The man who transformed the race in Austin from personal fantasy into vivid reality has been driven out of the picture
The man who transformed the United States Grand Prix in Austin from personal fantasy into vivid reality will watch Sunday’s race with a mixture of pride and sadness.
Tavo Hellmund, a former driver and a close friend of the sport’s chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, had the original vision for the 0m (£284m) project and even designed much of the track, which borrows features from some of the world’s leading circuits.
Backers see Sunday’s race as the beginning of the final breakthrough for Formula One in the United States. This will be the 52nd Grand Prix held here, the first for five years, and Austin becomes the 10th venue after Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix and Indianapolis.
The event is already a 120,000 sell-out, with fans expected from Mexico and Brazil, and there is also huge corporate support which is likely to be significant for the team’s sponsors.
But the bigger it is the more painful it is for Hellmund, who will have no official role to play this weekend after an unhappy and unsuccessful power struggle. He says: “This is, after all, my baby. And to see Formula One cars tear down the straightway on Sunday will be the fulfilment of a project I worked on for more than a decade.”
Hellmund had announced in July 2010, that he had signed a deal to bring Formula One back to America. But after realising he needed more backing, he fell out with his fellow investors, Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs, with the former having stepped in to rescue the venture with some last-ditch deal making after Ecclestone had cancelled the contract. Hellmund filed a suit against the other investors, ultimately lost control and then was squeezed out.
Hellmund was introduced to Ecclestone by his father, the promoter Gustavo Hellmund-Rosas. The elder Hellmund, now desperately ill, is expected to accompany his son to the race. Hellmund told the Guardian on Thursday: “I’m not really bitter. I single-handedly got Formula One on the map here. I’m the one who brought it here. I named the track and they built it as I designed it. I’m very proud. Things didn’t work out the way they might have but we should all be very proud.”
The affable Epstein – “I’m decent at maths” – has been doing a lot of talking lately. He made his multi-millions managing a bond fund. “This race has been one of the world’s great dramas,” he says. “We had our struggles, our birthing pains, but we’re through those now. Contracts can be difficult, and this was a very ambitious project on an ambitious schedule, and in a climate where it’s very tough to raise capital.”
He says he is “not a billionaire. Certainly not after this – I’m not even close. The fastest way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.”
Now Epstein, who watched his first F1 race in Dallas in 1984, when he was 19, says: “We have a track but we have no track record. But we want both the driver and the fan to say this is a top-notch track, because we have concentrated on both of them.”
Epstein will not quite say it, but he obviously feels that he has presided over the preparation of the best circuit in Formula One. “We haven’t set out to be the second-best track in the world,” he says with a smile.
It is certainly spectacular, with the steep climb into the first corner presenting a dramatic opening. And the views from many of the stands are stunning.
“We absolutely think this track will make Formula One in America,” he says. “Turn One should be our signature. It is starting and there could be some good action there. This is also the best track for viewing we have ever had in America. It is possible to see seven to 10 corners from many areas.”
Epstein feels that Texas can attract a lot of support from South America. “We’ve got tremendous Latino influence in Texas. We’re very close to Mexico, where Sergio Pérez draws interest to the sport. But we want the eyes of the world to be on Texas this weekend.”
They will be. And there is a feeling that this time F1 might just be here to stay.