Wednesday - Daytona Beach
First stop after arriving in Orlando the afternoon before is Daytona Speedway, the 2.5-mile (4km) that hosts the iconic 500 Mile NASCAR race and Rolex 24 Hour each year. Frank Kelleher, President of the complex, has kindly offered to host my colleague and travelling mate Sandor Meszaros and I, and a real eye-opener the place turns out to be.
The speedway accommodates 100,000+ spectators in its vast stands, with a total capacity being over 200,000+ once the infield is filled with mobile homes and campers. These are the sort of crowd numbers F1 promoters dream of – and the circuit is in use 24 days out of 365: apart from daily track activities the hospitality areas are available for conventions and suchlike, while Victory Lane provides a perfect wedding venue for petrolhead couples.
the circuit tour, we take in the Hall of Fame and Museum where many of
US motorsport’s most iconic cars and bits of memorabilia are on
it's a 400km road trip down the Florida peninsula to Miami, and the
primary purpose of the trip: the inaugural Miami Grand Prix.
Thursday - Miami Gardens
I head for the circuit, and I'm immediately amazed at how little disruption there is in the Miami Gardens area, home to the Hard Rock Stadium around which the circuit is built. How and why Liberty, the commercial owner of F1, worked so hard to stage a Grand Prix in the city is shrouded in financial mystery, but back in 2017 the stadium's owner, Stephen Ross, who heads up RSE Ventures, bid against Liberty for the rights.
Ross suddenly dropped out of the running, the bidding stopped and Liberty had F1's rights; simultaneously it was announced that a Grand Prix would be hosted in Ross' home city. The bottom line is Liberty probably spent more time, effort, and money on delivering this event than all other recent newcomers combined – with the possible exception of the recently announced Las Vegas race. Join the dots…
Virtually the first face I see as I walk into the paddock is Roman Grosjean, who switched to IndyCar with considerable success after exiting F1 in 2020. The fast but oft-furious driver, now globally recognised after his iconic escape from that fireball in Bahrain, and I get on well, so it's a pleasure to catch up. We discuss his scarred left hand - a legacy of the accident - and talk switches to the Lewis Hamilton jewellery saga.
"It's strange, but the one part of my hand that was not burnt is where I wear my wedding ring," he says as he takes off the band to prove it. "I always wear it while racing..."
The Franco-Swiss, in the paddock on TV duty for Canal+, maintains he loves life in IndyCar: "No bullshit or politics, just pure racing". What about recent criticism that he lives up to his reputation for on-track robustness? "It's good racing, it's IndyCar, wheel-to-wheel. If you're not criticised by others you're not trying…" smiles the guy once referred to by Mark Webber as a "first-lap nutcase".
After taking in the vastness of the stadium and paddock, it's time for an IWC event at Mercedes, where team boss Toto Wolff tells me he understands "where the FIA is coming from" when it comes to the jewellery ban. After the event, team and sponsor present us with a gift bag containing a pair of Lewis Hamilton signed driving gloves – complete with IWC logo, of course. Much appreciated: one for the collection!
Thereafter, I catch up with Alfa Romeo boss Frederic Vasseur over coffee. We'll be bringing you much of the discussion - including his incisive thoughts on Charles Leclerc, who drove for him in GP3 (they won the championship together) and F1, and how Valtteri Bottas is faring after emerging from the shadow of Hamilton at Mercedes - after this Grand Prix.
Still the day is not over: Heineken hosts a party at 'McLaren Speedshop' - a converted seventh-storey parking lot on Miami Beach - which makes for a perfect opportunity to catch up with folk who are normally too busy to chat during race weekend.
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Friday - Miami Gardens
Again, I'm surprised how little disruption there is and how easily traffic flows into and around the circuit despite it being morning rush hour. True, the wide roads and natural politeness of US drivers are a plus factor, but clearly, the stadium knows a thing or two about traffic control.
Equally, I'm impressed by how much local folk know about F1: I recall visiting an electronics store in downtown Indianapolis during the 2005 USGP and being asked by the shopkeeper why I was in town. I explained the purpose of my visit and was met with blank stares before, "Oh, there's a race goin' on? Formula 1, never heard of it…" Clearly, Netflix has worked its wonders – particularly in the US.
At 10:00, I meet with Richard Cregan, CEO of the Miami Grand Prix and Toyota WRC mechanic made (very) good. Richard switched from Sporting Director for the Japanese company's F1 programme in 2008 to running the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and has since been F1's go-to guy for new events – latterly here in Miami.
He tells us he has a photo of the first whiteboard 'wish list' he and Hard Rock Stadium President Tom Garfinkel drew up, and reckons final delivery is surprisingly close to their original objectives. Clearly, a lot of very hard work and thought has gone into this event, but he is confident it will get even better going forward, with more grandstand seats being the next step. In the event, they are expecting 82,500 spectators each day.
Prior to FP1, I head for Alpine for a chat with brand CEO Laurent Rossi, who is in talks with Michael Andretti when I arrive. At the end of the interview, I jokingly ask, "How much has Michael offered you for the team?"
After much laughter, the Corsican-born engineer confirms they were chatting about F1 engine supply and a possible technical co-operation should the scion of US motorsport's first family enter F1. Thus, it seems Andretti's F1 plans are slowly coming to fruition, despite the lukewarm reception they have been given by some of the other team bosses.
Between the two practice sessions, I’m summoned to the official tower for a sit-down with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem for what I'm told is the first full-length media interview he's granted. It's clear he is a dyed-in-the-wool motoring and motorsport enthusiast who has hi-octane stuff flowing through his Arabian veins and plans to do the best for the sport he loves.
Mohammed hasn't had the easiest of starts to the presidency, having inherited the Abu Dhabi affair plus various other controversies - think Russian competition licence holders and member clubs - but is gradually implementing his manifesto, which has affordable grassroots motorsport for all at its heart, rather than global motoring and road safety matters.
While he is too discreet to discuss the jewellery matter in any detail, it is clear he played a role in diffusing it.
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