Formula One's return to the US a gamble

Last updated 05:00 18/11/2012

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The suits in the normally sober business meeting could not help themselves. When news was delivered that the first Formula One jumbo jet had touched down in Austin, Texas, there was a spontaneous outburst of applause and cheering.

The question facing the organisers of the revived United States Grand Prix is whether they will be cheering when the sport has packed up and left after the race tomorrow.

F1 is America's sporting Marmite, a taste never quite fully understood or appreciated in the US. The sport has come and gone, shrugging its collective shoulders with frustration that the Americans never somehow "got" the most technologically sophisticated form of motor racing in the world, preferring Nascar, a race series based on bulky cars with all the styling of a tank, and which have only this season exchanged carburettors for fuel injection systems that have been in the most basic family cars for years.

F1's timing is impeccable, returning after a gap of five years to try to convert a resistant American public on the same weekend as Nascar's championship reaches its finale.

The stakes are already high enough because the race at the Circuit of the Americas, the only purpose-built F1 track in the US, is a NZ$490 million gamble.

Austin is hardly the first location that the world might associate with a global sporting event, but the city, with a population of more than 800,000, is throwing itself into F1 with as many bells and whistles as the city fathers can muster, because this is their break into the international sporting big time.

The 12 F1 teams are bracing themselves for the biggest race weekend of their year, with several entertaining hundreds of guests for their biggest corporate bonanza of the season. Even the British embassy has sprung into action with a "Best of Britain" showcase for movers and shakers, and the fans are not forgotten with free street parties and some of Hollywood's star names expected to join the celebrations.

And F1 promises a show-stopping race, with Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso going head to head for the world championship in the Lone Star state. Julie Loignon, vice-president of public relations, says the race is a 120,000-seat sellout, with 300,000 people in Austin over the weekend to enjoy the festivities.

"Formula One is global and will focus the world's attention on Austin for one weekend. That will be an economic generator for the city and we hope will establish Austin as the home of Formula One in America."

This race is based on high-rolling numbers: F1 could be worth as much as $268m to the state of Texas, with Austin reaping more than $15.5m of the spending that surrounds every grand prix, from hotel bookings to restaurant takings. But the circuit is a $490m investment and the state is yet to come good on a pledge to help with an annual $29m handout to cover F1's enormous costs.

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The grandstands will be full of spectators happy to pay between $195 and $582 for their tickets, while the corporate seats - $5630 in the famous Paddock Club for three days of champagne and fine food - are full this weekend. But India, Korea, Malaysia and plenty more grands prix new to the F1 calendar have discovered the danger of the one-year wonder.

The challenge for the Circuit of the Americas is to sustain the interest for the next decade of its contract, and that means convincing millions of sports' fans in America that F1 has changed.

A successful US Grand Prix is crucial, too, for the sponsors and manufacturers whose names decorate the $1.94m mobile advertising billboards that will race tomorrow (NZ time).

Norbert Haug, president of all motor sport activity for Mercedes-Benz, which sells more than 250,000 cars a year in the US, said: "It is an important step to return to the United States for our sport and its image. The US is the biggest market for Mercedes-Benz cars in terms of sales and a race in the US belongs in a world championship."

Mercedes was big enough to survive the fallout, but those with long and bitter memories will remember F1 as a villainous, grasping sport run out of town as America tired of its self-interest and internal squabbling.

It is a charge that is difficult to deny at any time, but particularly after F1's brief revival at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which ended in 2007.

F1 could not have done much more to ruin its image if it had borrowed a Colt 45 from a passing cowboy and shot itself in both feet. The debacle of 2005, when only six cars took part as the sport erupted in a pathetic internecine war over tyres, will take a long time to erase from the minds of the American public.

But the Circuit of the Americas will also have its own problems to deal with long after the jumbo jets are packed again and F1 heads to Brazil for the final race of the season. The Austin race almost never happened because of internal squabbling among the organisers, fierce opposition from taxpayers and financial problems.

Now there are outstanding legal actions to be settled with Tavo Hellmund, the race founder who was ousted from the management company, and Kevin Shwantz, a former world motorcycle champion, who claims he also has been pushed aside.

The Austin promoters were also less than delighted when Bernie Ecclestone, F1's chief executive, announced out of the blue that there would be a second race in the US, this time in New Jersey. That race has been ditched under a welter of doubt, leaving Austin as America's sole representative on the F1 calendar, which is why tomorrow's race has to be a success.

THE TIMES

- Sunday Star Times

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