Formula One's first Grand Prix in the United States for five years will be remembered as a big success. Despite a fraught early build-up, construction of the US$400 million Circuit of the Americas – the first purpose-built Formula One facility in the US – was completed well in time for its Grand Prix debut and the sport, by all accounts, received a hospitable welcome to Texas and the city of Austin.
The impressive final ticketing totals saw 265,499 fans attend over the three days of the meeting, with 65,360 on Friday, 82,710 for qualifying on Saturday and an impressive 117,429 through the gates for the race.
Circuit chairman Bobby Esptein called it “a remarkable experience”, while Pirelli threw in a special touch for the local crowd by handing branded stetsons to the top three finishers to wear on the podium – hats off to them for that.
While Austin – or much of it anyway – was certainly enthused by Formula One's arrival, the sport's wider penetration in the United States remains a distant goal.
In New York, the world's largest media market, for example, there was no sign at all of Formula One over the weekend. On television, too, it was hard to find any evidence of a Grand Prix taking place in the country, with the race tucked away on the Speed Channel in amongst blanket coverage of the Nascar season finale.
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As impressive as the crowd numbers at the Circuit of the Americas were, potential US sponsors and investors in the sport are looking for rather more than a quarter of a million eyeballs. In the baffling absence of any centralised Formula One marketing strategy designed to promote growth in the States (or any new or tricky market for that matter), it appears the onus will fall on NBC, which begins a multi-year deal to broadcast the sport in the United States next year, to give Formula One the promotional push towards the mainstream it so clearly needs.
When it comes to marketing, Formula One often places itself in a rather lofty position. It was really no great surprise, then, given the sport's propensity for shooting itself in the foot, to see the US Grand Prix clash directly with the conclusion to the Jimmie Johnson-Brad Keselowski Nascar Sprint Cup title battle at Homestead, in Miami.
An unfortunate one-off? It seems not, for next year's provisional Formula One calendar also places the US Grand Prix on the same day as the final round of the Sprint Cup.
“Nascar draws a huge, huge audience, both in attendance and in television so we've given ourselves a bit of a challenge there, I think,” was how McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh put it on Friday. He can say that again.
New signal at Vodafone
Lewis Hamilton's superb charge to victory in Texas helped keep the world championship battle alive and ensured that McLaren's tranche of sponsors received plenty of television time during the race. For the US Grand Prix the team's title sponsor, Vodafone replaced its own logo with those of Verizon Wireless, of which Vodafone owns a 45 per cent stake.
Speculation, however, still persists that Vodafone will withdraw from its longstanding US$75 million-a-year title sponsorship deal with McLaren, or perhaps downgrade its deal. Might the exit of Hamilton, who has one race left with McLaren, provide a neat break-point for all parties?