Five years ago I attended the first U.S. Grand Prix to be held at the Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas, and I lauded in this column the exceptional fan experience as well as the track itself—from the number of vantage points from which you could see multiple segments of the course, to the vending options, to the placement of the event on the Formula 1 calendar. In October I decided to return to see how the event had evolved since 2012.
Under the new ownership of Liberty Media, Formula 1 is setting out to make its races sporting and cultural festivals, and there is no better launching pad for such a strategy than the U.S., where we specialize in over-amped sporting events. F1 brought out crowd pleasers in Austin, including Usain Bolt as race starter and post-match interviewer, Bill Clinton as trophy presenter, a marching band, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the inimitable announcer Michael Buffer, who did Vegas-style individual introductions of the 20 drivers.
It is perhaps no surprise that the winner was the driver who most embraced the turbocharged atmosphere, Lewis Hamilton. He has now won five of the six F1 events in Austin. “I think they just made the Super Bowl here,” he said. “I think the entertainment was the best we’ve seen. The whole setup—it was great to see something different.” Runner-up Sebastian Vettel had a slightly different reaction when asked if the atmosphere might be recreated next season at Hockenheimring, a track in his native Germany. “I think Americans appreciate that sort of atmosphere and entertainment a lot more,” he said. “I think Germans may be a little slower on that front.”
The 2017 event also had the sizzle of Justin Timberlake performing on Saturday night and Stevie Wonder giving a post-race concert on Sunday evening—an appropriate reflection of the generational range of the F1 fans in Austin. Justin and Stevie, however, may not have had much on the star power of the post-race podium, which in addition to Hamilton, Vettel, Bolt and Clinton, featured former F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen. (There’s a joke in there somewhere—“Three F1 champs, a U.S. president and the world’s fastest man walk onto a podium . . .”)
Hamilton would go on to capture his fourth F1 title the following week in Mexico City. That means that next year, for the first time, two drivers who each have won four F1 championships will compete against each other—Hamilton and Vettel. We are in Federer and Nadal territory here.
A high-ranking F1 official called the Austin leg of the circuit one of the top five events of the season, impressive given the legendary stops around the world. His view is shared by Hamilton. Even from the speed of his F1 car, Hamilton notices the Austin crowds—particularly heading into Turn 1 and Turn 12. “That makes you feel like you’re in the most exciting arena,” he said. “I think this track is now my favorite track, to be honest.” It would be harder to find a stronger endorsement.
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.