Last night the 2012 FIA Formula 1 Championship Series came to an official close with the FIA Prize-Giving Gala in Istanbul, where the F1 Champions were presented their hard-earned trophies. While much of the world watched enthralled as the season’s drama played out, America was only rekindling its love affair with the second most popular sport on earth with the return of F1 to Austin, Texas. AskMen sent Nicolas Stecher to check out the sights and sounds of Austin and let us in on what we’ve been missing.

The first thing that hits you is the sound. A wall of high-pitched wailing wallops you in the guts. The vibration of a thousand banshees assaults your ears with the elegance of a morning star. Even from the door of the shuttle bus, dozens yards from the entrance, the volume is terrifying. A silver-haired man with a wide grin on his face walks by dressed in crimson head-to-toe, waving a giant Ferrari flag. He has the same dumb look of pride that a 9-year-old dressed like Lord Voldemort at a Harry Potter premier might sport: jazzed and ever hopeful. It will be a couple of hours till he and his Ferrari team will taste the alkaline belch of defeat, but for now, his mood is invincible.

“Have a great day, gentlemen — beautiful day for racing!” says the man scanning my ticket in a thick Southern twang, more stoked than any ticket taker I’ve ever experienced in my life. “Go and enjoy some fast cars!” he enthuses, contradicting the common narrative that Texans don’t give a rat’s ass for Formula 1. Much of the talk when the Austin race was announced was pessimistic, implying that Formula 1 was too highbrow, too Yoo-ro-pee-an for straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth Texan folk. Given the swells of crowds who’ve flowed through the gates since sunrise, gulping tallboys of Bud and slathering themselves white with sunscreen, those doubts have been vanquished.

After World Cup Soccer (ahem, football for the rest of the non-American world), Formula 1 is the largest, most popular sport on earth. Its yearly revenues surpass $2 billion, and, in 2010, a global audience of 527 million viewers watched 20 races spread across the globe — from Bahrain to São Paolo, from Melbourne to Montreal. While nearly half of the Grand Prix circuits reside in Europe, the U.S. hasn’t hosted a GP since Indianapolis in 2007. Now it has returned to Austin, to America’s first purpose-built F1 track — a $400 million, 3.4-mile ribbon of black asphalt twisting through the Texas shrubbery dubbed the Circuit of the Americas.

The record for the biggest crowd ever assembled at a live event in Austin was set this past October at a University of Texas football game where some 101,851 people were in attendance. What about the city’s Formula 1 race? The crowd was 117,429 strong, with the circuit’s three-day total topping at 265,000. By all accounts, a thorough repudiation that America is not hungry for F1.

Continue reading Formula One Austin: The World’s Most Technologically Advanced Sport Returns to America after the Jump…

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“The financial stakes are so high in F1 that skullduggery has become an exquisite sport plied with the finesse of a calligrapher…”

Once inside, we were greeted at the paddock by a pleasant Brit named Mike Scudamore, an exec with one of Formula 1’s smaller constructor teams, Marussia. A chipper bloke, Mike walked us into his team’s garage where we found their vehicle up on jacks, wheel-less, its carbon-fiber body panels lying around the chassis like body armor. Being on a smaller constructor with an infinitely smaller budget, Scudamore knew his fringe team had no realistic chance of winning the race, or any other for that matter. F1’s 2006 budgets show a range of investment from $50 million for the tiny Super Aguri team, to a stratospheric $418.5 million for Toyota. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the yearly payroll of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Blackhawks combined. That’s combined. At least half of a team’s budget goes to just the engine, 10 times the cost of a driver. Another wrinkle of F1 is that a large number of drivers don’t get paid — they actually pay to race. Rumor has it that Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado supplies his Williams team with about $43 million via state-owned oil company PDVSA. The fruitlessness of Scudamore’s pursuit — and that of his team — didn’t seem to faze him in the slightest; there’s room in F1 for teams that never touch the podium. I imagine he must feel like the GM for the Milwaukee Bucks, or the England National Team.

What becomes apparent in the paddock is the near-comical regulatory protocol that the FIA imports on its teams. Refrigerators, for instance, can only chill the gasoline up to 10 degrees cooler than what the FIA deems is the ambient temperature that morning. Violators of half a degree are disqualified. The Pirelli tires, which have been lauded by F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone for having evened the racing field — are tagged, bar-coded and closely monitored as they are warmed to a toasty 100 degrees (“F1 is all about temperature,” Scudamore told me cheerily). The steering wheels — $75,000 carbon-fiber tools bristling with superlative machinery — are closely monitored for illegal technology. Traction control, active suspension, trail braking and even turbochargers have revolutionized the sport and were in turn banned due to their success.  Even without these technologies, F1 vehicles can reach speeds of 220 mph and handle 5 Gs in the corners and up to 6 Gs while braking. And while turbos are easy to spot, teams have been known to load their cars with impossible-to-detect technology like traction control systems that could only be activated through a series of complicated button pushes like a video-game cheat code

The stakes, and financial windfall, are so high in Formula 1 that skullduggery has become an exquisite sport plied with the finesse of a calligrapher. If it’s not explicitly forbidden, it’s not cheating. And if it is forbidden but you still manage to fool everyone in the room, well, then, that’s not really cheating, is it? And no mechanic in any garage will feel a single nibble of guilt about bending the rules. This has resulted in a FIA rulebook that’s thicker than an architecture coffee table book.

