What I Discovered at My First F1 Race

The sights and sounds of Drive to Survive in real time.

F1 Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen
Kristin Shaw

The first thing you notice at an F1 circuit is the intense level of sound. For as long as F1 has been in existence, the roar of dozens of engines fills the air with the pulsating resonance of exhaust gases and combustion and for an enthusiast, it’s music.

It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells, like a carnival dedicated to fast cars. At the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas – my home base and the only permanent stop on the 2021 calendar in the U.S. and Canada – there is even a true carnival with rides for kids as well. The U.S. Grand Prix last weekend was the first F1 race I’ve ever attended, believe it or not, and it lived up to all I had imagined.

Kristin Shaw

What I Saw

Some of my friends were in the paddock area and got to see both the drivers and the cars up close; I stayed in or near the Acura suite where I could gaze at the NSX and daydream. When I attended my first NASCAR race in 2018, the paddock area was my favorite part. I loved watching the dollies stacked with tires roll by and the teams of mechanics methodically inspecting the cars and completing last-second tinkering. Observing how quickly a pit crew can change a set of tires blows me away. It’s so damn fast it’s as if some kind of tire-changing fairy godmother is doing it for them. POOF. Your tires are changed, Sir Hamilton. Carry on.

As a newbie, I didn’t know who all of the drivers were but I was familiar with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez with Red Bull Racing, Lewis Hamilton with Mercedes, Mick Schumacher with Haas, and Lance Stroll with Aston Martin (because I covered a story recently about a guy who ran a whole marathon wearing Stroll’s suit, boots, and helmet). A friend of mine is an executive in Austin who hosted Daniel Ricciardo from McLaren for dinner with her family last week so I knew a little about him, too. She says he's very nice, if that matters to you. Personally, I enjoy watching athletes/musicians/movie stars more when I know they're good people. 

Since I couldn’t identify each driver on the track, I turned to my friend Google and pulled up a list of F1 drivers and their corresponding numbers. I’d watch the cars race around the turn near the Acura suite, and then look down at my phone. Up, down, up, down until I started matching them up like a memory card game in my head.

I also had the benefit have having some fans at my table who knew what was going on (Jason Fenske of Engineering Explained and The Drive’s own Jerry Perez, I’m looking at you) and I surreptitiously listened as they commented on the race. By the end of the race, I was following along at a reasonable pace.

Kristin Shaw

What I Heard

As of 2014, FIA (the governing body of F1) decreed that the standard 2.4-liter V8 would be replaced by a turbocharged 1.6-liter V6 hybrid engine. The result is that the noise is no longer earsplitting, most certainly requiring earplugs, but still louder than the speakers in a movie theater, for instance.

All around me, people were talking about the impact of Drive to Survive. It doesn’t take a television analyst to see the correlation between F1 and the excitement of the crowd; there is no doubt the demystification of F1 in the U.S. will help grow the crowds even more.

In the Acura suite, during the last few laps the buzz grew louder and louder, and shouts of “Yes, Max!” reverberated downstairs by the televisions and upstairs on the open shaded platform. I was torn; do I stay upstairs and watch the cars race around Turn 13, or do I watch Turn 1 on the screens? I actually ran up and down the stairs a few times to decide. At the end of the race, I chose to watch it from inside, because the commentators were really getting into it and it was easier to follow anyway.

Kristin Shaw

What I discovered

I recognize how fortunate I am to have had the chance to see the race from a vantage point not everyone can access. While I saw lots of happy people having a blast, that wasn't the case across the board. It’s only fair to talk about the pros and cons of attending an event at COTA as a general ticket holder, like hours-long waits for shuttles, miles-long walks to parking lots, and less-than-optimal port-a-potties. 

One of our readers, Matthew Scalera, commented on Hazel Southwell’s post earlier this week that COTA was “so packed the venue literally felt inhumane.”

He said, “I was there, and the beers guys had no water, no beer, food was selling out. The food vendors had lines as long as drag strips. This year was way too many people, and I’ve been going to COTA since 2012.”

Kristin Shaw

Another reader, Diego Martinez, was effusive: “Loved every minute of it. We have been to most of the F1 races held at COTA and I have to say that this year it was special and I believe most of the crowd felt that way. People were nice, people were respectful, people helped each other out and we made room for more and more people on the turn one hill (we really need a nickname for it). What an amazing time.”

And an intrepid student found a way to make it through a whole weekend without spending much more than the cost of the ticket. That’s almost impressive as Verstappen’s win.

“Yeah, that was probably the most remarkable sporting event I have ever been to, period,” pilot_paul_r commented. “Even as a college student, I somehow found the way to scrounge up the cash to go, and I do not regret it at all. An even more impressive feat was that I got through the entire weekend on only $7.85 in concessions.”

My experience was incredible, and I'm so glad I got to go. F1 race: check. Next year, I want to check out the paddock. 

Got a tip? Send the writer a note: kristin.shaw@thedrive.com