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Austin does its part, and F1’s on-track product needs to match

Nov 18, 2013, 1:30 PM EDT

F1 US Grand Prix Auto Racing AP

It’s a testament to the fever, passion and commitment of the more than 113,000 fans in attendance Sunday at Circuit of the Americas that they all stuck around for the entirety of the 56-lap, encore edition of the United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Because on pure product alone, there was a clear gap in the excitement department from other races at Austin this year.

I’ll use my past trip to Austin for the combined FIA World Endurance Championship/American Le Mans Series weekend in September as a reference point, although there have been three other major weekends at the track this year besides that.

The ALMS race Saturday featured more than 30 cars in five classes; two of the five class victories were in doubt for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45 minute race.

The ALMS GT class – which features an open manufacturer grid of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari, BMW and Porsche – had all five marques in contention with a Corvette co-driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia emerging victorious over a Viper and a BMW.

Meanwhile the all-Porsche GT3 Cup GTC class witnessed an intense battle between, and this still sucks to write, the late Sean Edwards and underrated Irishman Damien Faulkner. Faulkner took the win there.

And all this occurred while the faster three prototype classes were slicing through them like butter to overtake.

Sunday for six hours, the WEC event featured a chess match between the stunning Audi and Toyota LMP1 prototypes, a three or four-car battle at any time in the lower cost LMP2 ranks, and Aston Martin sweeping the GTE categories. It wasn’t stunning at all times, certainly, but it packed its action at various points, and at various corners, throughout the day.

But here’s the kicker: more fans attended Friday practice for F1 (58,276) than the entire three-day weekend for the international sports car doubleheader (33,591). F1 may still have a ways to go to achieve more mainstream coverage in the U.S., and sports car racing’s climb is even higher.

Other weekends at COTA – the MotoGP weekend, Australian V8 Supercars/Pirelli World Challenge event and GRAND-AM race – had more moments at any points. There were a number of tweets on Sunday salivating at the idea of an IndyCar race in Austin, given how well that series’ new car races on permanent road courses.

And F1 had but perhaps two or three “moments” on Sunday. What F1 packs in spades – the glamour, the exclusivity, the spectacle of the buildup on the grid, the sheer pinnacle of technology – it cannot overcome by its current on-track product after the lights go out.

Essentially, as soon as Mark Webber lost the pole to teammate Sebastian Vettel on Saturday, the race was good as decided. Vettel’s starts are flawless and Webber, who always seems to struggle off the line, was stuck on the dirty line of the track and couldn’t put the grip down. Vettel did his usual checking out once the safety car period ended and that was that, job done for an eighth straight clinical race-winning performance we’ve come to expect.

The full-time members of the F1 press corps have already lamented how most of the field on Sunday needed to conserve their tires to cope with the unexpected high temperatures, north of 85 degrees ambient. With a one-stop race and a limited window of operation for peak performance, drivers had to either go hard early in the stint on the mediums and risk them going off, or save them for later in the stint. The hards would obviously last longer, but not offer the same pace on potential. And all that made Sunday’s Grand Prix something of a dreary, processional affair at times.

Whether it’s the conservative tire choices, or the DRS (which didn’t even get that much usage on Sunday with many gaps larger than 1 second in the DRS detection zone), or the Red Bull domination at the front of the field, a race like Sunday’s will not have done more to attract the casual American fan given the available choices of viewing (Sunday’s race conflicted with NFL football and the NASCAR season finale in Homestead).

Perhaps the uncertainty of the new 2014 regulations – where reliability may be an issue – will shake things up a bit.

But from my view here, it was only the allure of a once-a-year circus and the attraction of a simply awesome city, Austin, that as many fans have turned up this weekend as did.

The track, and the city, deserve a better show in 2014. And that includes a post-race act other than Pit Bull…

  1. worknman24hours - Nov 18, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Great article, right on point as usual, Tony.

    I would add that NBC needs to do a much better job of bringing consistent professional tv coverage to the race as well.

    Read these forums and you will see they dropped the ball pretty hard this race.

    SPEEDTV did as better job on a ——much—– smaller budget for decades.

    • manik56 - Nov 18, 2013 at 5:51 PM

      I do not understand how you could say Speed did a better job than NBC Sports. It is the same on air talent and NBC has no control, nor did Speed, over the what gets on the air once the race starts.

      As for the race itself, it played out like the last nine or so races have. Vettel destroys all suspense over who will win, but the racing at the back was fantastic as always. It wasn’t a fantastic race, but it wasn’t terrible either. I believe Tony was the same guy complaining about Houston in IndyCar and I enjoyed those races. Perhaps I am easy to please, but I think Tony must really be watching NASCAR.

