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The 24 Hours of Le Mans: The Legend of Automobile Sports

// The following is a guest post by Sabrina Beaudoin, a french journalist and administrator of  Thank you Sabrina for sharing your work with the American F1 audience!

// Le Mans

Every year there are more than 50 competitors coming from different parts of the globe, whom have diverse backgrounds in their sporting careers and are brought together for a face to face challenge through the famous 24 hours of Le Mans. For the 80th edition, Le Mans circuit is ever more welcoming and attractive. This challenge is not just a simple run as it counts for the FIA championship. The 24 hours of Le Mans is also something that we all share and connect with. Despite the brand, prototype, team sponsorship or pilot that one supports, all fans gather in a reunion where spirits are lifted by the adrenaline. Again, this year brought over 200,000 people to cheer on this festivity.

Coming from 4 corners of the world, avid fans enjoy this moment as well as the social and unified team spirit brought by this event. Without such enthusiasm, Le Mans would not be the same…and would not open its doors for almost 2 full weeks to welcome such a crowd. We start with a qualifier day that allows certain people to get ready for the Mans day, others only participate at this session and stand aside the more experienced crowd…embracing and learning. The following week is a measure of skills and performance. To help boost local attendance, the promoter of the race encouraged the town to participate. Certain activities will always be unique to the town, such as the famous parade of pilots that enable the public to experience a closer connection with them.

Austin's Inaugural Formula Expo is This Weekend

Ian Weightman of Formula Expo from The Austin Grand Prix on Vimeo.

// Overview

Formula Expo is a new event, envisioned by longtime racing fan and Austin resident, Ian Weightman. Ian's dream was to bring multiple elements of Formula 1 to Austin and allow residents to learn more about the sport, hands on. In conjunction with Circuit of The Americas, Formula Expo is taking place in downtown Austin this weekend at the Austin Convention Center. The expo hall has been transformed and will consist of various interactive areas, or zones.

// Zones

Formula Expo Race Zone - Formula 1 cars on display from Ferrari, Red Bull Racing, Williams F1 and Lotus F1.

Fun Zone - 8 interactive simulators to hold hourly competitions with the winners being awarded trophies on the podium; Pit-Stop Challenge whereby participants experience what it's like to be part of an F1 team pit-crew; photo opportunities in an F1 racing suit and while seated in an F1 show car; test your reflexes and peripheral vision against stats set by F1 World Champions using the reflex trainer.

History Zone - showcasing the evolution of cars, technology and safety; seven F1 cars on display from the Historic Grand Prix; Texas All British Car Days and International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, New York. Travel through time by enjoying decades of F1 images from Sutton Images.

Technology Zone - learn what makes the formula of Formula 1 racing, including the key technologies KERS (kinetic energy recovery systems), DRS (drag reduction system), the green technology of the sport and more.

COTA Zone - Get an update on progress and see the latest renderings; opportunities to discuss ticket options with representatives; learn more about the Pirelli GP Challenge

Expo Stage - Interviews and talks from faces of F1 (names TBA); live music with performances by the inaugural Band of The Year contestants.

Exotic Car & Motorsports Zone - Showcasing manufacturers including Lotus, Ferrari, McLaren Automotive and Lamborghini.

F1 Sports Bar & Restaurant Zones - F1-themed sports bar with fare from Austin area restaurants.

Austin Zone - exhibits from local Austin businesses and organizations including Austin Music Commission, Austin Technology Council, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Austin Economic Development Office and a number of local artists.

// Details

What: Formula Expo

When: Saturday, June 16 from 9AM-7PM and Sunday, June 17 (Father's Day) from 9:00AM to 6:00PM

Where: Southwest corner of the Austin Convention Center in Halls 1, 2 and 3. 500 East Cesar Chavez St., Austin, Texas 78701. 512-476-5461.

Admission: $15 for online tickets; $50 for a family 4-pack; $20 at the door. Click here to purchase tickets directly or here to purchase discounted tickets.

