Austin rocks, literally I suppose. After all, this is the self-proclaimed ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ and from pretty much every bar on every corner you can hear bands playing every night of the week. But the city itself rocks and it’s been lovely to spend some time here over the last week and a half.
The World Finals of F1 In Schools took place in Austin this year, and as the host of the event I had to come out earlier than I normally would for the Grand Prix. Which hasn’t been a hardship, although it does mean I’ve had way too much Texas BBQ!
So we head off to Mexico City now for a quiet few days and the next Grand Prix. Quiet few days? I don’t think so. It’s F1ESTA time and the party is about to start.
Back in Monza, I caught up with Rodrigo Sanchez, the marketing director for the Mexican GP race promoters CIE, the man charged with filling the Grandstands for that difficult 2nd race back on the F1 calendar. As many a good band will tell you, after a successful debut album, the pressure ramps up to repeat the critical acclaim for the second. And with Mexico City selling out as quick as Usain Bolt with a good tail wind on its return last year, repeating the exercise with 10% more seats to sell this year, is no easy task.
At the time, around 80% of the tickets had been sold. “A good base” Rodrigo told me, “the rest is just the foam on the coffee. But Mexicans like to do everything at the last minute, so we’re now ramping up our efforts to ensure that all the tickets go.”
Much like at Silverstone, a huge amount of work went in to create a Festival atmosphere for the race weekend last year. “We built bars and beer gardens and restaurants. We invested a lot of effort into those areas. We added a concert stage and have bands playing throughout the day as we can’t expect people to just sit in the Grandstands for three days solid watching the cars. We see this as more of a festival than just a race.”
All of which needs money of course. Formula 1® is expensive to stage but the costs of staging the Grand Prix in Mexico City are split three ways, so that the promoter isn’t left to pick up one single, rather large, tab.
CIE purchased the commercial rights to the race track, which is owned by the government. The Government pay the fee for the race whilst CIE pay for the improvements that were needed to the track and the grandstands. Meanwhile the local government help with traffic management and policing.
“It’s like a table” said Sanchez, “ You need all four legs for the table to be up, take one away and the table falls down. So we need all three sides to have this race. I think we’re a really good example of how public and private sectors, if they work well they can do really great things.”
“But we also need a reason for people to go to the race, and we have Checo and Esteban.”
Ah yes, Sergio Perez, the poster boy for Mexico City during Grand Prix week where it’s impossible not to have him staring down at you from a giant billboard whilst you crawl your way through one of the cities many traffic jams. I asked Rodrigo if the grandstands would still be full if there wasn’t a Mexican driver?
“I think it could work but you wouldn’t see the same passion and energy. Mexican people get behind their top sports stars. We don’t win lots of medals at the Olympics, very few represent their country at the top level and really the top star at the moment is Checo, he gives the Mexican people a reason to follow him.
On the subject of Sergio, Ottmar Szafnauer, Chief Operating Officer for Force India, acknowledges his importance to the race in Mexico City, “He’s the best Mexican driver so because of that, he draws an audience to the track and on TV, so pretty important. He’s got a whole country supporting him. 180 million I guess, all willing him to succeed. If you look at Germany they’ve got 4 drivers on the grid and only 60 million population, so you can see in that just how important he is. There’s Esteban as well, but it’s all about Checo, he’s the better driver and in the better car. He’s important to us too, not that our future isn’t bright without him, but we like Checo and that’s why he’s staying.”
Szafnauer acknowledged that Perez had also increased the attention on his team when they head to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. “His success and popularity has turned Mexico into a second home race for us, the fans are passionate and knowledgeable long time racing fans, in many ways, just like the fans that come to cheer us on at Silverstone. The similarities are everywhere, except the (Mexican) waves are slightly bigger in Mexico City.”
This week’s race is the second of a five year deal that CIE have struck. Time will tell if the second coming of Formula 1® to Mexico City lasts beyond that but the promoters would love to see more races on the American continent to help fans keep their interest in the sport throughout the year. Another race in the USA? Maybe Argentina? Sanchez wants the Mexican Grand Prix to become a classic. “We’d need to see how things shape up in the 5 years of the contract, but for now, we’d love to have it for a very long time.”
And let’s hope it does stay around for a long while to come. The return to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez was met with widespread approval last year. No matter that the altitude left you puffing and panting with every step. The atmosphere was electric and as is always the case at Silverstone, Formula 1® fans are there in large numbers, not just on race day, but each and every day of the weekend.
A proper F1® Festival, the potential even for a title decider and even though I could do with a bit of a rest after Austin, I can’t wait to head down to Mexico City again.