OPINION: COTA can build on what Austria is doing

There’s a bit of a buzz ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix, because it’s going to be the first Formula 1 race in more than 18 months to feature a full crowd.

There’s even more of a buzz about the British Grand Prix that follows two weeks later, because just like Austria it too will have a full house, but the capacity is so much greater.

Of course, Austria had a bit of a dry run last weekend when there were around 15,000 spectators in the grandstands, with the addition of the Styrian Grand Prix coming late in the schedule and just before more restrictions eased in Austria on July 1. So while they’ve had two races at the Red Bull Ring, they haven’t been under the most settled circumstances.

And that’s why there’s an opportunity for Formula 1 to do something unique in Austin later this year.

The idea of two races at Circuit of The Americas was raised by Formula 1 at the start of June, and since then the potential for it to happen may well have reduced after Turkey was confirmed as Singapore’s replacement on the calendar. That means a tripleheader of weekends in Russia-Turkey-Japan, with the organizers of the Japanese Grand Prix insisting they are pushing ahead with plans for the race.

Suzuka is desperate to be on the calendar given the fact it’s Honda’s last year in F1, and unless there’s a significant change in that situation then the only other way Austin is likely to host two races is if Mexico doesn’t happen for any reason, or potentially Brazil is cancelled and there’s a bit of reshuffling.

But if COTA does get the chance to host two races, then it can do so in a very different way to any other doubleheader at the same venue that we’ve seen over the past two seasons.

Austria, Silverstone and Bahrain have all hosted back-to-back races in order to keep the number of events on the calendar high, and that was the main reason behind the two rounds we’re currently in the middle of. But all of them have done so either behind closed doors or with reduced capacity for at least one race, and they’re all at venues that don’t boast major cities as part of the attraction.

For Austin, there’s already a sell-out crowd, and the promise of trying to make the event even bigger by expanding the capacity.

“It’s going to be awesome,” COTA chairman Bobby Epstein says. “It’s going to be the biggest one yet. It’s a combination — the sport has really taken off. Let’s attribute it to the events we’ve done in the past being successful; the Netflix series increasing the appeal and the fan base and letting people remain engaged with the sport throughout the year. That’s really been a critical thing for us, which is why we’ve always said more races in our time zone — having more episodes that are behind the scenes and really bring the personalities forward has been great for us. And then of course the byproduct of being cooped up for so long is people are ready to get back out and celebrate life and good times with friends, and I think we’re well positioned to serve all of that.

“We sold every ticket we put on sale, and it’s absolutely going to be the biggest event we’ve ever had. We’re looking at other options as to where we can build more grandstands and how we can transport more people to the venue, and what these sort of sales allow us to do in terms of entertainment programming on-site that we’re going to be able to increase, which just allows the event to grow.

“Success breeds success in that we’re able to do more for the fans when they’re there by virtue of more of them being there and us being able to afford that. That was the big hump for us to get over and I feel like we’re really there.”

There’s clearly a huge hunger for the United States Grand Prix this year, having not been on the calendar last season. In fact, it’s so big that Epstein wants to beat Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s mark of around 140,000 people for the Indy 500 and boast the biggest sporting event of the year.

“It’s six figures, and we’re going to see if we can make it the largest event on the globe in 2021. Yeah, we will (beat Indy). They were limited in capacity, but also we’re a weekend-long festival; they’re a massive one-day crowd that was limited this year because of COVID. So yeah, we can take the title of ‘World’s Biggest Event in 2021’ and we intend to do that.

“The Saturday of the weekend we expect 100,000 people also, with Billy Joel playing, qualifying is a good event to watch, lots of good racing on the Saturday — we’ve got the W Series racing — it’s going to be great.”

Such a high level of interest just shows what could be possible if you expanded the event further. Take one race weekend, make it two at the same venue and turn Austin into a week-long festival of Formula 1.

“I think there’s enough demand for the sport that we should be able to work something out, and they should be able to come away winners and we shouldn’t be hurt by it either,” Epstein says, when the question of an additional race hosting fee is put to him.

The only other place that could host an event in the U.S. instead of COTA this year is Indianapolis, and back-to-back races in America would be attractive whichever way you spin it. But Epstein thinks doing that would miss the opportunity for a more special event than F1 usually offers to a singular host location.

“Are they getting two races, or are they getting more? A bigger event in one location is much easier for the diehard, passionate Formula 1 fan who wants to consume it. They’d rather not see two watered-down events. As a result of being in two cities you’re dividing programming between two cities, you’re maybe dividing activations and the ability for sponsors to activate, and you’re kind of asking the drivers where do you go for the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday between races? Which city are you going to spend time in?

“Whereas if you can concentrate all on one place and make it a complete spectacle and everyone can focus their attention on that, I think one super-special event is probably better than making the fan try and decide which one to go to. I think you complicate it.”

Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

That’s not to say Epstein doesn’t want more races elsewhere in the U.S. It’s already happening, with Miami set to join the calendar next year, and the COTA chairman says providing two very different options at different times of the year can only help grow the sport overall.

“The two races that are spread apart — Miami in June and us in October — I think is fantastic for sport. It’s great for both of us. It’s great for fans who may not be able to travel at that time of the calendar — that is one of the considerations.

“If you only came to the U.S. and did back-to-back in the same country, you’re going to have people where their schedule might not allow them to travel in October but they might be able to go in June. Maybe the kids are out of school in June and they can go then, or maybe they can’t go then because the kids are out of school! So I think spreading them out across the calendar is great.”

The latter point is a good one. F1’s targeting the United States as a place the sport can expand, and has two venues lined up already for the future, at different times of the year. An extra race in Indy would be better than just one race this year, but two in Austin — completely unshackled from the restrictions that have been placed on all the other doubleheaders seen over the past 12 months — would teach the sport so much more about different ways of appealing to fans and sponsors alike.

It likely won’t happen, but it’s probably the best chance F1 will ever have to try it.