Why Your First Formula 1 Grand Prix Won't Be Your Last

Before attending the 2015 United States Grand Prix, I was probably best categorized as a casual Formula One fan. I would occasionally catch a Grand Prix on TV when I was in college, but my relatively limited F1 knowledge meant I was usually cheering for whichever driver was favored for that particular season. Things changed when I took a trip down to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. All it took was a few seconds of experiencing the fury of a full-throttle flyby in person to convert a casual fan into a certified F1 nut.

Enjoying a Grand Prix in person is no feat for shallow pockets. Even with only general admission, food and drinks can push a simple $100 entry fee to well above $200. Move upward in the admission chain, and the experience becomes steadily more exclusive and decidedly more pricey. In this regard, aside from sneaking into the pit garage itself, there isn’t a better and more exclusive way to enjoy the USGP than in the F1 Paddock Club, where the one percent of the one percent come to party, Formula One style. Thanks to Shell, which provides racing fuel for the Ferrari F1 team, I was able to sample the fabulous Ferrari Paddock Club myself.

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Ferrari Paddock Club members were treated to perks including personal visits from test drivers and team officials, who talked about their plans and expectations for the upcoming race. It’s not as if the moneyed crowd needed convincing to root for the Prancing Horse, however, as we were deep in the heart of Tifosi territory. Rifle through the pockets of the gathered fans of the Ferrari paddock club, and you would have enough Ferrari keys to open up your own secondhand supercar dealership.

Team loyalty runs extremely deep in the F1 crowd. Navigate through the stream of fans, and each appears to be a walking billboard of sponsorship, with team jerseys and jackets adorned with fuel and tire logos. Diehard Hamilton and Mercedes fans looked sleek in their Petronas silver livery, while supporters of Infiniti-Red Bull Racing stood out in their dark blue and red jackets.

Formula 1 isn’t just a spectacle for the hardcore fans, as it serves as a large draw for personalities and celebrities alike. Since only one race occurs in the U.S., attendees have just one opportunity to see their motorsports heroes in action. Celebrities come from around the world and every background. I was lucky enough to share a shuttle ride with Lotus-fanboy and actor Matt LeBlanc, and on Friday I ran into racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart.

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As for the racing itself, the atmosphere didn’t play along. Austin was plagued with torrential downpours for the first two days of the three-part race, with a heavily delayed and short-lived practice session on Friday. The weather was just as uncooperative on Saturday, when a deluge forced the entire qualifying session to be pushed back to Sunday morning, right before the actual race.

As is traditionally the case, two support races were held between F1 event. The wonderful Formula One Historic Masters race was held over the course of three days, which included vintage F1 cars from between the years of 1966 through 1985. The cars, which were all powered by the same Cosworth 3.0-liter DFV V-8 engine, screamed as they cut through the flooded track behind the Mercedes-AMG GT S safety car. Unfortunately, conditions were so treacherous that the safety car never left the track, and the race was canned before we saw the vintage F1 cars strut their stuff.
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Fortunately, we got to see the entire Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup series race on Sunday. The Supercup series is a field of mechanically-identical 911 GT3 Cup cars, placing emphasis purely on driver ability. The Mobil 1 Supercup exists solely as an F1 support race, and according to Porsche, has “flourished” in this environment.

The F1 cars themselves are an incredible experience, which really struck me when I was upstairs in the Ferrari Paddock Club as one of the F1 cars launched from right outside the pits. I couldn’t see it, but I felt the vibration and heard the howl of the 1.6-liter turbocharged V-6 spin up as it staged at the end of the pit. Longtime F1 fans claim the sound of the turbo cars is a massive letdown compared to the bygone V-8 and V-10 glory days, but for my first race, it sounded special to me.

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The race itself was blessedly dry, with light rain stopping by midday. While most teams were prepared for the rain with aero and suspension parts configured for wet weather, some teams hedged their bets on the track drying out quickly enough that they could get away with a dry-weather setup. Still, despite the rain stopping before the green flag, the track still had standing water at parts and the cars all started the race with full-wet tires. With the specially designed full-wet weather tires and aero kits, the cars spit out large rooster-tails of mist as they screamed down the straights.

The teams eventually switched to full slicks as the track dried, and the Mercedes team saw an internal battle develop between reigning champ Lewis Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosburg, who began battling for first place. Hamilton clinched first place, and secured the driver’s championship for the second year in a row. Ferrari front-runner Sebastian Vettel, who took a penalty for swapping in a new engine for the previous race, began the USGP in tenth place, yet worked his way through the ranks to finish third.

As soon as I returned home from my first Grand Prix, I wanted to go back. I can’t wait to see, hear, and feel the precision violence of the F1 car at full throttle. Seeing the top drivers in the world compete in the fastest cars the FIA will allow in person doesn’t even begin to match up to seeing the race online or on TV. Experiencing a Formula 1 Grand Prix firsthand was a gateway drug, and now, I must have more.

See you next year, Austin.

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