At $75,000 a pop, F1 steering wheels are essentially the most expensive video game cheat-code controllers on Earth…

Case in point: After the qualifying stage, engines are sealed shut and deemed parc fermé. If a part is broken, you can’t just replace it — the part has to be passed on to a FIA inspector who verifies whether the part is indeed broken and if it can be switched. Ferrari racer Fernando Alonso, who stood in second place in regards to total points upon entering the Austin GP, got a boost from eighth to seventh position in the starting grid when Ferrari purposely broke the gearbox seal of his teammate Felipe Massa, knowingly incurring a five-spot penalty that bumped Alonso up to a more favorable starting point. “It was a decision agreed by both drivers,” noted Ferrari in a statement, a statement repeated by Massa through an icy Romney grin.

When the paddock tour was completed, we made our way up to the Pirelli suite, the most prestigious luxury box at the Circuit, where George Lucas, celebrating his recent windfall of Disney cash, was saying hello to Joey Tribbiani, er, Matt LeBlanc; Macallan was poured; chilled shrimp was served; and trophy wives were entertained. Pirelli’s presence at the race was strong: Its signature red lettering on a yellow field lines nearly every surface of the 1,100-acre circuit. From our vantage point in the suite, the organized bustle and military precision of the various teams swarming about one another in the paddock resembled brightly colored ant colonies preparing for a Formicidae Armageddon.

Soon after everyone was well plied with small-batch artisan liquors, the cars ignited. Again, the volume was striking as the cars started to warm up; we could feel the concrete vibrating through the soles of our feet as those nearly 1,000 horsepower machines screamed by at 18,000 rpm — a testament to their engineering that straddles the limits of the internal combustion engine. Tremors rippled though the cold water bottle in our hands, tickling our fingertips and sending drops of condensation running down the bottle’s side.

By all accounts, the race was an eventful one, with copious passing occurring in every position except that of the leader, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who maintained a solid lead throughout 41 of the 56 laps. The UK’s Jenson Button started in 12th position and quickly fell to 16th before finishing fourth. Resurgent Finnish racer Kimi Räikkönen rose from fifth to fourth. Legendary driver Michael Schumacher, an unheard of seven-time World Champion, fell from 6th to 16th — an especially large disappointment given this was his final race on U.S. soil, as he retired for a second and final time after Brazil.

“F1 vehicles can reach speeds of 220 mph, while handling 5 Gs in the corners & up to 6 Gs while braking…”

Orders were reshuffled and the unforgiving guardrails of the Circuit of the Americas claimed a number of cars for their own. Then Vettel ran into trouble in the form of last-place racer Narain Karthikeyan, who slowed him down just enough so that Lewis Hamilton, who was riding Vettel closely almost the entire race, was able to spot his opportunity and on the long straightaway before Turn 12, deploy his Drag Reduction System — an aerodynamic device that speeds up the car by about 10 mph — just enough to brush by his German nemesis.

The grey and crimson Vodafone McLaren Mercedes nearly bumped Vettel’s rear tires along the way, but it was a thrilling pass vocally supported by the 100,000 plus fans in attendance. Hamilton would hold the lead for the remainder of the race, allowing him to take the checkered flag in his last Grand Prix driving for McLaren. Less than a second ahead of Vettel, Hamilton finished in 1 hour, 35 minutes and 55.269 seconds, with an average speed of 119.87 mph.

The finish was fitting, as Hamilton was the last driver to win a race in America at that final Indianapolis Grand Prix back in 2007, where he beat a young German racing in his first Grand Prix — yes, Vettel himself. But the tides have changed; it was now Vettel who was the returning two-time — and soon-to-be third consecutive — champion after his win at the season’s final race at Brazil’s Interlagos Circuit. His victory in Brazil was historic, as the only other racers to win three consecutive GP World Championships were 1950s racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio and fellow countryman Michael Schumacher.

But while Interlagos would belong to Vettel, the race in central Texas belonged to Hamilton. As he ran his victory lap across the dusty Austin circuit, the young Brit pointed at the bright American flag painted on his helmet, palpably excited to win on U.S. soil. Then he ascended the podium, put on the black $10,000 Stetson cowboy hat that Pirelli bought for the top three finishers and shot the Mumm Champagne into the skies. “Wicked!” he cheered wildly, dancing happily on the nose of his car after the victory. “This is one of the best, if not the best, Grand Prix we’ve had all year.”

Somewhere, off in a dark corner of the grandstands, a silver haired man dressed head-to-toe in crimson wept softly into his Ferrari flag…

Lewis Hamilton (third from left) celebrates his Austin Grand Prix victory with Sebastian Vettel, legendary racer Mario Andretti and third place finisher Fernando Alonso