets were almost immaterial compared to the historical significance of what was happening.
“It’s great to be back in America,” said seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher. “It was great to do some laps and the circuit is very challenging. It will certainly help to showcase how attractive our sport can be to the fans.”
Michael’s sentiments were repeated up and down the pitlane. “This is a great drivers’ track,” said Lewis Hamilton. “It’s very tough to pull together three perfect sectors, which is how it should be.”
On such an important day for F1 in America, the paddock became a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sport’s history. There were world champions galore – Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda and Damon Hill – all wanting to witness what was happening, and there were stars from the silver screen as well. Ron Howard, the director of the soon-to-be-released movie Rush, was a guest of Ferrari and George Lucas was using a pass from Bernie Ecclestone. With more celebrities expected to visit over the weekend, the United States Grand Prix is fast becoming much more than a motor race; it’s becoming an event.
To appease European television audiences, the schedule has been bumped back by one hour, which meant practice started at 0900 yesterday (as it will today as well) and that forced the drivers to set their alarms early. Most of them crawled out of bed at 0600, but they had it easy compared to the real workers in the teams: the mechanics had 4am alarm calls and weren’t expecting to return to their hotel rooms until 0200 this morning…
Even the VIPs were forced to get out of bed early because the Pitlane Walkabout for F1’s richest guests in the Paddock Club was at 0700. And such was the enthusiasm for this race that Ferrari had 300 people in their suite alone, ready for some F1 and coffee.
As opening days go, it couldn’t have gone much better for the Circuit of the Americas. Yee-haa!
So, this is it: the final leg of the 2012 journey. Two races in the space of two weeks, after which we’ll know the identity of this year’s world champion. This battle commences this weekend in the United States, at a brand new venue in Austin, Texas; the circus then moves to Brazil for the season finale. May the best man win.
Red Bull and Ferrari have been working flat-out to develop their cars during the two-week break since Abu Dhabi and it’ll be fascinating to see which of them has done the better job when the action gets underway. Jenson Button is under no illusions as to which of the cars will be strong.
“Out of those two, you’d put your money on Red Bull,” he said on Thursday.
Given what’s at stake, Seb and Fernando seem surprisingly relaxed going into the weekend. One of them will become the youngest triple world champion in the history of the sport this year and neither wants to show a hint of weakness. When they sat next to each other in the FIA press conference on Thursday, they were ice cool. Smiling. Witty. They even shook hands for the cameras.
Both have been chilling away from the limelight too. On Thursday morning Alonso headed to Lance Armstrong’s bike shop, Mellow Johnnys, for a look before swapping helmets with his former team-mate Romain Grosjean. Vettel, meanwhile, was spotted strolling around downtown Austin with his girlfriend.
It’s almost as if the statisticians have been getting more excited about this race than the drivers. This is Vettel’s 100th grand prix (“that’s amazing; it makes you realise how quickly life passes by” - Vettel) and it’s Ferrari’s 850th Formula One start (“It’s the most famous racing team in the world” – Alonso). Alonso also comes into this race on the back of his 50th podium for Ferrari in Abu Dhabi.
The Circuit of the Americas has been well received by the drivers. Most have driven it on simulators already and all of them have now completed track walks. “It’s going to be spectacular,” says Mercedes AMG Petronas driver Nico Rosberg. “There are some really quick sections and some really technical bits as well, so it should be good fun to drive an F1 car around here. I can’t wait to get started.”
The only reservations about the layout were to do with the number of overtaking opportunities. “I think we’ll be relying on the DRS quite heavily at this race,” said Mark Webber.
It’s going to be a fascinating weekend, with a sell-out 120,000 crowd expected to watch on Sunday. Bring it on!