The merciless Texas sun, shining hard all through an October weekend, is not the brightest star on display at the Circuit of the Americas for Formula One’s United States Grand Prix. There are movie stars, motorsports stars, and influencer types who are vaguely famous on certain corners of the internet. Most of them just elude me.
I’m here as a guest of Pirelli – ostensibly to learn about how the tech in its F1 tires informs the kind of tires regular humans in regular cars drive, but also to blast my senses with as much of the glamorous grand prix experience as I can. It is the first time I have beheld F1 in real life.
Brad Pitt is here, but always not right here, leaning on a barrier in the Haas garage or being shuffled through the pre-race grid walk. Lewis Hamilton is more in the mix but he walks powerfully and toward a fixed point, on a racing line to his destination that lets him spend minimal time in the fray. Pharrell, too, is focused as he walks by – it’s his son’s birthday, which is more important than any inquiry I might pose.
The only important person I offer a comment to is Bernd Mylander, the longtime safety car driver, who I spot walking through the Alfa Romeo pit lane. I say hi from the paddock two levels above on Saturday, causing him to turn his head left and right before looking up and flashing me a peace sign that switches to a thumbs up.
Formula 1 Safety Car Driver Bernd Mylander
The Drivers, How They Occupy Space
Mylander is rare in his occupation as a nonpartisan driver on the track, there to shepard the competitors in the event of an accident, slowing down the pace until the race can safely resume. He is one of the few forces that can make a Hamilton or a Carlos Sainz actually go less fast.
These men, F1’s handsome pilots of such global adulation, can be mighty on track, but are more slight in person, looking just a bit petite in the context of the whole grand Texan scale of the F1 weekend. As a crowd gathers to watch them walk out onto the track on Sunday, I realize that you can’t have more than a couple rows of bodies ahead of you if you want to see their squinting, smiling faces.
I actually get stuck in this throng, where race track staff link arms to form a barrier that parts the crowd on either side. In the slender path they create, drivers walk through and onto the track, flanked by NFL cheerleaders shaking pompoms. You can try to get close but, unless you have a media badge, you’re limited to attempting to press past the people right in front of you.
All around are people vying for access, trying to figure out how to get through the next gate, closer to the next star that’s passing through, and on to the next most exciting events on the F1 calendar.
“I think we should go to Montreal next year,” a father moving along the back balcony of the paddock club tells his grade-school-aged son. The kid has grander designs for which grand prix will be next on their schedule.
“I think we should go to Monaco,” he says back to his dad.
As this is my first time attending an F1 race, my brain is overloaded with questions while I try to process the spectacle: Will my pass get me into this area? How much are the hats at the merch stand? Is that Valterri Bottas on a motorcycle with his girlfriend being escorted by the motorcade in front of us? How long will it take us to get out of this parking lot? Did George Russell really start off the race by crashing into someone again?
A Country Without A Team
“Did you see Daniel Ricciardo’s horse?” is a salient question on the weekend – I overhear several men ask it of each other. Another has to do with where one’s allegiance lies, and which teams or drivers they want to see prevail.
No doubt there are many people here in Austin with a simple response, like the guy I see who is visibly shaken at the prospect of meeting newly minted two-time champion Max Verstappen. (He intercepts Verstappen in the paddock for a photo and manages to not pass out.) There are those in weathered Ferrari caps whose edges have frayed since the Schumacher era, or the Mexican supporters who carry banners for Checo.
But for many new fans, the novelty of F1 hasn’t yet crystallized around particular squads or characters. For a certain breed of American still nurturing their obsession with the sport, whose budding fandom began at Netflix’s Drive to Survive and only recently spilled over into actual live races, there is not an easy answer to this question of who to root for.
Take for example one boy, maybe 14 years of age, who is in my group as we are bestowed with the VIP lanyard on Saturday, which boosts one’s status up toward the top tier of the event’s social strata.
“Those are like gold around here,” the Pirelli employee passing them out for our temporary use advises.
We slip them on and make our way to an area behind the main paddock building. It’s more business back on this side, away from the hospitality suites where guests are hosted above. But because it’s more exclusive, there is more chance for proximity to stardom, and hence a little bit more pursuit of clout. One takes stock of passersby to determine whether they are famous or just privileged for the moment. Guenther Steiner will pause for a selfie if you catch him at the right time.
The teenager leads his father through the wide alley between team garages and team clubhouses, lingering near the crowds that indicate some prince of motorsport, any of them, will appear.
He takes his time near McLaren’s and it pays off – Lando Norris zig-zags through a tight funnel of bodies, completing a sufficient amount of selfies and signatures so as to not appear impolite, very nearly moves on, and then grabs a sharpie from someone to fulfill one more request, signing the teengar’s shirt before disappearing.
“Lando is his favorite driver,” his father says excitedly.
The same boy will return to the Circuit of the Americas the next day in a Max Verstappen Red Bull shirt ahead of a brief scheduled appearance of the reigning champion in our suite. By the time the race actually begins, he switches allegiances again and into a different red, pulling on a crimson Ferrari shirt.