Parking: Ample parking in the surrounding Austin Convention Center parking garages. The closest is the 2nd Street Garage. Click here for complete directions, maps and parking.

Beneficiaries: A portion of the ticket sales will go to The Seton Fund to benefit patients at Seton Community Health Centers.

// On-Going Coverage

We spoke to many of the participants today and will continue to share content. So if you can't make it to Austin, keep visiting this site throughout the weekend!

Formula 1: Man Versus Machine

If there's a consistently insisted, single line of criticism of Formula 1 leveled by fans of other racing series or sports, it's that F1 is all about the technology and the strategy, but the driver is essentially an afterthought; it lacks the human component that drives so much of the drama in NASCAR… It's racing for nerds. That assumption illustrates probably the largest single hurdle the sport faces in coming back to America.

In 2004, Michael Schumacher won the last of his record seven world championship titles in F1. Schumacher holds more F1 records than any other driver, from wins (91), to wins at a single circuit (five at Monza), to pole positions starts (68). His lifetime win percentage is a staggering 31 percent. Yet, at the height of his reign, the criticism of him, his Ferrari team, its boss Ross Brawn, and the FIA were at fever pitch. The "Red Parade" was ruining the sport, according to fans and critics. Imagine Sebastian Vettel's ludicrously dominant 2011 season lasting for five consecutive years.

Schumacher already had something of a bad reputation going into his five season championship streak, thanks to a race ending but championship deciding crash with Damon Hill in 1994, and a similar incident in 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve that resulted in him being the only driver in the history of F1 to be disqualified from an entire season due to dangerous driving. Many fans and members of the press, including the legendary Gordon Murray, still have not forgiven him for actions that in other racing series would likely qualify him as the most entertaining driver, like, for example, Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt. For hardcore fans, Michael's reign was stultifying, but F1 has never experienced such a surge in global interest as the years when he and his Ferrari were unbeatable. Even in America, by the way, with both Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan publicly and repeatedly expressing their admiration for him.

Regardless of the frenzy, Michael won, frequently and repeatedly, by simply outdriving everyone else, including his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello. The point is, that just as in any other racing series, the driver matters. In fact, the driver is key. Coming to that conclusion could be as simple as looking at the final standings for any given season. In 2011 for example, Sebastian Vettel won the championship by a colossal margin, while teammate Mark Webber, ostensibly driving identical Red Bull RB7 chassis, finished in a distant third, with McLaren's Jenson Button, who was the 2009 world champion, in second. Button's teammate, Lewis Hamilton, who was the 2008 world champ, finished fifth, behind Fernando Alonso of Ferrari. Alonso's teammate, Felipe Massa, possibly suffering from Steve Blass Disease after almost being killed by an errant suspension component during qualifying for the 2009 Turkish Hungarian Grand Prix, came in sixth, but 109 points behind Hamilton. If, as some contend, the driver doesn't matter, or at least doesn't matter as much as the car, the team and the race strategy, then why the disparity?

Formula 1 drivers are physically fairly uniform creatures. They are lean, they are fit, they are as highly tuned as the machines they pilot, and to a degree they're fairly interchangeable. But so are most athletes. Mid-season trades don't throw a baseball team into chaos. Usually. The players adapt to the new teammates, the new roles, and they continue to do what they've trained to do. Most professional athletes are also genetically dispossessed of a certain sense of self-preservation. Think about Pete Rose leveling Ray Fosse at the plate in the 1970 All-Star game. No rational person would even think about attempting that. Professional athletes are programmed to compete and to win regardless of risk.

You do have to accept the fact there are F1 teams that aren't as well funded as others, and therefore don't have cars that are as advanced, or mechanics that are as experienced, or drivers that are as mentally and physiologically perfected. Also accept that the heavy hitters like Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull, will absorb as much talent (not necessarily drivers, but designers and engineers) as is available simply due to their ability to pay for it, leaving the backmarker teams to fight over "scraps". It's the same as with the New York Yankees, simultaneously the most successful and most hated team in all of professional sports (at least in the States). Most true fans despise those unsavory aspects of the business of sports, and the governing bodies do what they can to level the playing field, but what can you do? You accept it and root for the underdog, in most cases.