      • worknman24hours - Nov 18, 2013 at 7:23 PM

        Access to the races at airtime was consistent, the commentary was more consistent, the coverage was more consistent, the use of the raw feed was more consistent.

        The pre race and post race commentaries were done better and more completely ( you can’t tell the guys they have five minutes to do a fifteen minute build up or end of race wrap up).

        Notice the common word here-consistency.

        As for SPEED or NBC not having control over what gets on air that is not entirely true.

        The broadcast company at the end of the line always has control of when they break away for commercials as well as how long they stay with the content before breaking away for various other promos.

        The end broadcaster determines a great deal how the raw feed is used and how it is interpreted by the commentary crew.

        They pay for that right.

    • mega1480 - Nov 18, 2013 at 9:59 PM

      I think the problem was with the race being on NBC instead of NBCSN. The race was exposed to a larger potential audience and whenever that occurs (even when it was on FOX instead of speed) the announcers revert to F1 101 and explain the same basic stuff all over again (KERS, DRS, Seb getting that one second lead by the end of the first lap). As far as the race itself, there is a major tech change coming, Red Bull is number one, Seb is the champ and all the other teams have given up on this year to try and end Red Bulls dominance next year, I expect Brazil to be the same as the last 8 races, the real problem was when Pirelli had to change their tires after the British GP, after that it’s been all Seb. personally I look forward to next year and hopefully some unpredictability.

  2. Tony DiZinno - Nov 18, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    Workman, thanks. With respect to the TV coverage, I can only say that all sessions aired live on the different networks as was advertised, and there were possible issues in certain markets or with certain DVRs. Technical difficulties on Sunday were unexpected. Please know that we are reading comments and taking things into consideration to continue to work to improve the coverage for 2014.

    Manik, as to the Houston point, I was not “complaining” about the races themselves – they were fine except for the crash at the end of IndyCar Race 2. My weekend commentary piece after that event regarded the track preparation, how the event was organized and several extraneous issues that took place. Anytime such a piece is put out, it’s purely as an on-the-ground perspective to hopefully enlighten the readers if they were not able to attend on site. Appreciate the reading and support, regardless.

  3. elchiner0 - Nov 18, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    Uh, in Savannah (Sat’s) Qualy was bumped to 1830 hours for Olympics Trials … Curling from Fargo (ND) … which went into “Overtime” and thus moved to 1900 hrs. (Ice sports are not REALLY big on Tybee Island! [Sarchasm])

    The Q2 was cut half-way through and only the results of final Qual were shown, i.e., Seb waving at Parc Ferme. WA(B)J!

  4. albucasis - Nov 18, 2013 at 10:50 PM

    While there are satisfactory explanations for the lack of competetiveness among Red Bull’s rivals, your point is well-taken: the race itself was a snoozefest. There’s something to be said for suspense in motor racing, and there was very little of it in Sunday’s contest. A better contest is essential to attracting spectators other than gearheads and F1 junkies.
    I must say though, although I’m well-outside his target demographic, Pitbull gave a creditable performance to an enthusiastic SRO audience in the withering heat and humidity.

  5. kitnamania13 - Nov 19, 2013 at 7:58 PM

    If I knew how to write, this would be the exact article I would have turned out. The circuit is excellent. The event was extremely well-organized. The city is fantastic. Even the traffic in and out of the circuit moved surprisingly well. But the racing was terrible. There were a lot of people in the area where I was sitting who were very interested in learning more about F1, but I doubt their interest will be sustained. However, at least they didn’t throw a “debris” caution with 10 laps left.

  6. bill660 - Nov 20, 2013 at 9:27 PM

    I was at COTA, just got home and finishes watching… something. I intentionally set my dvr to record a rebroadcast of qually, thinking it a safe bet in case something happened to delay the event. I could maybe understand a delay for an Olympic Event, but Trials? Come on. Then to screw up the rebroadcast? I miss Speedvision more every weekend. They got it. NBC Sports is so way off the mark it’s amazing you get any sponsors for this quality of work. I hope the guys wearing NBC jackets at Wild Bubba’s Wild Game Grill last Thursday weren’t producers, I’d hate to think I shared a room with them.

  7. twystedwiz - Nov 25, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Have to agree, the sport has returned to the Michael-esque doldrums… But that is what happens when you remove too many variables and one team/driver are just so much better than the rest.

    They need to re-introduce fueling and they need to run on tires that won’t last any longer than 25% off the race distance. You never get to see the cars running an optimum set up anymore, it’s all about compromises, from getting a fuel bloated pig around the track to running on suspension that was set up to carry 300lbs of fuel at the end of a race when a car’s lost 25% of it’s weight. “Tire management”? What? They should be running them until they are ready to burst into flames and stop to get some more! As many as they need to get through the weekend.

    Too many races have become a parade at the front and that’s not good for anyone, even Seb and Red Bull.

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