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We drive the 2012 US GP circuit

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    The F1 circus is just about to head out for
    their first laps of the Circuit Of The Americas, and they’ve got our
    lap time to beat…

    By the time F1 arrives in Texas, the circuit workers hope to have moved the cow. Right now, she’s mooching around Turn Six with a young calf attached to her udder. She was left behind when the rancher moved out, to make way for the bulldozers that now carve the land into the shape of a racetrack, before Jenson and the others arrive in June next year, for the first ever Grand Prix of Austin.

    Words: Dan Read
    Photos: Daniel Byrne

    This feature was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. It all starts now, among the cactus plants and rattlesnakes seven miles south-east of downtown. The immense earthwork operation is at full steam, as two million square yards of dirt is skimmed off the face of the planet with the help of satellite positioning gear, to ensure every inch of camber is exactly as it should be.

    As you read this, 3.4-miles of tarmac will be smoothed over the ground like Marmite over a giant slice of toast, providing a nice shiny surface for Schumi and his racing mates. This, then, is the birth of the FIA-approved Circuit of the Americas. And until today, nobody has driven a complete loop.

  3. So in the name of research and thoughtfulness, I thought I’d give them something to aim at. A lap record. It might be a rough road, but all the corners are here, and it’s exactly the right length. All I need is something rapid and robust. Something like a Hennessey VelociRaptor, a supertruck based on the Ford F-150 Raptor, with a 6.2-litre V8 turned up to 475bhp and suspension that could ride over a bungalow. So the call is made, the Vraptor arrives, and the gates swing open. Let’s go.

    From the makeshift offices we rumble out to the start/finish line, which someone has just drawn in the dirt. There’s no grandstand, no garages, just the layout of the track etched into a colossal dustbowl. From here, it shoots uphill, rising 40 metres to a crest followed by a sharp left. Turn One.

  4. The track’s boss, Tavo Hellmund, tells me they’ll be piling into here four abreast, before diving across the apex and downhill to Turn Two. A fast-talking Texan who looks a bit like Jim Carrey, Tavo is an ex-racer and a man who knows a decent corner.

  5. He might be employing architect Hermann Tilke, designer of some unpopular circuits, but it’s clear who wears the trousers here. “Eighty per cent of this track has been designed by me and Kevin Schwantz [former motorcycle world champion],” Tavo says. “Most of Til-kee’s clients are consortiums who don’t know jack about racing. I know more about it than they ever will.”

    He’s not kidding. Down through Turns Three to Five, the road swishes left-right-left before disappearing around a mountain of soil. Tavo has pinched this bit from Silverstone, and its curves trace the shape of the superfast esses at Maggots and Becketts.

  6. Later, we’ll see corners inspired by sections of other great tracks, including Suzuka’s punishing 130R, which pulls heads off necks and necks off shoulders. After just a few corners, it’s clear this is a track that drivers should love, with all the ups and downs and rollercoaster twists.

    Turn Six. A quick jink around Daisy and her mini-moo before sailing through a left-hander, the ultragrade suspension coping with its load, not sagging beneath it. We’re up to 80mph now, a way off race pace but still leaving tread marks in the dirt - once covered in tarmac, they’ll stay here forever like bootprints on the Moon. Through the next few twists, around the furrowed Turn Nine, and the Vraptor lets out a roar like that of its prehistoric namesake, clearing its throat as the exhaust baffles make way for the noise.

  7. God knows how Bud the Builder doesn’t hear us coming. As we hug Turn 10, he hoves into view, 20-feet high on his yellow dinosaur. He doesn’t hang about up there, not with so much mud to shift. His ride is in fact a giant peeler, which drags its belly along the earth to scoop up soil before speeding off to dump it.

    There are 160 guys like Bud, working 10 hours a day, six days a week. They drive 50 machines, from heavy rollers to diggers with sawtooth buckets that claw the earth until it cracks.

  8. They work fast. They have to. F1’s 2012 calendar has just been released, and there in red ink is ‘Austin, 17 June’. Tavo was hoping it might be scheduled a bit later in the year, but primed his staff to be ready for a surprise.

    Between now and then, this place will be transformed into a self-sufficient mini-city, with its own water supply, sewage system, parking wardens and dustbin men. They’re even installing a substation to make sure there’s enough electricity to power Sebastian Vettel’s fridge of fizzy pop.

  9. As I twirl the Vraptor’s big wheel around the Turn 11 hairpin, untwirling as the apex bleeds into the long back straight, it’s hard to picture how it will look. Today, it’s a muddy corridor walled by mud banks, but in a few months it’ll be lined by grandstands with some of the best views in F1.

    “Whether it’s baseball or motorsport, us Americans like to see the whole field,” says Tavo. “That’s why the east side of the track is elevated. From some areas, fans can see Turns 11 to 20 - that’s 40 seconds of racing.” He’s also building a five-line highway and more loos than you could fill in a year. “It’s the little things,” he says. “We can’t have anyone waiting to park or pee.”

  10. So why Austin? Isn’t this just some hillbilly hideaway? No way. It might be in deepest Texas, but this quirky little city has always looked out on the world then asked it over for a beer. It already holds two of the biggest music festivals on the planet, and we’re not just talking Country and Western - some of the coolest bands on earth come here.

    Plus, it’s the geographic bullseye of the continent, right between the coasts and within smuggling distance of Mexico.

  11. “Some Arab venues couldn’t care less if nobody turned up,” says Tavo. “They’re doing it for the TV.” But it’s different here, and with 22 million people within 180 miles of the track, he shouldn’t have a problem filling his 120,000 seats.

    That’s why he’s calling it the Circuit of the Americas. And it’s part of the reason why he got a 10-year licence from Bernie Ecclestone. That, and the fact Bernie’s known him since “before he was born”. Which helps if you wake up one day and decide to host an F1 race. Before the builders and the blueprints and finding £140 million to build a circuit, there’s one thing you need. A signature from the big man.

  12. “Obviously that helped,” says Tavo. “But it’s a blessing and a curse, because he expects higher standards from me. People criticise him, but he’s the best negotiator on Earth, and he’s been incredibly straight up with us.”

    It’s not just Bernie he has to please. It’s the disillusioned US fans, who haven’t had a race here since Indianapolis ‘07, two years after the tyre nonsense when only three teams raced. And it’s the MotoGP teams, who are coming here too. But with Schwantz’s help, plus corners like these, they should be merry bikists. Turns 15 to 18 are listed as three bends, but are really just one triple-apex monster that’ll fray their thick knee-sliders. They’ll have a brief rest between 19 and 20, before launching themselves back onto the pit straight and up the hill again to Turn One.

  13. The Vraptor does it sideways, trailing red dust like smoke from a stunt plane. It’s mopped up ruts and cornered harder than anything this big should - the top of the bonnet is level with my nipples. You could drive this thing to the Dakar, race it, then drive home again.

    Today was probably an easy test, and with a less cautious driver, it would’ve gone quicker. My time? Five minutes, 14 seconds. If it weren’t for the cattle chicane and oncoming excavators, I’d have shaved two minutes off that, which would put me in the ballpark of, well, a rubbish qualifying lap. But at least it’s a benchmark, and it puts TopGear and Hennessey in the record books.

  14. So listen up, Jenson. When you and your mates arrive next year, when the track is laid and the grandstands are hoisted, you’ll have one time to beat. Mine. Go get it.

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