Formula One at Circuit of the Americas
Formula One at Circuit of the Americas
For those who are not passionate about cars or auto racing, the words Formula One (F1) may sound dull. But to anyone with a base knowledge of the race, F1 is the pinnacle of automotive track racing. The competition is run on circuits, which frequently include city streets blocked off for those few days when the race is operated, located in different cities around the world. It’s hard to say Monaco without adding Grand Prix; the race has been run there since 1929. To car fans, F1 means crowds, excitement and sound, which to the faithful is the siren’s song to come forth and be entertained. It also means serious money, as the teams which field these incredible machines are often expending north of $200 million each year on average for the cars and the support staff. It’s also rumored to have cost at least one team over $400 million. Let’s not forget the drivers who guide this land-based missile (215 mph at top speed) — that total can include salaries that range up to and above $30 million per year plus bonuses!
Although Formula One was the evolution of the Grand Prix races, run in Europe since the 1920s, Formula One itself was a post-war creation, where the cars had to conform to a specific formula (power, weight, size, engine displacement, etc.) to compete. Today, F1 races are for ten teams (like McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, etc.), each fielding two cars and, of course, two drivers, who compete with each other (including intra-team competition) for the win in each race and the annual World Championship. The winner is decided based upon a points system over 22 races held worldwide each year in countries including Australia, Bahrain, Vietnam and China. There is one US stop in Austin, Texas, at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), a terrific purpose-built venue, which opened in 2012. The races are run from mid-March until late November. Based on the wins and top showings in the races so far this year, Lewis Hamilton will be crowned the 2019 driving champion as he has an unbeatable lead in points. As of this article, the World Constructors’ Championship is not yet determined, but Mercedes (Hamilton’s team) is in the lead, ahead of Ferrari, Red Bull Racing Honda and McLaren Renault.
But let’s say you’ve been to some car races and wonder what makes F1 such a big deal. As someone who’s been to many types of races — and has driven in drag races as well as participated in dozens of track days — comparing F1 to other types of racing is somewhat like comparing a single-engine Cessna to flying a fighter jet. F1 cars can accelerate from zero to 100 mph and come to a complete stop in under five seconds. The race tracks vary greatly, from 2.5 miles to about 4.5 miles long. The COTA track has 20 turns, ranging from slight, high-speed curves to almost 180-degree corners. The top speed the cars hit can go past 200 mph, but this is not a “flat-out” race — straights, bends, curves and other obstacles make up all F1 courses, so the car with the highest top speed is not always the winner.
The sound of the F1 race is part of the thrill. Up until recently, cars seemed louder each year. Then, with changes in the engines, the use of hybrids and other factors, the sound evolved. One commentator noted that the frequency range of the F1 exhaust sound was similar to that of a human scream. The sound is a combination of a wail and a vibration, and it’s an unforgettable, visceral sensation. While it’s not been proven, I believe that experiencing an F1 race up close will result in modest weight loss due to the vibrations coming from the sound.
A series of F1 races are conducted over a period of time and called the Formula One World Championship season. Each race in this season is called a Grand Prix. One can experience a Grand Prix in many ways, whether through live television coverage or attending a race in person. Prior to the main event on Sunday, there are two days of associated events including practice sessions, qualifying sessions, races of non-F1 cars and additional race-related entertainment. Depending on which venue you attend, a general admission ticket gets you in the gate with the opportunity to picnic on the grass and watch the action for about $180. There are single-day tickets available and the price increases depending on the package. You can get bleacher seats with elevated benches, stadium seats or trackside packages with food and beverages included. Or, elevate your experience and opt for the Paddock Club, which features air-conditioned suites along pit row, where the garages are located. See where the cars come in during the race for tire changes and pit stops. The Club suites all have an inside area with a constant supply of food and beverages and come complete with outside seating. The suites are located directly above the pits and within a close distance to the starting grid and finish line.
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Thanks to McLaren, my son Jay and I were able to experience the US Grand Prix at COTA. It was a luxe experience, a lifetime memory for all, especially those who love cars and racing.
The McLaren suite is similar to the dozen or so executive suites in the Paddock Club building. It is equipped with table linens, china plates, terrific food, big-screen televisions and a giant-screen closed-circuit TV with knowledgeable and entertaining commentators explaining the action, the strategy, the successes and the failures of the weekend’s events. We enjoyed the live commentary from McLaren F1 experts in the suite and the garage, connected by closed-circuit television, giving us an up-close-and-personal experience. Before the race, we were able to walk along the pit lane, spend time in the McLaren garage and ask questions of the knowledgeable team members.
There’s electricity in the air as the days of practice near an end and the qualifying laps determine the driver’s position on the starting grid. All of this excitement adds to the drama of the event. The McLaren handlers were there to answer questions in the suite and garage and found fun adventures for us to do each night. During the three-day experience from Thursday to Sunday, the handlers also sprinkled in visits from McLaren luminaries (designers, engineers, drivers) and added impressive videos in between live-action events.
Expenses aside, to experience the preliminaries and then the race itself, the question remains – was it worth it? To my son and myself, it was a perfect trip. The grandeur of a race with century-old roots and the very best in terms of performance was enchanting. With top-quality drivers, racing machines created by the most sophisticated constructors and backed by the most brilliant minds that the industry has to offer — it’s worth trying out at least once in your life.
Tim is the Fine Autos Editor of Haute Living, Haute Time, Haute Residence and Haute Auto magazines and online