COTA announced this week it has signed a deal with F1 to continue to host the US Grand Prix for 5 more years, up to at least 2026.
The news was not a surprise as F1 and COTA both look to capitalize on a wave of enthusiasm for the sport in the United States. According to ESPN, TV viewing figures were up 54% in 2021, the growth thanks in part to the Netflix series, Formula 1: Drive To Survive.
Most in F1 will be delighted to keep the Circuit of the Americas on the calendar. The characterful venue is popular with drivers and fans alike and is a true racers circuit.
The Texas track has also proved a hit with the American race going public. And deservedly so; the circuit ranks as one of the best spectator venues in Formula 1. Grandstand and general admission views stack up favourably against any contemporaries.
Anticipating a surge in demand after the cancelled 2020 event and F1’s growth, the circuit added new grandstands with 37,000 more seats. The 2021 US GP weekend attracted 400,000 fans; a record number for an F1 race.
The large crowd was a welcome sight after the many closed-door events in the prior 18 months of the pandemic and the atmosphere in the stands was palpable.
Such crowds though are not without drawbacks as many of those who were there will testify. Readers of The F1 Spectator and fans on social media voiced complaints about organisation, citing major traffic delays, long lines for concessions and water shortages.
Stories emerged of fans walking miles along busy highways to their cars, parked off-site; the car park shuttle buses having failed to show up. On-site car parks meanwhile took several hours to vacate.
While most fans had a positive experience and moderate delays, the heaving crowds showed up the cracks in COTA operations. Organisers need to act to improve the venue’s reputation among fans.
Inside the circuit, better management of the flow of foot traffic and more food and beverage stands in different locations would go a long way. Outside, traffic delays are largely the fault of surrounding infrastructure. After the race, large car parks empty onto bumpy, 2-lane farm roads, causing an inevitable bottleneck.
Austin City Council plans to use part of an annual budget of $25 million, which it receives in state funding for the Grand Prix, to improve the flow of traffic in the circuit area.
The plan includes improvements to traffic lights and signage around the circuit. They also intend to expand the highway and install bike lanes and pavements. Whether these changes will be enough, time will tell.
There may be enough demand now to fill grandstands for now but competition from other circuits may force COTA to further up its game. The debut of the Mexican GP in 2015 caused a drop in spectator numbers as Mexican fans stayed away. In May, Miami will host its first Grand Prix making it the first season since 1984 that there have been two races in the US.
Liberty Media, F1’s commercial rights holders, have previously stated their desire to see up to three F1 races a year in the US. Talks with Las Vegas have reportedly been progressing well and the city could stage a race as soon as 2023.
As well as these new additions in the States, for many Americans, Grand Prix in Montreal and Mexico are as or more accessible. With a possible five Grand Prix in North America on the horizon, COTA will have to do better if it wants to hold on to the level of appeal it currently holds.
To an extent, the circuit is a victim of its own success and the rapid growth in the popularity of F1 in the United States. With at least five more races to take place at the Austin circuit, COTA has the time and incentive to fix these issues for fans this year and hopefully for many years beyond 2026.
I’m Danny, an incurable Formula 1 fan for over 30 years and founder of The F1 Spectator. My aim is to inform and inspire, arming you with helpful tips and advice for your next F1 trip.