Would Lando have signed this young man’s gear had he known how fickle his passion was? Am I, a guy who does own a McLaren shirt but left it back home because I feel no great connection to that squad, any purer in my young fandom? Does it even matter or is it perfectly appropriate to just wander around in awe – of the circus, the guttural machinery, the drama of every overtake, the statuesque frame of Toto Wolff – without having to feign a more specific devotion?
Brad Pitt On Allegiance
Brad, who is no more committed than me or the young man with the rotating shirts, seems to have the answer. He is a man of every team, albeit partly for political reasons. The F1 movie he’s working on has Hamilton as a producer, but will also feature the rest of the grid.
So there he is in the Mercedes garage, watching Hamilton hold court over a W13 that can’t wait to race its last laps of a disappointing season. Brad pops up in the Williams suite with director Jerry Bruckheimer. He chats with Verstappen, he gets a ride around the course in a glossy lipstick Ferrari with Charles Leclerc. A friend of mine who’s in attendance claims the actor’s security team boxed him into a bathroom outside of McLaren’s hospitality area while Brad relieved himself.
If Brad Pitt’s lack of fidelity in Austin can be attributed to a Hollywood sensibility, maybe I can explain mine away on the same lines. The whole reason I am invested in this thing in the first place is the drama, the sensationalized version of every grand prix presented to me by Netflix.
I am not rooting for the triumph of a singular hero because the protagonists shift roles around every turn. I want to see Hamilton blast by a Red Bull down a DRS zone only as long as there is someone threatening to fly by him as well. I want to see Fernando Alonso actually fly, lifting the front of his car off the track, pulling it back down to earth, and pushing it somehow to the finish line. Then I want to see Sebasitan Vettel rip by the Haas in the last lap, even if Haas is technically the team that I should be cheering for as it’s the most American outfit on the grid.
I want it all. It is enough to just be overwhelmed to be there without investing emotionally in a singular team or driver.
Note that this does not necessarily apply to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who did not register an emotional reaction beyond tepid during the entire weekend. Not during his visit to the Mercedes garage, where I saw him, at a distance, stone faced in the conversation with Brad and Hamilton. Not during the proud display to him, by a fellow journalist in attendance, of a fan-made “Tim Apple” racecar tribute. Not during the race’s culmination, where he waved the checkered flag in the most sexless manner possible.
Cook did take a spin around the track for a hot lap session organized by tire sponsor Pirelli in an experience meant to jostle loose all kinds of high velocity emotion. I have not seen the footage – these trips around the track are recorded on an array of onboard cameras – but I would pay large amounts to watch it if only confirm my hunch that his stoicism cannot be bent even by an Aston Martin Vantage F1 edition whipping through the Circuit of the America’s cursive corners.
On Saturday, I embark on a hot lap of my own, piloted by a guy introduced to me only as “Jeff.” It’s hard not to be envious of others who are driven by men as decorated as Mika Häkkinen and Mario Andretti, but I am happy with Jeff.
He makes me feel safe after I mention that I can’t afford another car crash this year, and more than anything he makes me understand the intimate relationship between driver and course. He details his plan for each turn aloud, explaining why we are speeding up or slowing down. It’s the slowing that really impresses—how we so smoothly climb down from 140 miles to glide through a corner. I am certain I am having more fun than Cook, the Apple executive of supreme indifference.
Of Course, The Tires
American-ness, or general cultural naivete to this sport, is not the only reason to remain neutral along team lines. Among the groups in the paddock, the Pirelli people, who supply the tires for the championship, are also inclined toward a diplomatic approach. (Pirelli are our hosts for the weekend, supplying passes for the United States Grand Prix, airfare, a hotel stay, a shaded respite from the Texas sun, and many bottles of sparkling water.) I prod at this a bit in a roundtable conversation with Mario Isola, head of Pirelli’s motorsport division, by asking what he makes of Ferrari’s meme-worthy strategy errors through the 2022 season.
“That’s a tricky question,” he says, laughing. “Basically, he’s trying to understand if Ferrari was wrong or not – that I cannot say.”
Mario Isola, the head of Pirelli's motorsport operation.
Instead of so blunt a judgment, Isola offers a long reply on why different teams choose different tires throughout races, explaining that they are working with unique sets of information that pertain to their cars. He narrates the conversation with his hands, careful of the tiny cappuccino cup in front of him.
“Sometimes teams make mistakes,” Isola concedes.
So if a strategy deviates from what Pirelli recommends, this is normal and healthy for the championship, even if it means Lewis Hamilton calling out the decision on the broadcast of the cooldown room after a race. This is a valuable reminder for those (like me) who sit at home and determine (with the guidance of the broadcasters) that they have arrived at a better plan than the Scuderia’s.
The live race in Austin on Sunday – sans the helpful graphics of the broadcast and the chronicling of teams’ intertwining storylines – is another reminder of my relative ignorance. It’s as thrilling as anticipated, and in fact even more so given how much people had downplayed in-person grands prix to me as a two-hour stretch of watching a brief sector of the race buzz by.
That’s technically what you get, but there are giant screens, frantic text messages, and shreds of information passed around the paddock to fill in the rest of the action. There are, for Americans of my ilk, no deep-seated bonds to squads passed down through generations or reasons to light up flares when certain cars prevail, but there’s still a hell of a lot to take in.
Photo Credit: Motorsport Images