United States GP track breakdown: The ups and downs of Austin’s Circuit of The Americas

It’s official, y’all — Formula One is back in the Lone Star State.

Austin, Texas is the home of the United States Grand Prix and Circuit of The Americas, the country’s only purpose-built F1 track. Construction began on Dec. 21, 2010, and it wasn’t until two years later that COTA joined the calendar (the paving process beginning three months before the inaugural race). MotoGP joined the circuit a year after Formula One, and the NASCAR Cup Series entered the scene in 2021.

COTA pulls different characteristics from the greats, like Maggots and Becketts from Silverstone influencing Turns 3-6, but it is unique in its own right. Atop of Turn 1 sits a massive American flag (because as the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas), and the iconic stars and stripes are sprinkled throughout the track design. The complex is on 1,500 acres just outside of downtown Austin, which you can see in the distance. There are rolling hills, and the elevation change is 130 feet.

“It certainly feels very American out here,” Daniel Ricciardo said Thursday. “And it’s something that we’ve all enjoyed and got behind.”

As F1 gears up for the grand prix weekend — which includes a sprint race — here’s what you need to know about COTA, a bumpy track with low-speed corners.

Key Specs

An ode to the greats

Hermann Tilke designed COTA in collaboration with HKS, an American architectural company.

A former racing driver and engineer, Tilke established Tilke Engineering in 1984 and has since become one of the most well-known circuit designers (and one of the few recognized by the FIA). His first big F1 job came in the 1990s when he transformed Austria’s Österreichring into the A1-Ring. Then he helped with tweaking the likes of Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya, Germany’s Nürburgring and Japan’s Fuji Speedway.

COTA’s layout tips a hat to some iconic segments at well-known circuits. Turns 3-6 take cues from Silverstone’s Maggots-Becketts-Chapel and Suzuka’s S Curves. Turns 12-15 are a nod to Hockenheim’s stadium section.COTA TX turn3 5 esses 1

Building COTA, though, was not smooth sailing. The track missed initial payments to Formula One Management after the management company faced hiccups in funding and other behind-the-scenes disagreements. Bernie Ecclestone issued a warning to the owners and promoters in Nov. 2011: Fix it by December or be dropped from the 2012 schedule.

COTA’s notoriously uneven nature

Clay-like soil surrounds the track, which became increasingly bumpy over the years. Heavy rains in 2015 began washing away the soil, and the drainage pipes were damaged. The track surface began sinking in spots.

Yet changes weren’t made until right before the pandemic, despite drivers and motorcyclists raising criticism over the track surface. COTA closed down for part of December 2019 and January 2020 to relocate the pipes from under the track and resurface at certain points. The FIA World Endurance Championship was the first series to compete on the new surface. Its drivers gave mixed reactions — and brought new concerns, like grip level.

The COVID-19 global pandemic put a pause on the surface revival, and MotoGP didn’t tackle it until 2021. Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo said even with the resurfacing, “it’s even worse.”  He later added, “But it’s a joke. It’s not a MotoGP track for me.”

COTA resurfaced the entire track the following winter, but when F1 arrived in Texas in 2022, the cars visibly bounced during Friday’s practice. And a year later, the bumpiness remains, though it’s not discussed publicly as much as it used to be.

“It’s very bumpy here,” Sunday’s provisional pole sitter Charles Leclerc said. “And the car definitely felt good on bumps today, which gives you quite a bit of confidence to push through at high speed, which normally is our weakness, but maybe because our car was good on those bumps. We could at least match the others, and then our car was strong at medium and low speeds.”

A drive down motorsports memory lane

Turn 1

Drivers start each lap with a serious climb to the top of Turn 1, a rise of 133 feet.

COTA TX turn1 v2 1

Turns 11 and 12

The circuit’s first major straight lies between Turns 11 and 12, and it’s been a spot for incidents in both F1 and NASCAR.

In 2021, rainy conditions hampered the drivers’ visibility. Martin Truex Jr. didn’t see Michael McDowell slow down, and Truex hit the back of McDowell’s car. But the incident got worse when Cole Custer hit Truex at full speed, sending him in the air, while Custer’s car caught on fire.

On the F1 side, Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso — soon-to-be teammates at the time — collided during last year’s race. Alonso was attempting to pass Stroll, and they made contact, which sent Alonso into a wheel-y.

COTA TX turn12 16 1

The final corner of COTA is dedicated to Mario Andretti, the track’s original ambassador. He drove the first-ever lap at the circuit when it opened in 2012.

Andretti won the 1978 world championship and 12 grands prix victories — but his motorsport success wasn’t only in F1. He won the 1969 Indianapolis 500, the 1967 Daytona 500 and four IndyCar titles.

NASCAR’s 2022 and 2023 endings

During the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series race at COTA, late-race contact on the final lap decided the winner. Ross Chastain, A.J. Allmendinger and Alex Bowman were bumping their way to the finish line, and Chastain found himself stuck behind Allmendinger while Bowman sailed alongside them both. Chastain put the nose of his No. 1 car on Allmendinger’s bumper, causing the No. 16 to hit Bowman before spinning. Ultimately, Chastain took the checkered flag.

And then there’s the ending to the 2023 NASCAR Truck Series race, where Zane Smith’s truck caught on fire while celebrating.

Trivia Corner 

  • Full throttle: 44 percent of the lap (per FIA)
  • Average time lost when pitting: 22 seconds
  • Winning strategy for last year’s race: two stops

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