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An Auto Racing Roundup on Abu Dhabi and the U.S. Grand Prix

Touring the Circuit of The Americas for the first time leads to some interesting observations, Norris McDonald writes.

  • Circuit of The Americas

With the NASCAR, IndyCar and World Endurance Championship seasons over, auto racing in 2017 officially comes to an end this weekend with the annual running of the Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The race around the Yas Marina Circuit begins in daylight and ends at night and frequently decides the winner of the world driver’s and constructor’s championships. Not this year, though, as Lewis Hamilton wrapped up his fourth world championship several races ago, as did Mercedes, also with its fourth title.

So, the Grand Prix this weekend is pretty meaningless, other than for drivers and teams to try to end the season on a high. For fans of F1, there has to be a reason to tune in, and Hamilton did his darndest a day or two ago to get everybody’s juices flowing by dredging up an incident between him and archrival Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel that happened back in June.

Neither driver is an innocent in this high-speed, high-stakes sport but to hear Hamilton describe the incident — which involved a little wheel-banging, nothing more — he was the victim of a full-on assault by a bully. Using the language of the street, Hamilton told reporters this week:

“When I spoke to him later, I was like, ‘That’s a sign of disrespect, so don’t ever disrespect me like that again, otherwise then we will have problems.’ ”

Will that be enough to get people to tune in? We’ll find out when the TV ratings are released next week.

Circuit of The Americas

Nissan invited me to attend the Tokyo Motor Show in October, but I couldn’t go, so they asked if I wanted to attend the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin instead. Sounds good, I replied, so, five weeks ago I flew to Texas.

When I got to the hotel late on the Friday afternoon, the first sign I saw that a Grand Prix was on came when the young Red Bull driver, Max Verstappen, walked through the lobby. He’s 20 and already a veteran of F1 — he started with Scuderia Toro Rosso when he was 17 — but he’s still a kid. Tall, slender, and wearing a backpack, he looks like any other guy that age — except that he had an entourage and his PR people were busy taking photos.

On Saturday morning, I saw the famous, purpose-built Circuit of The Americas for the first time, and I felt a wee bit let down. Not that it isn’t gorgeous — it is that — but I’d been hearing and reading such glowing reports since it was built in 2012 that I guess I was expecting something more. Here’s why.

Yes, they have an elaborate “stadium” along the front stretch of the race track. Buildings that are three and four storeys high house entertainment and hospitality units that back onto the F1 paddock. The sides that face the track contain thousands of theatre-comfy seats. The F1 garages are directly under you on the first floor. This is very impressive.

But I — in fact, all of us in Canada — have been hearing for years about how the paddock at the F1 Grand Prix du Canada track in Montreal is substandard and second rate and how millions of dollars in upgrades will have to be made if Canada is going to keep its race.

But other than two or three more floors over the garages — there is only one in Montreal — I didn’t really see much difference. The team hospitality units are in tents, as they are in Montreal. They’re bigger in Austin, true — but they are still tents. And the washrooms for men and women in the paddock are portable, as they are in Montreal. They are fancy portable washrooms, but they are still portable.

This really surprised me. This is a race track built specifically for Formula One racing and you would have thought the team hospitality units and the washrooms would have been permanent. But no.

Several other differences:

When you attend the F1 race in Montreal, or the IndyCar race in Toronto, the vistas are enthralling. The geodesic dome left over from Expo 67 adds such a touch of class to the Montreal circuit, and when you sit in a grandstand seat at Exhibition Place for the Honda Indy, you have the Princes’ Gates and downtown Toronto in your sightlines. At the Circuit of The Americas, you are in cattle ranch country, and I will leave to your imagination what the view is like;

On Friday morning, when the time for first practice on a Grand Prix weekend is about to take place, the grandstands in Montreal are packed. Yes, there is the odd empty seat or two, but not many. People in Canada — and many of those seats are occupied by people from Toronto and elsewhere in our country — like their F1 motor racing. On Friday morning in Austin, as the time for first practice approached, most of the seats on the main straightaway were empty. Saturday, for final practice and qualifying, there were still a lot of unoccupied seats. Race day, on Sunday, was full; they had a big crowd. But only on the Sunday. Nothing like Montreal;

The Paddock Club, where I was fortunate to spend the race weekend as Nissan’s guest, costs serious money. It epitomizes everything that F1 is about: glamorous guests, extremely good-looking serving staff, famous F1 drivers dropping by to chat, good food and drink and a front-row seat for the race.

If you want an idea of what it costs to spend a weekend in the Paddock Club, go to the Grand Prix du Canada website and click on the Paddock Club link, and it’s all there.

Now, just like the racing teams and drivers, the Paddock Club itself moves from race to race. Based in London, all staff are hired at the beginning of the season and travel the circuit until the end of the season. Ergo, the chef who cuts you off a slice of prime rib in Montreal is going to be the same chef who does it in Austin and again this weekend in Abu Dhabi. The servers are the same and so on.

Everything — cutlery, glassware, tables, chairs — goes from one race to the next. That includes the beverages. The food is locally sourced but the menu remains the same — chicken, lamb, roast beef, plus all the trimmings. F1 wants your Paddock Club experience to be the same at Silverstone in England and the Circuit Jose Carlos Pace in Brazil.

