10 Things to Know About Formula 1

Vroom-vroom! Austin becomes an alternate universe this weekend, as the United States Grand Prix debuts.

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Circuit of Americas | Keith Brizzo

For the next three days, Austin is an alternate sports universe. While the rest of the state (and country) will be be focused on Baylor vs. top-ranked Kansas State or the Texans’ and the Cowboys’ games, a worldwide audience will watch the United States Grand Prix–an estimated 120,000 in person and millions more on TV. It is the first-ever Formula 1 race to take place at the Circuit of Americas, just 15 miles southwesteast of Austin. Here are some things you want to know about the F1 scene.

For two years, most of the F1 coverage was about money . . . and lawsuits over money, and state-provided money, and the sport’s well-monied clientele.

Organizers have suggested that the USGP is a plum for host cities that's on par with the Super Bowl, and as with the NFL's big game, it seems to be a high-dollar party (24-karat gold champagne!) and networking bonanza first, and a sporting event second.

But the football game still matters, and so will the auto race. F1's season title is still very much at stake; the USGP is the second-to-last race of the year, with Germany's Sebastian Vettel currently leading Spain's Fernando Alonso in the standings by 10 points (a topic we'll revisit later).

So what's the racing itself like? Eric Mores of ESPN the Magazine sums it up:

If Nascar is the NFL of motorsports in the United States, Formula One is more like soccer. While Americans prefer the knock-the-other-guy-into-next-week sport, the rest of the world goes crazy for a nuanced game in which minuscule differences in strategy and execution decide the outcome.

Mores notes that new rules have made F1 more "wheel-to-wheel" like NASCAR, while also introducing greater parity, with eight different first-place finishers so far this season (last year there were only four at this point in the schedule).

That's the biggest difference between F1 and other types of racing, as Matt Hardigree of Jalopnik told me for a New York Times/Texas Monthly story way back in July of 2011.

That article continued:

Unlike NASCAR’s oval, F1 tracks have turns and elevation changes, but less passing and less crashing. Like Indy, F1 is open-wheel racing, not the more popular stock car action. But F1 is a Mac compared to Indycar's PC—more proprietary technology, more speed, more money.

“The great thing about Formula One that I think Texans will love is that it is really fast, really loud racing,” Hardigree said. “I think that what they won’t be used to is the fact that Americans suck at it.” (Phil Hill, in the 1960s, and Mario Andretti, in the 1970s, are the only American drivers to win F1 championships.)

And by "interesting," we mean there could be early crashes. Last month at the Japanese Grand Prix, several drivers were "retired" during the first lap.

That kind of thing could happen here in Texas because, as Auto Week put it, "no team has yet turned a wheel in anger here." So nobody is sure what to expect. And that's especially true given the Circuit of Americas' signature feature, Turn 1.

As the Associated Press explained, the course is "notable for a 133-foot elevation heading into first turn, which means the cars will immediately descend from that height into the second turn. And because it's a new track, the surface is expected to be slippery."

There have been nine other F1 sites in the United States, including New York's Watkins Glen for many years, and, most recently, Indianapolis's Brickyard, which last held an F1 race in 2007 (though the Circuit of Americas is the "first purpose-built" Grand Prix facility in the U.S.")

Maurice Hamilton of ESPNF1 recalls the 1984 United States Grand Prix:

In 1984, F1 visited Dallas; an extraordinary weekend in more ways than one. The heat in July was overpowering but the biggest victim was the track, a temporary but extremely challenging affair fringed by the usual concrete blocks and surfaced with a material that could not cope with high temperatures and the torque of F1 engines. The timetable was such that the warm-up (a standard feature of race day) was held at 7am and prompted Jacques Laffite to arrive dressed in pyjamas as he made his way down the pit lane on a golf buggy.

The novelty value of the weekend stretched to a barbecue at South Fork and characters from 'Dallas' turning up at the race. As the TV stars sat in their air-conditioned boxes, they must have thought F1 people mad as they went racing in 100 deg F. But there was to be drama aplenty with the brave Nigel Mansell collapsed in a heap while trying to push his stricken Lotus across the finishing line. The final act starred the promoter when he made off with the cash box and was never seen again. And neither was the race.

Mexican F1 fans are expected to make up as much as 20% of the USGP crowd, a potential economic boon for San Antonio as well as Austin, and a rare treat for Perez, who hails from Guadalajara.

"It’s the closest one I have ever raced in the last eight, nine years in my life, so I expect to have a lot of support here," he told the press on Thursday, as Autoweek reported.

Austin will have not one but two impromptu helipads this weekend, one downtown on the roof of the Embassy Suites, and another off of Mopac, much to the chagrin of residents who live nearby. The Austin city council has already promised to have more restrictions on F1 chopper traffic in the future.

As Michael King of the Austin Chronicle wrote, city council member Kathie Tovo "said the schedule of flights this weekend is 'far out of scale with what is reasonable.'"

To be clear, all these helicopters are necessary not to bring in people from more distant places. Rather, they are what F1 bigshots & well-heeled fans will use to get from Austin to the track, less than 15 miles away.

(What, you want they ride the bus? Or sit in traffic in a limousine?)

While the Circuit of Americas failed at its original plan to get state Major Event Trust Fund money, which it had hoped to use to pay Formula 1's sanctioning fee, up front, it still expects to go after those dollars (which would technically flow from the state to the city of Austin).

As John Maher of the Austin American-Statesman wrote:

Bobby Epstein, the circuit’s chairman, said ticket sales are doubly important because of the Major Events Trust Fund, a state fund that’s expected to be tapped by the circuit after the F1 race. Basically, the circuit could be eligible for state funds based on the increased tax revenue generated by the race weekend. The fewer people who come to the event and Austin, the less tax money those visitors are likely to generate and the less the circuit would be likely to receive from the fund.

Or so Dutch Mandel of Auto Week, who once told Austin to "run away" from F1 and its majordomo Bernie Ecclestone, explained in a Q&A with Ecclestone conducted earlier this year (but just published this week).

"Austin is not the stereotypical Texas; it's a very different and interesting part of the world," Mandel said, leading to the following exchange:

BE: Do you think it is a Formula One part of the world?

AW: Yes, I do. I think Austin is different; it is Texas, but it is not Texas. With the university there, it has a multi-cultural vibe to it—restaurants, food and entertainment. It is avant-garde in that sense. It's the most avant-garde city probably in the American south.

BE: Big events seem to go down good there.

AW: They certainly do; there are plenty of music events there and the University of Texas is there. They like that a lot.

BE: Well, I hope we fit in.

But it would take a poor performance from Alonso.

As Tyler Pratt and Wells Dunbar of KUT explained, F1's system awards 25 points to the winner of a race, with the second through ninth-place finishers getting between 15 and 1 points on a sliding scale.

With Vettel currently leading Alonso by 10 points, he can clinch the championship by increasing his total lead to 25.

But that means that even with a first-place finish, Vettel would need Alonso to come in at fifth or lower, and, as David Bean of The Checkered Flag noted, that's unlikely. In the past seven races, the Spaniard has finished second twice and third three times, with two races unfinished.

Wrote Bean:

Based on the results from the last seven races, the only way that Alonso will not finish on the podium is if he retires altogether. Unless Alonso is to fall victim to some reliability problem, or is shunted out of the race, Vettel, in all likelihood, will have to wait until the final race in Brazil to claim his crown.

Some practical advice from a Jalopnik commenter.

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