Its bid for the 2013 drivers’ and constructors’ championships scuttled by Sebastian Vettel and Infiniti Red Bull Racing for another season, the team from Maranello, Italy, chose Formula One’s next-best option to usher in its second visit to Circuit of The Americas on Thursday evening.
Scuderia Ferrari partied, Texas-style, during a sponsorship news conference disguised as a cocktail party. It began with a photo op outside the Velocity Lounge with “Dakota,” a Texas Longhorn steer whom owner Ralph Fisher of La Grange said had attended both of George W. Bush’s presidential inaugural balls in Washington. The festivities included a “quick-draw” competition (with cap pistols), a mechanical bull-riding contest (the winner received a Ferrari wristwatch), the obligatory barbecue and Dr Pepper floats.
Clearly, the multibillion dollar business model of F1 extends beyond the racetrack for Ferrari, the Italian team whose name and Prancing Horse emblem have been synonymous with the sport since its inception in 1950. The Scuderia is the most successful team in F1 history with 16 constructors’ titles, most recently in 2008, and 15 drivers’ championships, most recently with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
But F1 in real-time basically has been all Seb Vettel, all the time. The 26-year-old German wrapped up his fourth consecutive World Driving Championship with a victory in the Indian Grand Prix two races ago. Vettel’s subsequent victory in Abu Dhabi was his record-tying seventh in a row and 11th of 2013.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, a two-time world champion, topped Friday’s opening practice session with a time of 1 minute, 38.343 seconds around the 3.4-mile, 20-turn road course. But the Spaniard is a massive 130 points behind Vettel heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix. Ferrari sits a humbling third in the constructors’ race, 11 points behind Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team.
Revised engine and aero regulations set to go into effect next year, calling for turbocharged V6s to replace the normally aspirated V8s, are being hailed as the biggest technical change to ever hit F1 — and perhaps put an end to Red Bull’s podium stranglehold.
Meanwhile, Ferrari polished its brand before the blood-red garbed “tifosi” among the 58,276 who watched Friday’s two practices at Austin’s COTA, first-purpose-built F1 facility in America.
“It’s incredible in the U.S.,” Stefano Domenicali, team principal of Scuderia Ferrari, said during a presentation on behalf of worldwide banking partner Santander. “This is the most important market from the road car side [for Ferrari], and Formula One is not really so popular in the United States. So the contribution that this facility, this Grand Prix, can give not only to us is incredible; our awareness here is huge. But the importance of this Grand Prix to enhance the value of Formula One in general is incredible.”
Built at a cost of $400 million, COTA and Travis County played host to a near-sellout of 117,429 fans last November for F1’s first race in the USA since 2007 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. COTA has joined Fair Park in Dallas in July 1984 as the second Texas venue to play host to F1’s “Flying Circus.”
Vettel, runner-up to former world champion Lewis Hamilton here last year, has continued to heap praise upon the facility viewed as F1’s American home … at least for the next eight years of its contract.
“I think it was fantastic last year,” said Vettel, who topped Friday’s second practice sheet at 1 minute, 37.305 seconds. “To be honest, we were all very surprised. Obviously, up to that point, Formula One didn’t have the best record in the United States so it was great to see that there were so many people. Apart from the track itself, the whole city was living the Grand Prix. You could feel that there was a special vibe and that everyone was looking forward to the event.”
Domenicali similarly is convinced that COTA is not a one-hit wonder. “We saw when we came in Indianapolis the first year  was an incredible success,” Domenicali said. “Then we didn’t have the plan to invest to keep the momentum from the days of the [race] weekend through the other days of the year. I think it’s important that we start a new era in Austin. From race-to-race we need to keep speaking about Formula One, because this is the only way to make sure that Formula One will become popular in this fantastic country.”