Ebullient fans flocked to Austin to welcome the sport back to US shores, writes Richard Biebrich.
Texas takes hat off to Formula One's US return
It is practice afternoon in an area that is generally considered an American football haven, especially when the University of Texas college team are playing well.
But as you look out into a crowd at the Circuit of the Americas (Cota) track just outside of Austin, the Texas state capital, you will not just see Longhorn and John Deere caps but plenty of Ferrari and Lotus toppers, too.
But only one man is wearing a car for a hat.
"I'm an F1 fan," says Kim Reimer, a mop of silver hair flowing out from under a hat shaped like a Formula One car, "and I like dressing up in hats."
Austin may not be Suzuka, where costume is the order of the day when F1 is in town, but this is only its first Formula One event. And judging from the enthusiasm from those in attendance, Texas may just have a huge hit on their hands.
If your image of the Lone Star State is that of flat, rocky lands full of shrub and cactus, guess again. The eastern part is grassy, rolling hills, something Hermann Tilke took advantage of when he designed the Cota.
"The track looks like Laguna Seca," says a bystander, wearing a hat from the famous California circuit that, as the printing says on the side of his cap, is "home to the corkscrew", a twisting, downhill turn.
There is no corkscrew at Cota, but Tilke has apparently borrowed features from other tracks for inspiration.
The starting straight immediately climbs uphill then dives to the left and sweeps back up to the right into Turns 3 and 4, where the layout is reminiscent of Silverstone's Becketts section.
The esses looked borrowed from Suzuka. Another corner seems to copy Turn 8 at Istanbul.
"I can see a little of Hockenheim in the infield," the McLaren-Mercedes driver Jenson Button told a television station.
Reimer is having his picture taken with someone who has recognised him from one of the other Formula One events he has travelled to over the years.
"I went to all of the Indy races," he says, "and I've met people who say they saw me at Indianapolis. It was a different hat but I'm the only one who wears these things."
Someone else comes up, shouts "you made it!" to him and they embrace. More pictures are taken.
Both Reimer and his brother Karl, who is sporting a retro Renault F1 shirt, have travelled, with their mother Katie, from Tallahassee, Florida for the event, the second F1 race Kim has attended this year.
"I went to the Montreal race in June," he says. "First time I've gone to two races in the same season."
The Austin vistas are amazing. The track climbs, dips and twists through 20 turns over its 5.4km run.
Aside from the stands, grassy hillsides are packed with spectators. And everywhere you look there seems to be a big screen to help you keep up with the action.
"The only negative thing I can possibly think about is the increase in traffic," Karl Reimer says.
Not many things fell short but the souvenir booths were only accepting cash because they had no electricity and therefore no credit card terminals, but they were still packed and the Lotus stand, perhaps still riding the wave of Kimi Raikkonen's victory in Abu Dhabi last time out, had sold out of T-shirts.
"There's a lot of Formula One people here," says Karl Reimer, who is happy F1 is back in the US. "I think it's real important. It makes me feel like we're a third-world country when we don't have one."
A couple from Germany, wearing Red Bull paraphernalia, laughed when asked if they were Mark Webber supporters. And a group of Irish men from San Francisco had come to town without having tickets to get in. Just a minor detail.
Another group from Denver decided the race was the perfect "guy trip", so, 16 hours later, here they are.
"I grew up as a Formula One fan," says 61-year-old John Stevenson. "My family is a Scottish immigrant family, and I go back to the days of Jim Clark and Lotus.
"We don't just care about Nascar. Yes, it's a large spectator sport here, but I don't think people discount Formula One here."
Trevor Ley, 44, who along with Stevenson, is attending the race with Steven Corn, who has brought along his 12-year-old son, Garrison, says: "I think it's just a matter of letting it catch on."
Getting to the track on Friday was not a problem. Leaving was another story.
"Y'all come downtown to Austin and party," a spectator shouted in the stands, and with most of the fans staying in or near downtown Austin, the shuttles and all the roads were packed.
"I feel for those people going downtown," a bus driver says over the radio.
Traffic or not, Garrison Corn was certainly enjoying his first motorsport event.
"This," he says with a smile, "is really cool."
And if Formula One can win over young fans like Garrison, perhaps a beachhead in the US has finally been established.
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