So the assumption now has something of a premise… Do the underlying principles of business that make a sport like F1 possible denigrate the role of driver?

That brings us back to Schumacher during the Ferrari years, aka the Yankees of F1. But what if he'd been stuck in a wheezy Pacific-Ilmor, that in '94, out of 16 races, only managed to qualify for seven between both cars, and finish none of them? He'd have lost. A lot. But would he have given up and tried his hand at touring cars, or would he have shown enough raw talent that he'd have still ended up with a winning career? The question is, can a great driver in a mediocre car can transcend the machine's limitations, and maybe even win with it? If you can honestly answer no, then you’re right, the driver doesn’t matter.

Except it happens all the time. And if I'm honest, that's why I am a fan. If you still hold the belief that the driver doesn't matter in F1, then you discount the accomplishments of Ayrton Senna in an otherwise hopeless Toleman in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, or just a few weeks ago, Fernando Alonso piloting a generally disappointing Ferrari chassis to victory at Sepang. All of the amazing come from behind victories, the perfect drives, when the driver seems to be possessed by God. Or a god.

I personally think the misconception that drivers are perfectly interchangeable, and that winning just comes down to the car, at least with regard to American racing fans, is three-fold. First and foremost, lack of familiarity with the sport means assumptions about the drivers’ role come down to preconceived bias. It's just like anything else, really. If you're predisposed to like riff intensive, Zeppelin-esque rock, but cringe at high pitched, whiny lead vocals, you're going to have a hard time listening to Rush even if it's more or less your kind of music. But you can still learn to like Rush if you're a drummer, a bassist, or a Canadian. There's almost always an in. So it goes with F1 for fans of other racing series, or of sports in general. It's competitive. It has history. It's loud. It's fast. Most sports fans have an in.

Which brings us to issue number two: drivers that we as Americans can relate to. Right now, there really are none. That might soon change. Alexander Rossi, a 20-year old Californian with a solid record in several European race series, was named a test driver for Caterham this season. We'll be following Rossi as the season progresses. Time will tell if he's the next Phil Hill. The funny thing is, when you're abroad, F1 drivers are fairly ubiquitous in the public eye. Maybe not quite as famous as football stars, but more or less relative to the fame of NASCAR drivers on these shores. Fernando Alonso's face is plastered on everything from ice cream to buses in Spain, and Jenson Button sells you Head & Shoulders in France.

Which is really a segue to the third point. Drivers are celebrities in most parts of the world. They're endorsing products, speaking about "habits of a winner" to youth conventions, appearing in cameos on television, or being interviewed on a morning chat show. You recognize them, you know something about them, and to some degree you're invested in their success based on their personalities or their personal lives. That's the basis for celebrity anywhere you go in the world.

Unfortunately for American audiences, we don't have passive access to the drivers. If you want to know about Mark Webber, you have to actively seek out that information. At that point, it's something of a chicken or the egg scenario, where you need to be a fan of the racing to discover which drivers you most connect with, but you probably won't become a fan unless you're able to somehow connect with the people competing.

So here's a bold hypothesis, even if it's not that original - if Formula 1 racing is going to be successful in America, then Formula 1 needs to find ways to create access to the drivers. The driver is once again the key. Speed Network's Seat Swap was and is always a stellar way to demonstrate the differences between two very different forms of racing and the machines, but also the similarities, particularly with regard to the drivers. Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton trading rides, trading barbs, and hanging out? Why can't we do this every week? And I don’t for a second believe that F1’s European roots hobble it for American audiences. If that’s the case, then how do you explain Top Gear?

