In Austin they have a slogan that exhorts people to “Keep Austin Weird”. You can buy mugs, teeshirts, bumper stickers and bags that carry the logo but when you get to know the town a little it really doesn’t seem that strange a place. In fact, I’ve heard it said that it is a pretty normal place, surrounded by a very weird state. Austin only seems weird because it is different from the rest of Texas. As I was belting down I-35, the Purple Heart Trail, from Dallas to Austin at a strange hour of the morning, I was pondering this concept. The countryside is flat and not very interesting but I-35 leads you towards the city of Waco (pronounced way-ko), although I always imagined that it must be called Wacko because of some of the strange things that have taken place in the area, not least the bizarre siege in 1993 when followers of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians got into a gunfight with agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which resulted in 10 deaths and led to the siege that continued for six weeks before the compound was stormed, resulting in the deaths of 76 people.
Before you get to Waco, there’s a place called West, three miles south of which there was very briefly a pop-up town called Crush in 1896. This was named after a man called William Crush, who worked for the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad (known as the Katy).
Crush proposed that if the railroad staged a head-on crash between two locomotives, it would attract more passengers. It was a strange idea, but the Crash at Crush, as it was billed, drew an astonishing crowd of 40,000 people, which is a huge number when one considers the population of the state at the time. They happily gawped in wonder as the two steam engines hit head-on with a combined impact speed of about 90mph.
It was not such a great idea. The impact caused the boilers of the two locomotives to explode (which the railroad engineers said would not happen) and the crowd was showeried with shrapnel. Dozens were injured and three people died.
Probably there were a few folks selling lemonade who made a fortune that day.
In some respects Formula 1 fits in with this ethos of making money by attracting people to watch a show and the sport has done very well in the United States in recent years thanks to a large extent to to the Netflix F1 documentary series “Drive to Survive”.
Texans, it seems, are good at promoting things, usually by claiming that whatever is happening is the bigger than the same thing happening elsewhere. Thus it was this year as the Grand Prix claimed to be bigger than Ben Hur. I was told that it would be bigger than Austin’s two famous music festivals: Austin City Limits, which pulls in around 450,000 and South by Southwest, which claims more than 280,000 attendees. I was also told and saw reported on Wikipedia that the race would be the biggest F1 crowd ever. Basic maths suggest that both of these claims were, at best, ropey. The track has an official capacity of 120,000 and with a three-day event the largest possible number was therefore 360,000, although it was clear that while it was busy on the Friday, it was not a full house… I had a scrabble around to find out the biggest properly-recorded crowd in F1 history and, while there may have been some races that were bigger, the largest official figure is a four-day crowd in Adelaide in 1995, of 520,000 people. I was there and I can attest that it was a huge weekend.
Still, the Austin crowd was impressive and the excitement was palpable. And the race provided a great show. So much so that that on Monday, US writers were scribbling about F1 had been bigger than NASCAR during the weekend.
But it is clear that for Liberty Media, which owns the Formula 1 group, this is still the start and much of my race weekend was spent trying to track down two stories: the idea of a Grand Prix in Las Vegas, and the story of Michael Andretti trying to buy Sauber.
To be honest, I’ve been keeping an eye on Las Vegas for many years as Formula 1 is forever trying to get there. Back in the early 1980s the sport dropped in to a parking lot behind Caesars Palace. It was not a success and the idea lapsed quickly. The venue and the timing were just wrong. But in recent years the logic has switched for a number of reasons.
The primary reason is that Las Vegas now needs F1 as much as F1 would like to be in Las Vegas. Why? Well, because the visitor numbers in Sin City have been flat for almost 20 years. There were 36 million visitors a year in 2000 but it took 14 years before that number reached 40 million. The numbers peaked in 2016 at 42.9 million, but then fell back after a mass shooting took place in 2017. And then came the pandemic and the visitor numbers dived to 19 million. They have bounced back, little by little, but they are still down about 17 percent compared to 2019. The other thing is that Las Vegas has consolidated to such an extent that 18 of the 29 casinos are now owned by just two companies: MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. This means that there are fewer people involved in making such decisions. In addition the powerful Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) has recently opened a vast new $1 billion West Hall to further boost business in the city. The LVCVA is a government agency which sells the city to the world, running the Monorail system and holding the all-important conventions that keep pulling people to the city.
Formula 1 folk Stefano Domenicali and the company’s director of race promotion Chloe Targett-Adams went to Vegas is recent days for discussions and there are three circuit designs that are being discussed.I heard that there would be a delegation from Las Vegas in Austin and was on the look out for them. Sure enough, I spotted them, with Steve Hill, the CEO and President of LVCVA, leading a group of five executives. They looked rather wide-eyed at what they were seeing and what they were told.
It would obviously help if there was a US driver in Formula 1 and for a period in the days before Austin it looked like there was a real possibility of IndyCar driver Colton Herta taking part in the FP1 session in Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo. There were rumours that Herta had been seen in Switzerland having a seat fitting and a lot of folk believed that a deal would be announced during the weekend in Austin.
