2012 United States Grand Prix
The major difference between F1′s tenth attempt at holding a race in America and those which have gone before is that in the Circuit of the Americas it now has a dedicated, purpose-built venue for Formula One racing.
Drivers have praised the track which already looks among the best recent addition to the calendar. Its impressive gradient, high-speed corners and ample character make it a venue worthy of a round of the world championship.
Since F1′s return to America was announced, some F1 teams have visited the USA for promotional activities. Red Bull visited Austin (as well as the planned venue of the postponed 2013 race at New Jersey) and McLaren did an event with Lewis Hamilton and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.
There is plenty to be positive about in F1′s latest attempt to crack the American market.
F1 needs more than just a good track and an annual presence in America to gain major national recognition there. While local media have given considerable coverage to Austin’s race, it seems to have registered little more than a ripple country-wide.
Caterham’s American test driver Alexander Rossi gave some perceptive views on why F1 struggles to win widespread popularity in America: “Part of what makes F1 so special is the exclusivity and the mystery but at the same time that is the one thing that repels Americans the most.
“In NASCAR and IndyCar you can go into the paddock and the drivers are more human, they’re more approachable. Americans quite like to feel that they can be close to the people that they’re supporting but in F1 it’s very much an exclusive sport and the drivers are very much on a pedestal.”
F1 has made life more difficult for itself by scheduling its American round of the championship on the same weekend as the last round of the NASCAR championship. “We’re not involved in setting the calendar,” said Martin Whitmarsh at the team principals’ press conference yesterday, adding: “I think it appears to be a bit unfortunate.”
Nor had they realised that the FIA’s provisional calendar for 2013 has the Austin race clashing with the same NASCAR round. “To be honest I have to say that I didn’t know about that,” admitted Stefano Domenicali.
F1 needs to be realistic about what it can achieve in America. It is unlikely to ever be able to rival the likes of NASCAR, even if America’s most popular form of motor sport has declined slightly in popularity in recent years.
Formula One already has a small but significant following in the USA. Americans are the second-largest group of visitors to F1 Fanatic by country and more people turned up to watch the first day of practice at COTA than for race day at Yas Marina. But there’s clearly a long way to go to make this a sport with major national recognition in America.
The teams who have made the most effort to promote F1 in America are those with sponsors connecting them to it: It’s a huge market for Red Bull and McLaren’s lubricant supplier Mobil 1. But where is the initiative from Formula One Management and the FIA to promote Formula One in this vital market which it has repeatedly failed to crack?
So far this year I have received 1,050 emails from NASCAR. The 1,051st dropped into my inbox shortly after I began writing this article. In contrast I’ve had perhaps a few dozen from the FIA about F1. And it’s not as if I run a site called NASCAR Fanatic.
NASCAR and IndyCar are so far ahead of Formula One when it comes to communication it’s embarrassing. The uptake of social media such as Twitter by F1 in recent years has been encouraging but again this initiative is coming from the teams, not FOM or the FIA.
The teams are doing what they can and COTA are straining every sinew to make the event a success, but I don’t see a fraction of that effort from the sport’s governing body or commercial rights holder. That has always been F1′s problem and there’s no sign it has changed.
Do you think F1′s tenth attempt at breaking America will be a success?
If you’re in America, have you seen any coverage of the race weekend? Have your say in the comments.
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Images © COTA/Rizzo, Tom Pennington/Getty