Americans need somebody to root for. This is undoubtedly a reason Caterham picked Rossi as a test driver (which is also a way of saying reserve driver who can be subbed in or even take over for a faltering Heikki Kovalainen or Vitaly Petrov), and why we might begin to see other teams signing young American drivers. To be fair, it's going to be a tough sell for a young, talented driver with a professional manager who wants to actually make money to sidestep NASCAR and its many feeder series in favor of politically and financially volatile Formula 1. It's going to require a driver with mammoth talent, patience, and the devil may care sense of competitive adventure of drivers like Dan Gurney to succeed in what was and will likely remain a Europe-centric sport. But where one leads, hopefully others will follow.

Racing has been a part of human society ever since man first jumped onto the back of a shaggy goat and goaded Grog to catch him. Grog slow like sloth. Formula 1 likes to sell itself as the pinnacle of motor racing, but in reality, it's racing like any other. If you can get over your bias regarding its innate European-ness or its lack of "rubbing", or even just be willing to put it aside in favor of everything you love about racing or competition in general, then just like Rush's Moving Pictures, you can learn to say F1 rocks.

And in case I lost you along the way, yes, the driver matters. Not just to victory, but the overall success of the sport.

A Tour of COTA with Tilke Engineering


// Background

Recently, we had the pleasure of being welcomed out for a private tour of Circuit of The Americas by the designers of the track, Tilke Engineering. Since the Topping Out ceremony just a few weeks ago, the buzz around Austin and the motorsports industry is that Austin is shaping up to be a great venue. In just one short year, the project has completely transformed from a quiet piece of land into a busy, complex, and well-oiled machine.  Hundreds of workers help the project move along at impressive speed, achieving milestones weekly and transforming the landscape into a world-class facility.

The most current milestone for the project is the first stages of the asphalt which are currently being poured.  Running ahead of schedule according to the sub-contractor in charge of this portion, they have begun laying down the initial sealant to the track, the first layer of the asphalt composition which sits on top of the gravel.  Approximately 20-25% of the track has this sealant in place and the crews are moving along to complete this in the coming weeks. The track itself will receive three layers of asphalt before it's completed, with each layer being blended, cured and leveled to intense specification.  This process will commence over the next few months as the team plans to have the track complete in August.

// The Tour

For the tour, we discussed the overall plan and and design of the track atop turn one, looking across the whole project and observing the grandiose turn one.  Next, we rode around the track for the first time, seeing each turn and getting a complete view of the entire project. As Kerri said it in this article, and I'll say again, the magnitude of this project is immense and truly stunning. Standing from a top turn one gives an unparalleled perspective of COTA, however, nothing beats driving along the same path that will host the world's best motorsports series and their drivers.

Our tour continued from turn one around the entire track where we stopped to take some photos and talk about the specifics of the area. I was particularly excited about going out to turn 11 and traveling down the back straight to turn 12.  At just over 1 Kilometer, approximately 5/8th's of a mile, the back straight is long and has a nice slight right slant to it in addition to some mild elevation change. Cars entering turn 12 will be passing each other at 200mph, making the area around turn 12 an entertaining place to watch the race. 

We observed the crews working on turn 15 before we moved back to the paddock building to walk around a bit and see what's changed.  Already the exterior stucco and stone cladding is being applied on the media center and the west end of the paddock building.  Just behind the paddock, foundations for the team buildings are being poured as well, none of which were even started even just a few weeks since the Topping Out ceremony.  Overall, the activity around the paddock and main grandstand is contagious, and already I could hear the sounds of cars coming off of turn 20, heading down the main straight.

In a little over six months our Inaugural Formula 1 race will commence at Circuit of The Americas, making the reality of the project even more exciting.  We'd like to give an special thank you to our tour guides from Tilke Engineering for inviting us out for an exclusive tour of Circuit of The Americas.  They provided immense knowledge of the project, sharing with us the difficulties needed to overcome the soil conditions on the site and the techniques and expertise they've brought to the table after working on several recent Formula 1 facilities.  As a student of Architecture, this was a real treat for me, learning more about the technical specifications and strategies used to construct this track.  I'm thoroughly impressed with the Tilke team and their commitment to the project from day one, we definitely have the right guys on the job here in Austin.

