What’s next: the United States Grand Prix

Austin – 23rd October

Since its inclusion on the schedule for the 2012 Formula One season, the purpose-built Circuit of the Americas (COTA), designed by favoured Formula One racetrack designer Hermann Tilke, has proved popular with drivers and spectators. The circuit’s signature opening corner and the proceeding fast sequence of bends running down the hill made it an instant hit with drivers, and a huge amount of work goes in to creating fan experiences and entertainment in the vast areas surrounding the track.

The 2015 US Grand Prix, in which Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his third world championship, was a thrilling spectacle with numerous overtakes and two enforced safety car periods adding to the drama. Hurricane Patricia caused a washout for the opening two days, with barely any race practice able to go ahead on the Friday or Saturday. Bobby Eptstein, the COTA founder and chairman, told the Austin-American Statesman afterwards that the 2015 race was “a financially devastating weekend for the company,” with the return of the Mexican Grand Prix, taking place on the proceeding weekend in 2015, seeing COTA suffer a drop in the number of Mexicans travelling to Austin, Texas.

“We lost millions on concessions,” Epstein said, “and we suffered from some fans having such a bad experience they won’t be back, though I hope we can change their mind.” COTA registered an attendance of 101,667 for the Sunday — down from an estimated 107,778 in 2014 and 117,429 for the inaugural 2012 race – while the total attendance was down by 13,395 to 224,011 across the three days of the 2015 Grand Prix. Some 40,000 people attended Elton John’s post-race concert, held at the Austin360 Amphitheater nestled within the track.

In the FIA’s 2016 Formula One calendar the US Grand Prix has attained only provisional status, with the race “subject to agreement between the promoter and the ASN”, the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS), due to an ongoing funding dispute between COTA and the Texas government which is casting doubt over the race’s future.

A US$250 million ten-year agreement from 2012 was signed with the track and the state government for Texas had contributed US$25 million towards the Grands Prix in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but the payment for the 2015 race was US$19.5 million – a decrease of 20 per cent.

“To use a technical term, I think we're screwed,” Epstein said. “The state clearly made promises. I think we made a deal, and we lived up to our end of the deal. It's like if you go to a restaurant and order a dinner, and then after you've eaten the meal, they change the price.”

The cut in contributions follows a Texas state government review which has concluded that Formula One doesn't generate enough money. COTA have said that the Grand Prix has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in positive economic impact since 2012 and stressed they are “hopeful Formula One will continue to race here.” Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has since admitted that the future of the race is uncertain if no additional funding can be found. “If it's changed, it's going to be difficult to continue the race in Austin,” Ecclestone said, though he has expressed hope that COTA will “solve their problems”.