The Circuit of the America’s was for a number of years the jewel in the crown for Formula One in the United States of America. Tavo Helmund announced in July 2010 the plans for the site in Travis County and in November 2012 the first race was held with just 117,000 spectators in attendance for the entire weekend.
The popularity of the circuit and the event has grown over 11 years and this year saw a record crowd of 445,000 fans attend the three day Sprint weekend event.
Fans suffered in searing COTA heat
However, exceptional heat for this time of year exposed the circuits shortcomings as exhausted fans joined huge lines for water and waited over an hour and a half for trackside transportation without shade in a brutal heat.
The Circuit de Catalunya/Barcelona was criticised for similar disorganisation in 2022 and threatened by the FIA that its license tab host F1 could be revoked. It may well be a similar warning is issued to COTA’s organisers and the minimum they could do is offer some shaded areas other than at the paddock and main grandstand.
It was not just the fans who had issues with the 2023 US GP, but drivers too were unhappy with some the circuit’s ageing infrastructure.
Max Verstappen was scathing in his view of the track condition suggesting it was better suited to a rally car than an Formula One machine.
Hamilton praises “legendary’ circuit
Lewis Hamilton once again praised the ‘legendary layout’ claiming, “This is right up there with Silverstone,” said the Mercedes driver after qualifying on Friday. “It really is a legendary layout that I think every driver finds really tricky.”
There world champion was less complimentary despite winning both Sprint races and the 2023 Grand Prix. In his post race press conference, Verstappen was blunt: “It needs to be redone.
“At the moment, it feels like it’s better suited to a rally car. I’m jumping and bouncing around. In an F1 car, probably you don’t even see it as much because we are glued to the ground because of the downforce, but the bumps and jumps that we have in some places are way too much.
“I don’t think it’s F1 level. I love this track, honestly, the layout is amazing. But we definitely need new tarmac and it needs to be a lot smoother for the coming years because we have already been asking for this for quite a few years and it’s not really been done.”
Verstappne: ‘COTA better for a rally car’
Given the new style ground effect cars which derive a significant amount of their downforce from the underfloor low pressure, sucking the cars onto the ground, the problem has become exacerbated since 2022.
Despite Lewis Hamilton praising the payout of the circuit he too addressed the pro quality of the racing surface though in more diplomatic terms than Verstappen.
“I like some of the bumps because it adds character to a circuit, but there are way too many,” he explained.
“We’re open to discussing with them and helping them, like maybe not doing the whole thing so it costs a fortune. From the last corner to the start line, for example, that’s smooth, but then the rest of it is bumpy. But there are other areas that they could patch up.”
Hamilton stripped of P2
Having taken the fight to Max Verstappen during the race, Hamilton crossed the finish just two seconds behind the world champion who had been complaining about his brakes for much of the Grand Prix.
Yet later disaster was to arrive for Mercedes and Hamilton as the FIA technical delegate referred car number 44 along with Charles Lecler’s Ferrari for “not being in compliance” for the article in question.
The technical regulations on this matter dictate: “The thickness of the plank assembly measured normal to the lower surface must be 10mm ± 0.2mm and must be uniform when new.
“A minimum thickness of 9mm will be accepted due to wear, and conformity to this provision will be checked at the peripheries of the designated holes.”
Stewards explains reason for ‘plank’
Of course the plank is designed to stop the cars running dangerously low to the ground as retired steward Tim Mayer explained after the event,
“With these cars, that create most of their downforce with the underfloor, you have to have some way of stopping them from just absolutely sending the car right down to the ground,” he said.
“So this plank, which is down the middle of the car, is a piece of… everybody has a little bit of different stuff but jabroc is what they mostly call it – it wears and that means that you can’t go all the way down as far as you want.
“If you wear that plank too much, it means the car has been too low to the ground and that downforce that you get from that underfloor effect is more than we care for them to have.”
With Ferrari and Mercedes playing catch up to Red Bull, for incremental performance they have both clearly pushed the set up envelope too far.
Further, Mercedes hailed their latest upgrade in COTA which included a new floor design and this Toto Wolff admitted may well have contributed to Hamilton being disqualified from his second place in the Grand Prix together with a bumpy track and a shortest up window.
“Set-up choices on a sprint weekend are always a challenge with just one hour of free practice,” Wolff added.
“And even more so at a bumpy circuit like COTA and running a new package.
“In the end, all of that doesn’t matter; others got it right where we got it wrong and there’s no wiggle room in the rules. We need to take it on the chin, do the learning, and come back stronger next weekend.”
Mercedes failed to run a full fuel load simulation in the only practice session on Friday, had they done so they would have realised the setup error and the wearing of the plank would have been evident.