In conversation - Bernie Ecclestone & Tavo Hellmund 11 Aug 2010
Formula One racing has a long and illustrious past in the United States, but one that has been rather sporadic of late. No surprise then that news the US Grand Prix will be back on the calendar for 2012 has been met with universal excitement. For fans, seeing F1 cars battle it out again on American soil is a dream come true, whilst for teams, manufacturers and sponsors the marketing potential of a stateside race is second to none. However, for the two men responsible for the return - Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone and Tavo Hellmund, managing partner of Full Throttle Productions LP - its been a far more personal quest
Q: The United States are considered to be one of the most important markets for Formula One racing. In 2012 there will be again a United States Grand Prix, in Austin, Texas. Who came up with this idea?
Tavo Hellmund: I considered Austin as the ultimate place and I went to Bernie with this idea. Austin has developed immensely over the last 15 years - in every aspect - so for me there was no better place to hold the United States Grand Prix. The State of Texas has developed into the 11th biggest global economy and many of the Fortune 500 companies have their headquarters here. And Austin is the capital. Think of the ideal location of the city: my fellow countrymen can reach it easily, as well as fans from central and South America. In this respect its perfectly central. My philosophy is that you will succeed if you are at the right place at the right time - and for a Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, I considered it to be the right time. We have a contract for the next ten years, but if you ask me we could race here for the next 40 years!
Q: Bernie, what impressions did you take home from Austin?
Bernie Ecclestone: First of all, when Formula One returns to the United States we wanted to go to a place that has global recognition. Texas fulfils that perfectly, so Tavos plan and our needs matched perfectly. And Austin is so beautiful. Anyone visiting for the first time will be very impressed. And now comes something important: Ive known Tavo since he was born.
Q: How come?
TH: My father and Bernie have been friends for decades. As a child I would spend summer vacations with Bernie so I have been familiar with Formula One since I started to walk. One way or another, F1 was always a topic of conversation in our family as my father and Bernie were responsible for the return of the Mexican Grand Prix in the 80s. Bernie and I always stayed in touch, he was always interested in my projects and sent his congratulations when we did well, including organizing motorsport events or music festivals in the US. Now Bernie is banking that I not only know about the needs of Formula One, but also the predilection of the American fans.
Q: What needed to happen for the Austin F1 project to take off?
BE: We had to verify if it was feasible - from the security aspect of such a mega event down to the most peculiar facet, until we were confident that it would work perfectly.
Q: So far its been a tough endeavour for Formula One racing to gain the affection of US motorsport fans. How do you think Austin will manage that?
TH: It will be great. One of the reasons is that I have fantastic partners in Red McCombs (McCombs Partners) and Bobby Epstein (Prophet Capital Management). Reds legendary ownership experience in the NBA and NFL are huge assets and we have hired various agencies and staff that are the best of the best. Their experience ranges from the entertainment/business world to being involved in the election campaigns of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. Their goal and ours is not only to establish the US Grand Prix at home, but also make it a worldwide event. America shall be proud of it. Therefore we will build a track that will stand as a symbol. Bernie has given us the platform and you can be sure that we will use it! Prominent Texans will support us in making the US Grand Prix in Texas a national and international affair.
Q: Can you drop names?
TH: Well, MotoGP legend Kevin Schwantz - one of my closest friends - is involved in the project. And Austin is home to many internationally prominent actors, athletes and business people. Suffice to say, we have a very deep bench.
Q: Thats all well and good, but isnt NASCAR too strong a competitor?
BE: Stop! Whenever weve raced in the US we had legions of fans that were fascinated and thrilled. It was the case in Long Beach and in Dallas, also in Indianapolis. But the promoters there believed that they could make a better cut financially. The problems in Indianapolis had nothing to do with us. Weve been always popular with the fans in the United States.
TH: Thats true. What you need to have is the total package, which is extremely difficult to do. Fortunately that is the fact in our case. And what could be better for a city or region than to have this ultimate high-tech-sport with a global audience in your backyard? And with a permanent facility
BE: Exactly - thats what is needed. Lets face it, its no big deal for a promoter to build fences and crash barriers around a street circuit, tear them down again and pocket the profits.
TH: We are planning something grand, something that has permanence. Bernie has brilliant ideas on how to inject thrills into the race weekend with support events, mega parties in the park. This is no fairytale or witchcraft - I know that we can do it, but hard work lies before us.
Q: How will the race track look like?
TH: Amazing! I have conveyed my ideas to Hermann Tilke and Peter Wahl who are the most established racetrack architects of our times. The area has natural elevation differences, which promises a fast track with difficult corners. But the most essential thing is that has to be a masterpiece in its suitability for fans. Spectators have to be able to see large parts of the track from wherever they are.
Q: What is your schedule?
TH: The layout is just about to be finished and we will present it to the FIA in September.
Q: Many American motorsport fans love that barbeque-type atmosphere at a race, where they can bring their camper and have their own evening entertainment
TH: Absolutely. Thats exactly what we are planning, as we are not only staging a race but a happening where racing is just a part of it.
Q: Bernie, how important is it for you personally to bring F1 back to the US?
BE: Its very simple: we call ourselves a world championship and that implies having a race in the US. But we would not come here at any price and we would not be willing to settle for a rotten compromise. Now we have found someone who thinks the same way, and that means first class, in every respect.
Q: Car manufacturers like Mercedes must be cheering the return of F1 to the US
BE: Of course they do.
TH: And they will recognise immediately why they have good reason to cheer - because I dont want to make just Bernie or myself happy, but more importantly our fans, the region and our partners. And the manufacturers I consider our partners. I could not rest easy knowing that anyone in this chain is not happy. Or to use a metaphor, I would not sell you a Budweiser with no Bud in the bottle
BE: Tavo, hold it - no advertisements please
Q: Do you think manufacturers and teams will support you?
TH: I am positive about it. They will send show cars and people over because its the logical thing to do. Everyone involved can only win: Formula One, the teams, the manufacturer, the State of Texas, the fans - simply everyone!
Q: Wouldnt it add to the picture if there were an American team or an American driver? Just to cement the success
TH: Bernie thinks so I guess. Of course it would be fantastic to have an American driver. A team would great, sure, but its no real necessity. But I see different options. There is that young Mexican driver Perez who is doing a great job in GP2 right now. For him the 2012 US Grand Prix could be a sort of home race: the distance from Austin to Mexico is a mere 250 kilometres!
BE: His career is followed in Mexico with huge interest, that I can confirm. Regarding an American driver, we have tried that lately but obviously whats missing is the right attitude. You can race successfully in the US without the huge effort you need to succeed in Formula One. But to have someone like Danica Patrick in F1 would be a perfect advert.
Q: Bernie, have you already been thinking of a slot for the 2012 race in the calendar?
BE: We have to wait and see, but it would be logical to place it close to the race in Montreal and that would mean somewhere in June.
TH: Of course I have a preference, but feel confident that Bernie will do what is best for us to ensure the success of the USGP.
Q: Will there be more than one race in the US in the future?
BE: Lets make one thing clear: Austin will be the US Grand Prix. But that does not mean that we cannot have another race in the US with another label. I would be insane if there were the option to race in New York and I said no thanks. But for now thats nothing more than a pipe dream. The reality is we have a contract with Austin and it is there where the US Grand Prix will be staged.