I was always sceptical but I do believe that there is sufficient money behind Andretti for a deal to be done… if the price is right. The problem is that the price appears to have rather too wrong for things to go ahead and as negotiations went on to lower the price, the current owner grew bored with the process and decided that he actually quite likes owning an F1 team and would not sell. At least not yet.
That is probably good thinking. The team is not doing well under his ownership, despite a lot of investment, but there is always the hope that with new rules in 2022 things will improve. Perhaps they will… perhaps not. But hope springs eternal in the hearts of F1 team owners and so we must wait and see if Alfa Romeo can get to a more acceptable level of performance. The things is that everyone thinks that they are going to leap up the order in 2022… and they cannot all be first.
Largely this will be dependent on engines and they will remain frozen in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 and so any engine manufacturer who is not in the ball park in 2022 is looking at a long haul ahead. The rule change will spread out the teams to begin with, but chassis performance will close up again in the seasons that follow and so the power unit is really the key to everything. In 2026, when there are new power units rules, and likely there will be new engine manufacturers as well, all will change, but that is still a fair way away. The fact that there are not enough teams around for sale, and that there are two slots available for an 11th and 12th team have led to the fairly logical speculation that there could be some new teams coming up, although the $200 million required to join the party is something of a block. This is needed to ensure that a new team can have immediate access to the F1 prize fund, which means that they have more chance to survive, as that money will be divided up between the teams to make up the difference in revenues if new teams get paid.
At the same time the $200 million means that there will be no time-wasters because it is a lot of money. This is also why rumoured entries from Audi and Porsche have both been rumoured to be NOT starting from scratch but rather buying teams or forging a close partnership with existing teams in need of engines.
Money is still important, of course, which is why it is interesting to see stories of Mercedes switching from Petronas to Aramco sponsorship in 2022. These are not true, but then one must ask why there is speculation. The truth is that Petronas signed a five-year extension to cover the period 2022-2025 with Mercedes as long ago as the end of 2019, but the deal was not made public at the time because of the upheavals going on in Malaysian politics. This is interesting because it shows an even stronger commitment from the Malaysians because the original deal 2010-2014 was a five-year agreement and this was followed by two three-year deals (2015-2017 and 2018-2021). The new deal is another five-year… which says it all.
There is little doubt that Aramco will probably want a sponsorship deal with a team at some point as trackside signage and title sponsorships of races work best when combined with on-car sponsorship. F1 is still very valuable to oil companies (one might say energy firms) as they seek to change perceptions as the world moves towards a greener future.
F1’s desire to adopt synthetic fuels and try to reach zero or even negative emissions in the future is attactive. At the moment there are several oil majors involved in F1 with Red Bull partnered by ExxonMobil, Ferrari with Shell, and Alpine with BP/Castrol. There are smaller deals for McLaren and Aston Martin but they could take bigger deals if they were available. And there is a lot of oil money out there which is not involved in F1. But Aramco is interested in the sport and so is the likely target for Aston Martin and McLaren, with McLaren probably the favourite after a deal was struck recently with the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – to acquire a small share of the McLaren company. So rumours of a deal with Mercedes may have been spread by parties wishing to muddy the waters. It is fair to say that teams are not unwilling to indulge in disinformation if it serves their purposes. Drive to Survive may suggest that relationships between the teams are catty but generally they all love one another. This is not true. There is some very real, and razor-sharp competition involved… and when it comes to big deals, the knives are out.
Along similar lines, there have been some interesting rumours in Australia now that it looks like the country will open up again and let F1 back in in 2022, thus reviving the Australian GP in Melbourne. One suggestion is that New South Wales will be bidding for the Australian GP contract, when the current deal ends after the 2025 race. Well, there are a couple of things that are worth noting with this story: firstly, such rumours have been around for many years and nothing has happened. Secondly, there are state elections in March 2023 and suggestions of big international events being in the pipeline can help a party win votes. The key questions are whether Formula 1 would be more interested in Sydney than in Melbourne; and whether New South Wales could actually deliver a suitebale event. Australians argue all the time about which is the better city, but I think F1 would view Sydney as a better “destination city”, if only because of the globally-known landmarks such as the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
The rumours that are floating about suggest that a street circuit could be laid out in the district known as The Rocks, at the southern end of the Harbour Bridge, with the pit and paddock being on the water front in Barangaroo, on the western side of the bridge, where the new Crown Sydney skyscraper has recently been completed. This is owned by Crown Resorts, which was involved in the Melbourne F1 race back in the 1990s to promote the Crown Casino in Melbourne. The hotel is the tallest building in Sydney and obviously wants to attract high-rollers and so might support such an event. So is it possible? Yes, perhaps. But the state would need to come up with some cash.
And while all politicians are good at talking, not all of them can find the cash to follow through…
But, one must also add, that the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the tourist business all over the world and there will be more and more cities looking at F1 as being something that will get out the message that their city is back in business.