Like the racing itself, nothing is left to chance;

The race was OK; not a nail-biter, though. There was some mild controversy at the start. Borrowing a page from the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR, the F1 driver introductions were a little more elaborate than usual. What made it a tad jarring was that organizers had imported Michael (Are You Ready to Ruuuuuuumble) Buffer from Las Vegas to do the intros (“say hello to Kimeeeeeee RAY-konin”), and the MMA environment it created didn’t go over so well with some people.

I thought it was a scream and thoroughly enjoyed it but it certainly wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea;

I have been very fortunate in my career to have been an insider at many of these events. When I go to Indianapolis, as well as the media centre (which affords one of the best viewing locations in all of motorsport), I can walk around the pits and Gasoline Alley as if I own the place. Formula One is a different animal. I always get a media centre and paddock pass, but I was only lucky enough once to get a pit pass, and that was before they really tightened up. But as someone who had a Paddock Club pass, I could get into pit lane, and let me tell you, it’s like being in the dugout for a World Series game, or the bench of the home team during the Stanley Cup. The world is your oyster, and the feeling of elation is almost indescribable.

As mentioned, I was there as a guest of Nissan and its subsidiary, Infiniti, and was able to spend time with Tommaso Volpe, who’s the director of Infiniti Global Motorsport, as well as Cyril Abiteboul, managing director of the Renault Sport F1 team. Our Paddock Club experience included several visits to the Renault garage to watch them go about their business and F1 racing, at the ground level, is as spit-and-polish as you would expect. There is a level of sophistication there that you don’t find in other racing series.

Volpe said Infinity has been involved in F1 since 2011, first as a sponsor of Red Bull Racing (“the only reason we did it was to increase our brand awareness”) but lately as a full technical partner with Renault Sport, particularly in the development of the Energy Recovery System that is used by the F1 team and been passed on to Infinity’s performance road cars.

“We enjoyed our exposure (as a sponsor), but we really wanted to have a technical presence in the sport,” he said. “Since 2014, power units in F1 have been hybrid, and Infinity already had a strong performance hybrid,” he said, explaining that it was a natural fit.

“In Geneva (this year), we unveiled our Project Black S (in which Infiniti and Renault Sport are partnering to develop a new performance car with F1 technologies). We are developing a hybrid technology very similar to Formula One in which there would be much more power and immediate torque from electrification.

“This is an investment in motorsport R & D that will benefit our core business. The first step is to support Renault, the second step is to transfer this knowledge to our cars.”

Circuit of The Americas

The two men had these other observations:

Abiteboul (talking about Formula One): “F1 is what it is today because of what Bernie Ecclestone made it. I would not say it (the sale last year to Liberty Media) has changed the atmosphere. Liberty has taken initiative on things like fan engagement, but the very nature of F1 hasn’t changed. Liberty is putting the icing on the cake but the cake has not changed.”

Abiteboul, again, on the future of Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi, of Toronto: “Latifi is connected to both Mercedes and Renault. He’ll be doing quite a bit next year as he was this year. I don’t know if he will have a connection to us but he will be driving again in F2; he has a strong chance to win the championship. The rest, we’ll see.”

Volpe: “Electrification is something that we cannot ignore. It is the future of powertrains. I can give you numbers.

“The boss of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, announced that he wants the corporation to sell 14 million cars by 2022. Thirty per cent of these cars will have some form of electrification. So, when the largest automotive conglomerate in the world (Mitsubishi is in the alliance, as well) announces that by 2022, it will sell 14 million cars and 30 per cent of them will have some form of electrification, I think you see where the industry is going.”

Abiteboul: “Nissan is the leader with a fully electric car (the Leaf) but we are really quite conservative in the objectives we have set. Everyone — Volvo, for instance — is starting to make statements about electrification. But the people talking about it, they don’t have any products, so they don’t know the technical challenges and also the challenge of the customers. We are much more reasonable about the objectives we have set.”

You can’t promote a car race these days and not have music play a major part in the spectacle. Saturday night at Circuit of The Americas, Justin Timberlake was the headliner. Sunday night, it was Stevie Wonder. Yes, some people admitted that they had come to the circuit for the concerts but had seen some of the racing and were becoming fans.

Renault Sport changed its driver lineup for the U.S. Grand Prix. It fired British driver Jolyon Palmer, who was having a miserable year, and replaced him with Carlos Sainz Jr., who left Scuderia Toro Rosso. Sainz started his tenure like a house on fire, finishing seventh in the Grand Prix at Austin. In the two races since, he dropped out of one with mechanical difficulties and was 11th in the other.

Both Volpe and Abiteboul talked at length about the Infinity Engineering Academy, in which engineering students from around the world are invited to apply for intern positions at the Infinity Technical Centre near London, where they will spend six months, and the Renault Formula One team, where they will also spend six months.

The company started the program four years ago and takes a student a year from Asia-Pacific, China, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, the Middle East, and Europe. The aim is to promote diversity which, according to Volpe, is the core of innovation and creativity.

In the program’s first year, there were a thousand applications and three were selected; last year, 12,000 applied and seven were chosen. Matthew Crossan of London, Ont., who is in a Masters of Engineering Science program specializing in composite materials at the University of Western Ontario, is Canada’s representative.

Circuit of The Americas

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