The US immigration officer at Houston Airport was in no doubt, “We’ve had half of Mexico coming through here heading for the race,” he said.
Mexican fans are expected to form a significant percentage of the 120,000 fans in the Circuit of the Americas on Sunday. Austin is just 200 miles from the Mexican border and it’s a short flight from population centres Monterrey and Mexico City. But if Tavo Hellmund, the man whose idea it was to bring F1 to Austin, has his way, Mexico will soon have its own Grand Prix. And he believes it will be the best attended race in the world.
Hellmund sold the Austin idea to Bernie Ecclestone, but then fell out with the other partners and investors in the project. He will be at the track this weekend to see his vision realised, but he has no stake in it. Instead he is lobbying for a Grand Prix in 2014 at the Hermanos Rodgriguez circuit in Mexico City, which last hosted a race in 1992. The track needs a £50 million revamp to bring it up to modern F1 standards, but this is more achievable in a short time frame than building a circuit from scratch. And with Sergio Perez about to hit the big time with McLaren next season and Esteban Gutierrez tipped to replace him at Sauber, time is of the essence to get F1’s flag planted in Mexico.
Hellmund told the Austin Statesman newspaper that he has partnered with Mexican entertainment giant CIE, owner of Ticketmaster in Mexico, which has a lease on the Hermanos Rodgriguez circuit and the funds to revamp it and promote the event. Ecclestone will be conscious that Hellmund was not able to deliver on the original vision he had for Austin, which fell to Bobby Epstein and Red McCoombs.
But there is no doubt that following the money and the audience is something F1 has done successfully over the years with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso opening up big new markets and fan bases for F1.
“It’s totally the right time,” said Hellmund.” No-one wants to waste the opportunity of having these drivers.”
Perez seems to think Gutierrez’ deal at Sauber is as good as done, “It will be good to have two Mexican drivers after so much time without a driver,” he said emphatically on Thursday. Sauber do not wish to be drawn on the matter.
Carlos Slim Jr, whose Telmex business has backed Sauber this season, is also a powerful voice in the background for Mexico, not to be underestimated. Once his driver gets ensconced at McLaren, Ayrton Senna’s old team and they see the quantum leap in attention and impact that will bring, things may well start to move.
And it does seem logical to rework an existing circuit close to the nation’s capital rather than start from scratch in Cancun, a concept that has been mooted for several years.
Mexico faces competition to get on the calendar, of course. Russia is due to come on stream in 2014/15, New Jersey is aiming for 2014 for its inaugural race and there have been efforts going on within F1 circles to get a race in Cape Town, South Africa (it was mentioned several times in F1’s flotation prospectus) so that F1 would cover every continent.
But the new Concorde Agreement envisages a maximum of 22 races, so there is room for expansion, especially if European events continue to struggle financially. Noises from Nurburgring don’t sound too encouraging and Hockenheim has struggled to fund a race ever year.