Does Formula One’s expressed commitment to U.S. include Austin? - Austin American-Statesman

F1 welcomes a race in United States, ‘but sadly it’s not necessary,’ a spokeswoman says.

By Sean Shapiro - American-Statesman Correspondent

So which one needs the other more, Formula One or the United States?

The answer to that question could help to determine the fate of the United States Grand Prix, which has a tenuous spot on the F1 calendar for 2016.

The popular narrative at Circuit of the Americas — especially during race week in Austin — is that Formula One wants to grow its brand in the United States. There are signs that is happening, too. F1 now has an American team — Haas F1 — set to join the grid next season, and an American driver, Alexander Rossi, raced in Austin this year.

“COTA isn’t just about the racing spectacle it provides. It’s also about what it does to put F1 in America in the modern era on the global map, and what it brings into Austin, Texas, and my home country overall,” Rossi said in a recent email. “The whole F1 community looks forward to the U.S. Grand Prix at COTA every year as it has instantly made itself one of the most popular F1 venues anywhere in the world.”

Drivers, almost across the board, rave about Circuit of the Americas while their teams and sponsors welcome the chance to tap into the world’s largest economy.

“Of course you want to be in front of American audiences,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes team principal, during the run-up to the 2015 U.S. Grand Prix in October. “As a team, we’re part of a bigger business that wants to do well in this country.”

Both COTA and F1 officials agree there are various benefits to having a race in Austin, but F1 isn’t necessarily married to the event.

“It’s a benefit, but sadly it’s not necessary,” said Katja Heim the president and CEO of KHP consulting, which handles public relations for F1, during a phone interview last week. “Formula One worked well without a race in the United States before it came to Austin.”

In 2016, though, Austin looks to be the only option for F1 in America.

Other U.S. cities have expressed interest in welcoming a Formula One race, and Bobby Epstein, CEO of Circuit of the Americas, said two organizing groups elsewhere have spoken to him and “really have their acts together.” Austin remains the most feasible F1 option for 2016, though, and it might be a stretch to think a Grand Prix could take place elsewhere in the U.S. in 2017.

“Definitely,” said Christian Sylt, a London-based journalist who writes about the business of Formula One and authors F1’s annual trade guide, Formula Money. “No question the teams want to stay in the United States and that’s something to consider. If F1 is going to succeed in the U.S., it would want to continue to build corporate connections and right now the only place to do that is Austin.”

For now, Epstein said the unnamed U.S. cities possibly interested in courting F1 are biding their time and watching the developments involving COTA very carefully.

“If this race falters and if they see a weakness to exploit, they could become more aggressive,” Epstein said.

The long-term future of Austin’s race came into question last month, when the American-Statesman reported that Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration had decided to reduce the incentive payments to COTA for the U.S. Grand Prix from the roughly $25 million a year state officials had promised to less than $20 million. The news broke shortly after COTA officials said the track took a financial bath when storms wiped out much of the 2015 U.S. Grand Prix weekend.

Epstein said Formula One has been a “phenomenal business partner, and they’ve helped us a couple times … but you’ve got a large investment fund (CVC Capital Partners) behind it that’s trying to get the most money it can. They want to maximize earnings and helping the guys in Austin might not be high on their list.”

Heim said it’s important to remember that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is employed by CVC Capital Partners and answers to its shareholders, but Sylt said Ecclestone ultimately has the power to decide the fate of the U.S Grand Prix.

“One hundred percent he does,” Sylt said. “If he wanted to end the race tomorrow, he could. If he wanted to add a new one (in the U.S.), he could do that as well. Does he have bosses? Technically, yes, but they aren’t going to step in and get in the way unless something ridiculous happened.”

The vexing problem for COTA is that Ecclestone has been hard to read. One minute, he’s bashing F1’s prospects in the United States, the next he’s telling reporters he wants to have multiple races in the U.S.

“He’s consistently inconsistent on his views that he shares,” Sylt said.

Michael Cox