For many, Formula One racing is considered the motorsports beacon of glamour. Nowhere else are such exorbitant numbers of dollars allocated, such heightened levels of engineering explored, and such exotic locales designated officially sanctioned circuits. Formula One stinks of sophistication, and its fans love it for that.
Naturally, then, Travis County, Texas, wasn’t where anybody expected Formula One’s United States Grand Prix to reconvene after the series’ five-year North American hiatus.
Located just outside of Austin and designed by German architect Hermann Tilke, the man responsible for shaping nearly every other Formula One circuit over the past decade, Texas’ Circuit of the Americas—or COTA, for short—is made up of 20 turns dispersed along its 3.4-mile course that’s marked by elevation changes from end to end. On November 18, 2012, nearly two-and-a-half years after the track’s proposal, COTA welcomed the first ever Grand Prix in U.S. history to happen on a racetrack purpose-built for Formula One racing.
Until now, United States Grand Prix were relegated to circuits of which the machines of Formula One were never meant to be associated with, like upstate New York’s Watkins Glen, which hosted the event for two decades but ultimately put an end to it all in 1980 amid the track’s deteriorating, bumpy surface that resulted in driver complaints and safety concerns. Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix, and others also received the series with open arms over the years, of which some have only recently managed to disassociate themselves from unfortunate turns of events, like Phoenix’s humdrum circuit with its wide and long straights and slow, 90-degree turns that had spectators taking naps in its grandstands.
All of which makes COTA and the 1,500 acres that it occupies the special place that it is. The grounds encompass more than the FIA-certified Grade 1 circuit, which also hosts MotoGP, the FIA World Endurance Championship, and the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, and has previously welcomed American Le Mans as well as the Rolex Sports Car series. The Austin360 amphitheater sits at the base of the 25-story-tall observation tower that looms over the grounds and offers panoramic views of the circuit nestled up alongside Turn 17. In just three years, the facilities have also lent themselves to everything from skateboarders and BMXers and their stops along the X Games tour to Willie Nelson concerts.
But you don’t care about McTwists and outlaw country as much as you do the European-style circuit, which is different than American tracks that are typically tighter and narrower. Here, COTA’s accentuated with 133 feet worth of elevation gains and drops that follow the land’s natural topography, some of which can dramatically unload chassis upon entry and exit. Blind corners carefully positioned followed by the track’s signature, tight, hairpin turn and liberal track width around corners, as well as a series of esses, a switchback, and a near-90-degree corner at Turn 19 that’s already resulted in all sorts of spinouts and off-track excursions, make COTA among the most technical tracks ever for drivers.
The course is unique to COTA, but inspiration was clearly drawn from other points on the circuit, like a recreation of Silverstone’s sweeping Maggots, Becketts, and Chapel curves at turns 3 through 6, Istanbul’s Park’s multi-apex Turn 8, and corners that were said to be, perhaps only loosely, based upon the Senna S at Interlagos. All of this means that watching a Grand Prix here as opposed to just about anyplace else is a whole lot more rousing. Unlike North American tracks that are often characteristic of its drivers following single but proven lines and striking the widest radii possible about turns, COTA results in different paths for different cars, pushing both driver and machine to their limits and ensuring nap-free zones remain enforced in the grandstands.
The story of COTA isn’t one without controversy, though. No sooner than construction began to take shape did management begin to fall apart. Funding delays and internal disagreements between promotors and investors led to Formula One president Bernie Ecclestone offering an ultimatum: figure all of this out by next month or forget about remaining on the F1 calendar. Construction halted briefly but it was later brought to light that a deal had been struck directly between investors and Ecclestone, which led to the project’s completion in September, 2012.
Two months later and the spectacle that is Formula One had arrived and, today, drivers and teams continue to praise the circuit as one of the most impressive to be constructed in recent history. Right in the middle of the last place you’d expect.
Words by Aaron Bonk