Formula One arrives in Miami riding something of an American wave that has left many within the paddock a little shell-shocked.
After more than 40 years of trying - and failing - to make it Stateside, Grand Prix racing comes to the Sunshine State in the midst of a frenzy. Ticket sales for the weekend at the Hard Rock Stadium are reportedly close to a sell-out even at $500 for raceday general admission.
A cursory inspection of the circuit’s web site offers three-day Turn 18 seats selling for a ruinous $1,325. But, post-covid, plenty seem to be willing. Only a handful of more than 5,000 seats were available in the vast expanse of 17 grandstands there.
That’s something of a transition from my earliest experiences in America, at Phoenix in 1990. The attendance was less than that of a nearby ostrich race. At the time the cultural chasm was such that there was information in the programme helping locals to pronounce the names of all the unknown foreign drivers. ‘Air-tune Senn-ah’ was a particularly favourite I recall.
In the decades since, F1 has blindly plugged away at America with little success. At times it didn’t help itself. At Indianapolis in 2005, internal politics resulted in a shambolic six-car race and a walkout by many of the 130,000 crowd. “The death of F1 in America” read one headline. Well, not quite.
It turns out the key to cracking one of the biggest markets was not a better show or tougher racing, but an open heart. Netflix’s behind-the-scenes 'Drive to Survive' docuseries has grabbed the fascination of a new generation to such an extent that F1 now eclipses America’s two leading motorsport series - Nascar and Indycar.
“It’s crazy, you’ve got probably a 90 per cent chance of picking [every weekend] which of two guys are going to win… there is not much side-by-side racing compared to Nascar, yet the fans and media love it,” lamented racer Denny Hamlin to the Miami Herald last year.
Cosmopolitan Miami is a perfect fit but a curious blend of contradictions; 70 per cent Hispanic, its population ranks 44th in US by size but a UBS study recorded the second biggest concentration of banks after New York and a corporate skyline that sits third.
While it appears to have got much right, a curious, fake, marina complete with yachts and an artificial sea has hit a much publicised duff – and tacky - note.
But anticipation is as high among F1’s drivers as it is for fans. This untried track is an interesting blend of very fast and very slow corners with little in between. The design smacks of Jeddah’s ultra-fast Corniche.
Snaking layouts may look good on the in-car camera but are not usually conducive to side-by-side action. What they are good for is crashing. With the narrow and ultra-slow section around T15, it will be a miracle if there isn’t a safety car come Sunday.
Ferrari come to Florida after their first significant reverse of the year at Imola having established themselves as the major force of 2022.
The last race on home turf was disastrous; championship leader Charles Leclerc’s late race gamble was almost Shakespearean in its outcome. A bid for fastest lap and its single extra point ended in a crash and 10 lost points.
He surely learnt there are too many imponderables already with new cars, new rules, new circuits and new tyres to voluntarily throw in any more just now. In that respect Miami is just a list of unknowable landmines.
With Max Verstappen on the march again, Leclerc must reassemble Maranello’s challenge quickly.
A special public torture seems to be reserved for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, who arrives in America at this key moment as the sport’s biggest star Stateside but at a low personal ebb, perhaps the lowest of his entire career after the calamities of Abu Dhabi in December.
Curiously with Mercedes’ dilemma gathering speed (unlike their car) Hamilton has frequently disappeared into a funk instead of issuing the rallying call his team needs. A helmet logo that says ‘Still I Rise’ rarely seemed so redundant.
He’s not the only veteran in hot water. Question-marks hang already over Sebastian Vettel’s troubled Aston Martin career. And Daniel Ricciardo too, with talk that the sport’s quest for an American driver could see him replaced by 22-year-old Colton Herta.
In a sport already owned by Americans, racing now in America, with a third US race scheduled in Las Vegas next year, it is not difficult to spot the trend. Miami may be a new hue but the American invasion of F1 is well advanced.