• Life Through a Lens - Mark Sutton

F1 Texan style

Mark Sutton
June 20, 2011

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A sign outside a local burger restaurant welcoming Formula One © Sutton Images
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I travelled down to Austin following the Canadian Grand Prix and I have to say that my first impression of the new Circuit of the Americas was very positive.

After landing the night before, we arrived on site at 10:30am following a 30 minute drive from our hotel in central Austin. The main access is currently just a two-way road but the organisers are looking at turning it into a dual carriageway to cater for more traffic when the race arrives.

At the gates there was strict security so we had to flash our passes to get in to the main site where the organisers currently have air-conditioned offices. We were met by three of the guys working on the track - all with very American names - Butch, JR and Chuck. First on our itinerary was a tour in a four-wheel drive golf buggy with Butch and we immediately set off in the direction of turn one.

The first corner is at the top of a very steep hill and at the moment they have a location set up with a platform overlooking the entire site. You can probably see about 90% of the circuit from the first corner, which is amazing for a race track and they're planning to build a lot of grandstands around there to make the most of that.

Tilke engineers at the view over the circuit from turn one © Sutton Images
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It reminds me of the A1 Ring in Austria (now known as the Red Bull Ring) in that sense, and circuit designers Tilke have actually modelled a lot of the track on other circuits. Two or three years ago the Tilke architects came over and surveyed a lot of the land and specifically picked this patch. They spent about a year trying to find the right bit and the hill at turn one was a key reason why they decided to base it where they did.

From turn one the circuit goes back down the hill and into a sweeping and slightly banked right hander that then turns into what they call the Beckett turns - based on part of Silverstone's famous sector one. It's a fast left, right, left and it should be a really interesting piece of track and a challenge for the drivers. Another area of the circuit that will catch their attention is the blind brow at turn eight that feeds into turn nine and then goes back down hill to turns ten and eleven and the hairpin at the top of the circuit.

At the moment you can see the general layout and they are now preparing the base layers of the track surface. They are preparing specialist materials to lay the track on and the process is being checked every day by Tilke's employees for quality and consistency - it's very thorough. The drainage and communication systems are already in so now it's all about working on the track itself.

The track will measure 3.40 miles © Sutton Images
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One feature that I haven't seen before is that the entrance to many of the corners is going to be wider than the preceding straight. So if the straight is three cars wide then the entrance to the corner at the braking zone will be five cars wide to encourage overtaking and alternative lines. They've done that with a number of corners including turn one and turn 12 and I think they're planning the same into the last corner.

The sculpting of the landscape is quite remarkable and they have moved thousands of tons of earth in order to lower some areas and build others up. They're only bringing in outside material for the track and buildings, the rest of the circuit and surrounding area is being built up by simply moving earth. The majority of the spectator areas will be on huge banks beside the track and in that respect it will be a bit like Donington or Silverstone. The only difference is that the Circuit of the Americas has been specifically designed with that in mind so it should offer an even better experience for the spectators.

In terms of the pit and paddock, they are just packing out the foundation material at the moment. There's something like 300 trucks a day coming in and out - big 18-wheelers piled high with materials. There are a lot of high-skilled workers on the site, working in shifts for 12 hours of the day. If they need to up that to longer shifts they will, but at the moment they are confident they are on schedule.

In the afternoon we took a helicopter ride over the circuit to get photos of the corners as well as an overall picture of the circuit. The site is very close to the airport so our pilot had to keep in touch with air-traffic control to make sure we didn't fly too high. In the end we managed to get up to 2,300 feet, which gives you a good idea of the land surrounding the circuit from the photos. One thing that is abundantly clear is that there is plenty of room for expansion for racing schools, technology colleges, hotels and whatever else the circuit brings to the local area.

The circuit is 14 miles from Downtown Austin © Sutton Images
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Once we'd finished the tour at about 4pm, our guides told us that we had to go to Wild Bubba's Burgers about a mile away from the circuit itself. It was quite something as they had alligator burgers, ostrich burgers and even an F1 burger! Inside they had walls of the restaurant dedicated to Tilke and the new circuit and they promised they'd dedicate one to Sutton Images if we sent them some of our work. It was a bizarre little place, but a good sign that the local people will embrace the sport when it comes to town. Definitely worth the visit.

Overall, the city of Austin is a great place to visit with plenty of museums and monuments to visit. The skyline isn't as built up as some American cities, but it's an easy place to get around and has more than enough to keep the F1 circus entertained when it turns up next year. Personally, I can't wait to get back, and judging by what I saw it should be a great success.

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