- Oct 2, 2009
Off Exit 2X of the Florida Turnpike, Hard Rock Stadium’s parking lots are getting a Monaco-esque makeover. With six weeks to go before Formula One’s newest U.S. grand prix on May 8, the vast expanse is being outfitted with a 3.36-mile circuit, palm-tree-shaded villas, and VIP clubs that’ll cost upwards of $9,000 for a weekend pass. The home of the Miami Dolphins may not ooze the aristocratic decadence of Monte Carlo, where F1 drivers whip their multimillion-dollar machines through picturesque streets overlooking harborside yachts. But at Turn 7, where a line of port-a-potties sits amid the construction, a “marina” will host deep-pocketed fans aboard small boats trucked in and “docked” on stands surrounded by planks painted to look like water. The whole event is sponsored by Crypto.com. “The idea is that this is going to turn into an almost Disneyland map,” says Tom Garfinkel, chief executive officer of the Dolphins, pointing at a blueprint of the track at his office. “It’s kind of like, ‘Do you want to go to Space Mountain? Do you want to go to Pirateland?’ ”
Not too long ago, the thought of Disney-fying F1 would have sent Ferrari fanatics careening off the autobahn. For decades, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile-sanctioned series has been considered the pinnacle of motor sports, a rich fondue of exorbitant engineering and wheel-to-wheel speed. A posh international audience, mostly from Europe and South America, obsessed over circuits where Rolex, Shell, and other big brands craved association with the most epic cars on the planet. Stirring the pot was Bernie Ecclestone, the British tycoon who started building F1 into an empire in the 1970s and controlled it with monarchical power through 2016. Bernie, as he’s universally referred to, once said he managed F1 like a “Michelin restaurant, not a hamburger joint.” If F1 was synonymous with Moët, he believed it wouldn’t appeal to McDonald’s-loving Nascar fans.
But since U.S.-based Liberty Media Corp. acquired F1 in 2017 in a $4.4 billion deal, the sport has undergone a stateside surge. ESPN reported that average American viewership was up 56% last year compared with the 2020 season. Austin’s 2021 race saw a record 400,000 attendees, almost 70% of them first-timers. And Miami’s three-day suite and grandstand pre-sale tickets, the cheapest going for more than $600, sold out within 24 hours, with top tickets fetching $32,000 on secondary markets. Then, on March 30, Liberty announced a Las Vegas grand prix for 2023, making the U.S. host to more races than any other country.
The surprising ascent has been attributed to a range of moves, from Liberty transforming race weekends into Super Bowl-like spectacles to the popularity of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a soap-operatic docuseries that turned F1 drivers into celebrities for an entirely new audience. But Liberty’s overhaul isn’t just about the theatrics. In the last five years the Colorado conglomerate, which also owns SiriusXM and baseball’s Atlanta Braves, has reengineered the formula of Formula One, risking in the process both its longtime business model and its oldest devotees. “They’re producing Formula One: American Style,” says Ecclestone, who worries that Liberty’s changes will spoil F1’s cachet. “It may well be that it’s good, because so many stupid things come out of America and everyone’s happy, but it wasn’t the way I ran things.”
Then again, some Liberty supporters contend that Ecclestone’s tightly gripping, almost paranoid management style was dragging F1 toward irrelevance. It seems the more Americanized F1 becomes, the more global spectators are drawn in. Last year its cumulative television audience reached 1.6 billion worldwide, up 11% since the takeover, with the season finale drawing 108.7 million viewers—about what the Super Bowl attracted when Hard Rock Stadium hosted it in 2020. Meanwhile, the share price of F1, which trades as a subsidiary of Liberty, has more than tripled, hitting new highs last month. “Bernie can mouth off all he wants,” says Liberty CEO Greg Maffei. “But the reality is, everybody wants in now.”
For the uninitiated, F1 may not seem so different from other types of auto racing. Which is sort of like saying an F-35 fighter jet is not dissimilar to a Spirit Airlines plane. The 1,000-horsepower engines don’t so much purr or roar as threaten to rip your head off. Teams, called “constructors,” build open-cockpit cars that are feats of aerodynamics and materials science. Whereas the respective machinery of IndyCar and Nascar vehicles are largely similar, F1 cars, which share some league-mandated design specs and componentry, live or die by the absurdly expensive factory innovations of hundreds of engineers. These might include enhancing the airflow geometry of engine-cooling systems and wings to eke out millisecond advances. Some F1 parts alone cost about as much as an entire Nascar vehicle. There’s a reason the latter, built mostly for oval tracks, would get smoked on a twisty circuit against even the slowest F1 car—by about a half-hour across a full race.
The goal, obviously, is to go faster than your opponents. But even that’s a matter of complex analytics, with some 200 onboard sensors beaming real-time data to sideline strategists, who scrutinize everything from tire degradation to corner-by-corner splits and weather conditions. Currently there are 10 teams, each with two drivers in single-seater cars who often compete against each other as intensely as they do their rivals. (Job security is forever iffy.) Races themselves are usually 50 to 70 laps, with the top 10 finishers collecting points that translate to tens of millions of dollars in prize money. A perennial favorite like Mercedes might deem a finish outside a top-three podium position disastrous, whereas a lower-budget constructor such as Williams Racing will pop corks for snagging 10th—the cutoff for earning points. At the end of the season, which last year boasted 22 races, the team and driver with the most points each win a championship trophy—and a lot more money.
The danger involved in reaching that achievement is impossible to fathom. It’s face-flattening enough to zoom to 220 miles per hour in seconds, but braking hard into a hairpin apex, a mere flinch away from severe injury and millions of dollars in damage, requires a healthy amount of insanity. Even more so when you realize the drivers have to manage those turns while simultaneously shifting gears about 50 times a lap, or 3,600 times a race. Between the fuming heat and yanking go-stop-go gravitational force, an F1 driver’s neck can bulk up like an English roast. Nascar icon Jeff Gordon once tested an F1 car and said he couldn’t handle the braking—it strained his neck too much. Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton has said he loses between 5 and 10 pounds per race from sweat and stress on his body.
Dense rules and indecipherable jargon—parc fermé, drag-reduction system, etc.—have historically kept out newcomers. Even team sponsors aren’t typical: Brands like Red Bull don’t just pay to splash their logo on a car; they employ their own world-class engineers to actually build it.
None of this complexity came by accident. Ecclestone, a former motorcycle and car salesman, always knew exclusivity was essential to throwing what he describes as a “glamorous Champagne event.” There were no behind-the-scenes TV series, no all-access corporate passes to the team paddocks and pit lanes, territory Ecclestone considered sacred to F1’s purity and mystique. He got involved in motor sports following World War II, first as a driver and later as an F1 team owner, gaining power after organizing an association of constructors. He’s credited with commercializing what was then a ragtag league with blockbuster TV distribution deals and eight-figure grand-prix-hosting fees.