Stars and strife: Formula One in America

Formula One returns to America this weekend after a five-year break – and it's more desperate than ever to woo a reluctant audience.

There is plenty at stake at this confluence of cattle and oil. Austin is the portal through which Formula One launches what is effectively a last crack at the sport's final frontier; America. The return to the Lone Star state evokes memories of Nigel Mansell collapsing in 100 degree heat following a mad attempt to heave his Lotus across the line after running out of juice. The staging of the Dallas race in 1984 was a typically entrepreneurial stab at making a success of the sport in the United States after Watkins Glen had run its course in 1980. It failed like all the others because it couldn't make a buck out of the pageant.

In the post-Mansell era, the growing reliance on technology as a unique selling point was thought not to chime with an American audience demanding something easier to digest, like overtaking. The absence of thrills and spills combined with the colossal expense of Bernie Ecclestone's commercial scheme drove the pinnacle of motorsport from its biggest potential market.

They tried and failed in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Long Beach. They poured £75m into Indianapolis, adding a Formula One track configuration that embraced a part of the Brickyard's famous oval.

After eight years, including a catastrophic 2005, when seven teams went from the parade lap to the pits following a safety row concerning Michelin tyres, the owners gave up the unequal struggle, leaving the field clear for Nascar to mop up racing weekends.

At an estimated cost of $25m (£17m) a pop to host a race, turning a profit has not been possible for independent promoters. The same thumping economic squeeze has seen F1 retreat from its European heartland, too. France, where road racing began a hundred years ago, has quit the scene. San Marino and Austria, too. The Nürburgring and Hockenheim share the German race and Spain is split between Barcelona and Valencia.

Somehow Silverstone has clung on. Belgium and Italy as well. Canada comes and goes. Australia wrestles with the project. Only the state-backed ventures on F1's new frontier make a fist of it, and that as a result of writing down the losses as an investment to raise global profiles. So Malaysia, China, Singapore, India, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and South Korea raid the national purse to promote their countries on the international stage. Russia and Mexico are said to be next in line for the F1 makeover.

The exotically-named Circuit of the Americas is the first purpose-built F1 venue in North America and cost a whopping £250m to build 15 miles from the gates of Austin. This being Texas the largest investor goes by the marvellous moniker Red McCombs. The big idea is for the facility to drive the local economy to the tune of £3bn over a 10-year cycle through a variety of motor sport staples, the highlight of which is tomorrow's inaugural F1 Grand Prix.

According to Jenson Button they could be off to a flier with a circuit earning early plaudits. "Indy was an interesting circuit and the venue was spectacular but it wasn't built for us," Button said. "We need a circuit that has more high-speed corners where you can really show off what an F1 car is capable of. Turn 2 to turn 8 is spectacular, with the change of direction. If you're watching there, you will see an F1 car on the edge. It's very special to see that."

The presence of the sport in the land of the dollar is a no-brainer for the car manufacturers and sponsors involved. An agreement to keep the race in Austin for 10 years ought to be time enough to make the experiment work. There may even be a second race in New Jersey across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

For its part, F1 must challenge old prejudices by enhancing the spectacle. The introduction of sporting Pirelli tyres designed to fail helped no end at the start of the season, though the teams have cracked the code of late. The addition of DRS (drag reduction system) zones, which permit the use of aerodynamic devices to aid overtaking, is another innovation aimed at creating excitement.

Eternal optimist and team principal at McLaren, Martin Whitmarsh, believes F1 has the balance right to lure the American viewer. "I've always maintained Formula One's presence in the United States is crucial. So I'm personally pleased and satisfied we're back in America after spending far too long away from its shores.

"On a wider level, the arrival of a state-of-the-art, purpose-built grand prix track is perfect for Formula One. This is a golden opportunity for the sport to finally put down roots and find a long-term home, here. From a business perspective, too, we are in the right place at the right time.

"America is such a vast market, and it's such a car market – they love motor cars in North America, and I think we've got a product that's very different to Nascar but ought to be able to conquer America. I think there's a great challenge but also a great opportunity. We need North America more than it needs us, and therefore we've got to be prepared to work at it, adapt the sport if necessary, but make sure we do everything we can so we can appeal to the American market."

The season has reduced to a two-way duel between championship leader Sebastien Vettel and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, with Lewis Hamilton the random variable capable of turning a weekend on its head as long as his McLaren remains in one piece. A fuel pump failure at the last race in Abu Dhabi, where he led from pole, cost Hamilton what would have been a dominant victory. In Singapore a faulty gearbox stole from him another shot at the chequered flag.

Vettel leads the championship by 10 points and could secure a third successive drivers' crown this weekend to move alongside Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Jack Brabham in the F1 hall of fame.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot