Circuit of the Americas
Austin's Circuit of the Americas (known as COTA for short) endured an at times difficult birth to emerge as one of the most impressive new circuits to grace the racing calendar in recent years.
The first circuit in the USA to be purpose built for Formula One, it has gone on to snare all of the major championships at least once in recent years; MotoGP has made it home, as has IMSA and MotoAmerica, while a recent addition has been NASCAR. Prior to this races for IndyCars, the FIA World Endurance Championships and even the V8 Supercars from Australia helped ensure the track is among the busiest in North America.
Outside of racing, the circuit boasts an open air amphitheater which can accommodate 14,000 people for music concerts, at the base of the landmark observation tower. There is also an adjoining soccer stadium, which is home to Austin Bold FC and seats 5,000 fans.
Created with the express intention of reviving the USA's hopes of hosting an F1 Grand Prix, the initial plans for Circuit of the Americas were first proposed in July 2010. Promoter Tavo Hellmund – a former racing driver who had competed in Formula 3 in the 1990s – had secured a deal with Bernie Ecclestone for a US GP from 2012 onwards. A parcel of 890 acres of undeveloped land in Travis County would be used for the circuit, with Texas billionaire Red McCombs and Bobby Epstein among the major investors.
The initial track layout was conceived by Hellmund, Texan motorcycle world champion Kevin Schwantz and renowned F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke. Inspiration was taken from other circuits around the world, with the first section in particular taking its cues from Silverstone's Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex. Other sections mimicked the stadium section at Hockenheim and Istanbul Park's Turn Eight and there was considerable elevation change, with a steep rise to Turn One among the most notable features.
Construction began on December 31, 2010 and was due to be completed by June 2012. The final circuit masterplan had been developed by HKS,Inc. and Tilke, with the main grandstand and feature observation tower and amphitheatre being designed by Austin architectural firm, Miró Rivera.
Just as the circuit began to take shape on the ground, events within the management company began to unravel. Hitches with securing funding from a state sporting fund and other disagreements behind the scenes saw a number of initial payments to Formula One Management missed. By November 2011, Ecclestone had had enough, and issued an ultimatum to the owners and promoters to find a solution by the following month or be dropped from the calendar.
Amid the acrimony, work on site was stopped but, when the World Motorsport Council issued the F1 calendar in December, Circuit of the Americas was still provisionally included. It later transpired the McCombs and Epstein had struck a new deal directly with Ecclestone, ensuring payment up front and cutting Hellmund's company from the promotion of the event. Hellmund announced plans to sue Epstein, though the pair eventually settled out of court.
Against this background, construction was completed at an estimated cost of $300 million, although the discovery of high-pressure gas lines on site and unstable clay soils had necessitated expensive additional work. Nevertheless, the first layer of asphalt was completed on August 3, 2012 and laying of the final layer commenced on August 14 and was finished on September 21. The track was officially opened on October 21, with Mario Andretti running the ceremonial first laps in a Lotus 79.
The new circuit passed its FIA inspection with flying colours in September, ahead of the inaugural F1 race in November.
F1 arrives and puts on a show
When the F1 circus arrived, the drivers and teams were immediately impressed. The paddock facilities were well thought out and lacked for nothing and spectators found the same was true of the public amenities. A central 'Grand Plaza' covering 20 acres contains a wide range of concessions, retail and restroom facilities and entrances to spectator seating, as well as a large reflecting pool, lawn, and varying landscape zones.
Dominating the skyline is the observation tower, which was conceived as a visual finale to the central Grand Plaza as well as a dramatic and memorable backdrop for the Austin360 Amphitheater concert venue at its base. Inspired by the image of red streaks of glowing light that tail lights leave behind in the dark, a roof of red steel tubes fans out over the amphitheater stage then converges at the base of the tower to form a "veil" that sweeps up and over the central elevator core.
To reach the top of the tower, visitors can either ride a high-speed elevator or climb the 428 steps to their destination. Seemingly suspended from the red pipe steel canopy is a viewing deck that offers a sweeping panorama of the entire track, downtown Austin, and the nearby Hill Country from an elevation of 230 feet. A portion of the floor is structural laminated glass, allowing more daring visitors to look straight down to the ground below their feet.
The circuit layout itself was much praised by the drivers, who found the first sector in particular a rewarding challenge. And the first race delivered a memorable result, with the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton hounding Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel into a mistake while lapping traffic to secure a deserved victory.
Besides F1, the venue has quickly attracted other race series including the United SportsCar Championship, World Endurance Championship and V8 Supercars. MotoGP also held the Grand Prix of the Americas, though this too was not without its own controversies; in a move reminiscent of the F1 dispute, original race promoter Kevin Schwantz found himself sidelined when the circuit struck its own deal to run the race directly with MotoGP organisers from 2013 onwards.
Bumps prove a major upset
As the circuit has aged, the clay-like soil on which it is built began to settle and sink in various places, causing the track surface to become increasingly bumpy. Heavy rains which caused flooding in an around the track in 2015 had also created problems with some of the drainage pipes under the circuit becoming damaged and allowing water to flow around them, creating voids which then caused the track surface to sink.
Complaints from drivers and, particularly motorcycle riders, grew ever louder, to the point that the decision was taken in 2019 that repair works and resurfacing would have to be carried out. The circuit closed completely during for most of December 2019 and January 2020 to allow the pipes under the back straight to be dug up and placed elsewhere, before resurfacing work was carried out to fix other bumps, notably laid from the end of the start/finish straight through to the exit of Turn 2, along the length of the back straight and from Turn 14 to pit entry.
The first series to race on the new surface was the FIA World Endurance Championship and the repairs received a mixed reaction. While some drivers felt there had been improvements and some of the bumps had been eased, there were plenty others who felt many of the issues still remained and the repaving had brought new concerns, with the differing grip levels of the new and old asphalt providing set up headaches.
The Covid pandemic brought racing to a shuddering halt before anyone else got to sample it in anger, so it wasn't until the 2021 Formula One and MotoGP races that the final verdict was in. It wasn't good.
Ripples in the track surface had seemingly become even more exaggerated, with the MotoGP riders having to deal with some major moments over the bumps, particularly at Turns 2, 3 and 10. Yamaha's Fabio Quartararo was particularly vocal: “It’s just acceptable to race, I don’t know what to say. But it’s a joke. It’s not a MotoGP track for me."
After the race a number of riders suggested MotoGP should boycott the race in 2022 if the issues weren't fixed, piling further pressure on circuit bosses to find a fix.
Further dramas were experienced during the Formula One race a few weeks later when, despite some of the most troublesome areas being diamond ground in between events, the bumps caused both Mercedes and Red Bull to alter their setups. The rear wings of both Red Bulls had to be replaced after cracks were discovered in them.
Circuit bosses were unable to commit to a total repaving of the circuit - it is fully booked for most of the year - however, work to find a permanent solution in the areas highlighted by the riders got underway in January 2022.
COTA hired consultants to review asphalt designs and diagnose the parts of the track in need of resurfacing. Ground penetration radar and laser mapping equipment and software was used to map the track and identify the different repairs needed. From there, COTA worked to repave Turns 12 through 16 and build a concrete pad to reinforce the areas at Turn 2 and 10. Additionally, COTA worked with contractors to ensure the new asphalt and concrete foundations were even and flush.
All fingers are firmly crossed that the efforts have worked and the track surface has been evened out and returned to a good state. The dramas don't seem to have affected relations with Formula One bosses in any case, as COTA was confirmed as host of the US Grand Prix for five more years, ensuring the Teas venue's place on the calendar until at least 2026.
The latest images from Circuit of the Americas.