Infiniti, sponsors of Red Bull Racing, invited Autoblog to watch the first grand prix in America since 2007, and the first GP on a dedicated F1 course since the Phoenix street circuit in 1991. Here's a little recap of what we saw and fount out on day one.
The Circuit of the Americas doesn't sit on the outskirts of Austin, it sits in the middle of the sticks about a 25-minute drive from Austin. Cows graze 50 yards from its entrance, and the two-lane roads that get you there take you past open fields and a correctional facility. Unlike the industrial area where the Korean F1 track lives, the pastoral Texas location don't make you wonder, "Why would they put a track here?" It makes you realize it's an ideal spot, close enough to the city to be widely accessible, yet remote enough to not really interfere with anything.
It still has that new-facility smell, with gleaming concrete, ubiquitous safety cones and pylons, and National Guard Humvees with roof turrets manning the entry points. On Friday, the first day of Free Practice, we had only one hiccup getting where we needed to go due to the incredibly tight security.
So, why were we there with Infiniti, anyway? The relationship between the automaker and Red Bull Racing seems somewhat odd. In response, company spokesman Kyle Bazemore explains, "It's not just a sticker on a car. We introduced Infiniti to Western Europe just under four years ago and this was a quick way to ramp up brand awareness there. Expanding the brand globally, that's what this is about."
This is Infiniti's second season as a prominent Red Bull Racing (RBR) sponsor, its logo appearing on several portions of the race cars, as well as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber's helmets and driving suits. On top of the deal with Red Bull, Infiniti has another agreement with Vettel himself; he's the company's sole brand ambassador. Renault, sister company to Infiniti under Nissan, also displays a number of logos since it supplies the Red Bull RB8's engines.
Even if Infiniti did just have a sticker on a car, that part appears to be paying off. Tom Foy, media manager for Infiniti F1, said the company gets a report from an independent firm that measures how much air time each F1 sponsor gets (the length of time every sticker spends on screen during a season). In 2011, when Vettel practically ran the table on the way to his second successive championship, Foy said "We were first in brand exposure among car brands and fourth overall." That means Infiniti got more screen time than actual constructors Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.
F1 isn't such a big deal here in the US yet, but around the world Infiniti works hard to leverage its relationship with RBR. "Every major race we'll do something," said Foy. In Melbourne this year they used the GP to introduce Infiniti to Australia. In China they took Vettel to dealerships and gave VIPs track drives. And in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago Infiniti rented a private track and Vettel was again called up for duty. That time, he gave buyers of the Infiniti FX Sebastian Vettel Edition hot laps in his 414-horsepower, $155,000 eponymous crossover.
Beyond the sticker and the marketing "activations," though, is real technological exchange: Infiniti engineers are embedded in the RBR team at Milton Keynes, England and both parties swap information. At the moment this appears to be based around aerodynamic advancements such as paint coatings, and battery technology. Team boss Christian Horner, during a brief sit-down, said, "The Infiniti partnership quickly grew from a marketing tie-up to a technical partnership, Infiniti R&D giving us access to tech we could only dream of, like battery development" for the required kinetic energy recovery system (KERS).
During F1's young driver test held in Abu Dhabi after the last race, Horner said RBR used KERS batteries that had been solely designed and built by Nissan, and he was surprised at the feat since automakers "work with such long lead times-in F1 our lead time is two weeks. But within a short space of time we began to see input into technology that became available to us."
Said Infiniti's Bazemore, "I think both parties were surprised at how quickly it came together, but when we got the opportunity the guys at the top said 'this is the right thing to do' and they got it done."
The results so far mean the relationship probably won't end soon. This year Infiniti is F1's second-most-seen brand, and Foy mentioned that the technical exchange was progressing to getting Infiniti parts on the RBR cars. Plus, "F1's global footprint matches where we're growing," said Foy, "and this is about opening up a brand new audience." Bazemore added, "F1 is not that well known in the US but it's a good demographic to be involved. With this race and New Jersey, if interest in F1 is two to five percent now, if that doubles, then that's a whole lot more people knowing about Infiniti."
Back at the track, the two Free Practice sessions were a treat. After so many Hermann-Tilke-designed miseries of recent years, it looks like his team got it right with COTA. That it uses some of the best elements from other tracks like Istanbul, Korea and Suzuka doesn't hurt. Neither do the elevation changes. Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi said the uphill run up to the first corner was nothing special, but that was from the standpoint of negotiating it as a single driver. When the field has to take it in the race, Horner said "The drivers are flat out a long way up the hill into Turn One," making qualifying in front especially important so as to avoid potential mayhem in back.
Track grip levels picked up more quickly than some expected and the tires held up better than thought. Pirelli said it would have brought soft and super-soft compounds to the race in hindsight. Still, drivers spent all day Friday get that rubber down. Webber told his team during the second session, "We're dominated by the track and tire at the moment."
After about 500 laps run by all the cars in the first Free Practice, Horner's other takeaways were that pit lane is a bit challenging; that "Turn 19 is a tricky corner;" and that "There's an awful lot of dust."
Going off the racing line, or worse, going into the runoff area, sent clouds of dust into the air. Nevertheless, he said, "the simulations have been very accurate. They said we'd do a 1:37 or 1:39 lap time, that's what we've done." Vettel topped the second Free Practice with a 1:37.718, beating second-place Webber and third-place Fernando Alonso, his last remaining Championship nemesis, by more than seven tenths of a second.
Not only did the action on the first day look great, the track seems like a genuinely welcoming place to watch a race. The weather's been superb, the huge grandstands are clustered in the best areas, and big grassy hillocks provide stadium seating for general entry visitors. Friday is never a definitive predictor of what's going to happen on Sunday, and while the first day of F1 won't do anything to help Keep Austin Weird, as the city's slogan goes, it certainly helped keep Austin interesting.