Several months ago a new venture in Austin Texas was announced. Formula One would return to America. The excitement was tempered with a heavy dose of skepticism because few knew who Tavo Hellmund was and we'd just survived the failed USF1 team's still-birth. As it turned out, Hellmund was an old family friend of Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and he'd secured the promotional rights to hold the race in Texas.
As time progressed, a series of wealthy investors (including Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs) were paraded before the media and soon the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) was announced as an all new purpose-built circuit in Austin in which to host the Formlua One series as well as MotoGP and Australian V8 Supercars. Excitement was mounting but few paid much attention the fact that Hellmund's Full Throttle Productions was the actual holder of the promotional rights for these races and not COTA.
The major hurdle early in the procession was a tax payer backed fund called the Major Events trust Fund (METF) that Texas had on offer to help offset the costs of hosting a major sporting event that would benefit the state of Texas. It needed endorsement from the host city, in this case Austin, and after several weeks of legal wrangling, it got it's commitment from the "keep Austin weird" city.
Construction had fits of progress with hiccup-style advancement on the Herman Tilke designed track. It continued this way with rumors of funding issues and other hushed innuendos.
In hindsight it seems there was a falling out between the investors (COTA) and the first sign of trouble didn't come until Ecclestone publicly hinted at possible discourse. This discourse was centered on COTA's Bobby Epstein--along with Steve Sexton, the newly appointed COTA president--and Tavo Hellmund.
This week's announcement from COTA was a sharp backhand to the American F1 fans as the circuit released an official press realease saying:
Organisers of Circuit of The Americas, a premier motor sports racing and entertainment venue being developed in Austin, Texas, are suspending further construction of the project until a contract assuring the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix will be held at Circuit of The Americas in 2012 is complete. The race contract between Formula One and Circuit of The Americas has not been conveyed to Circuit of The Americas per a previously agreed upon timetable.
While construction at Circuit of The Americas has progressed as scheduled with over 300 workers at the construction site daily, all work will suspend immediately. The delivery of the Formula One Grand Prix race contract will allow construction operations to resume.
"We have spent tremendous resources preparing for the Formula One and MotoGP™ Championship races, but the failure to deliver race contracts gives us great concern," said Bobby Epstein, founding partner of Circuit of the Americas. "We believe the United States is vital for the future of Formula One and its teams and sponsors. Given the purpose-built Tilke design, creating a unique fan experience and iconic challenge for drivers, we hope that Texas will not be left behind. Over 100,000 fans have expressed an interest in purchasing tickets for Formula One alone."
"It is in the best interest of all parties to reach a timely resolution," said Red McCombs, chairman of McCombs Enterprises and founding partner of Circuit of The Americas. "Local businesses, fans and the State of Texas are counting on us."
With the numbness of a quiet field--touting the serpentine outline of what looked to be one of Tilke's better designs--settling on American F1 fans like dust from the construction, the plot began to unravel as Ecclestone continued to talk.
Ecclestone explained that the original contract with Hellmund had expired last summer when he failed to contractually provide a letter of credit securing the deal. It seems the last few discussion have been between Epstein's COTA and Ecclestone to come to an arrangement.
Epstein is in the investment business but negotiating with Ecclestone is usually very challenging and most often one-sided. Epstein has most likely not warmed to this style of deal and it has prompted all construction to halt.
What we think we know is that Ecclestone says Hellmund's contract is null and void due to a default on his part. COTA have not agreed to terms with Ecclestone on a new contract between COTA and Formula One Management and that the construction has stopped.
The question now is can COTA investors come to some agreement on terms with Ecclestone and make the grand prix happen in 2012? They have until 7 December when the FIA World Motor Sport Council convenes to ratify the 2012 calendar. Yes, it may be a day that lives in infamy for many American F1 fans.