 // Lots More Photos In The Gallery


Red Bull Emerges From Bahrain

// Race Recap

Amidst the complexities surrounding Sunday's race in Bahrain, Red Bull finally took their first win of the season and re-entered the push for the 2012 championship.  Sebastian Vettel took both pole position and the win in Sunday's race with his teamate Mark Webber finishing fourth position for the fourth time in a row (a record of sorts).

A good qualifying session on Saturday began a great weekend for the Red Bull team, starting first and third in the race and setup for a decisive win.  Sebastian had a good start from the grid and maintained his first position, while both Ferrari's jumped quickly into the top ten after a poor qualifying session from both drivers.

Lotus Renault GP's Roman Grosjean also made up some ground quickly, with a superb start for the newcomer, Grosjean jumped from sixth to fourth in the first turn and then finally into second position after passing Webber and Lewis Hamilton of McLaren.

Battling for position to gain world championship points got interesting very early on as Kimi Raikonnen in the Lotus Renault fought with previous race winner Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso before moving into third position.  With nearly half the race complete, Kimi was just behind his teamate Grosjean, chasing Vettel's Red Bull and setting a very quick pace. Raikonnen passed Grosjean on lap 24 of 57 but despite the rumors, there were no "team orders" which forced Grosjean to step aside, Raikonnen's pace was solid and gaining on the leader quickly.

With Rosberg pushing hard to regain last weekend's pace and catch up the the top three, he battled closely with Hamilton, pushing him off track and into the run-off area with a wheel to wheel skirmish which almost cost Hamilton the race.  Action regarding the incident was to be taken following the race, but the FIA Stewards (regulation enforcers) took no action.  Speculation about their abrupt departure from enforcing the incident was cited as a need to leave the track before sundown to avoid entanglement with potentially threatening protests.

Shortly after his close call with Hamilton, Nico repeated the defensive maneuver while also battling with Fernando Alonso; again, no punishment was assigned to Nico for doing so in this situation.

As the counter moved to lap 36, Raikonnen gained on Vettel and was just half a second behind the Red Bull car.  Kimi set himself up to make the move on Vettel on the main straight with both DRS and KERS giving him the speed to do so.  As he made his move to pass on the inside leading up to turn one, Vettel defended with a strong maneuver, keeping Kimi behind for the duration of the race.

The final podium was Vettel, Raikonnen, and Grosjean; all Renault powered cars and the first podium for the Lotus Renault team with returning champion Kimi Raikonnen in 2nd and newcomer, Roman Grosjean in 3rd.

// Mugello Testing

Following Sunday's race, the teams head to Mugello, Italy for a three day test session before the Spanish GP on May 13th.  We'll be following the testing to see how the technical improvements will influence the remainder of the season.

Guest Lecture at The University of Texas at Austin

Last week I had the pleasure to speak to two of Professor Herb Miller's undergraduate marketing classes at The University of Texas at Austin ("UT").

I started off by asking the students who in the lecture hall was already familiar with Formula 1™ and was pleasantly surprised with about 30-40% of the class raising their hands. I went on to discuss a brief history of the sport and share some heart-pounding sounds and sights of F1. They were early classes so if the students had missed out on their morning coffee, that surely awoke their senses. I then spoke about what The Austin Grand Prix was doing for Austinites and international motorsport fans, and how we've used social media to grow our business.

Professor Miller added:

I have become a Formula One  fan over the last year and a half and I wanted to expose my students to a sport that is the most watched sport in the world. I also wanted UT students (10% of which are international students and are more aware of F1 Racing), to see the value of using ‘social media’ to market and expose the world to this exciting sport and the upcoming November 2012 Austin Formula One Race. I constantly tell my students that marketing is key to the success of any venture or idea and The Austin Grand is using a very popular medium to market and expose the sport to Austin and the world community.

It was great to connect with so many students and spread awareness within the collegiate community. The Formula 1excitement continues to grow in Austin!