I've never been to Austin but from what I've seen on TV the Circuit of the Americas appears to be a fine facility, and one that seems to attract good crowds. I'm told that the city itself is a most welcoming place, with plenty of bars and restaurants. After the misstep that was Indianapolis – I never felt that F1 was a comfortable fit with the home of the 500 – F1 appears to have found itself a suitable venue in the United States.
It's not been an easy task, and Bernie Ecclestone hasn't always got it right. We all loved Long Beach, and it was a great pity that what we called the US GP (West) fell off the schedule after 1983. However, other temporary venues in Detroit, Las Vegas, Dallas and Phoenix all turned out to be disappointments, although the first named did at least survive for seven years.
Vegas was perhaps the worst of the bunch. It was no surprise that a concrete-lined track laid out around a casino car park failed to capture the imagination of the local populace, for it was hardly an ideal showcase for what F1 was all about.
It would be silly to compare COTA with any of the aforementioned street tracks, as the only thing they have in common with the current US GP venue is that each time we did at least get to stay in a major city. And Vegas in particular had its attractions for visiting F1 folk!
In stark contrast the track that COTA has really had to live up to was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, although nobody minded too much that there were no luxury hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants or glitzy shopping malls in the immediate vicinity.
The host of the US GP from 1961 to 1980, Watkins Glen was much loved by the visiting F1 circus. For most of its history it provided us with the season finale, apart from a few years when it was followed by Mexico (as indeed Austin is this year). That always added to the buzz, while the other key factor was that it was always regarded as the richest race of the year, in those far-off times when we could equate a win on track with prize money.
The teams enjoyed the trip in part because the paddock featured a large building known as the Technical Center, where all the cars and equipment could be housed under one roof. It was a novel and very civilised concept for the time. Meanwhile most F1 drivers stayed at the Glen Motor Inn, and there was much rowdy socialising in the evenings in local hostelries, notably the Seneca Lodge, where the mechanics tended to stay. The less said about that, the better!
What really made Watkins Glen special was the way the track carved its way across the hilly New York State countryside, and the fact that it left little margin for error, as the concept of run-off areas was an alien one at the time. It was a proper road circuit, and the attractive Finger Lakes scenery was the icing on the cake.
The fans loved it as much as the drivers, and the place always attracted huge crowds, despite the autumnal weather. For some the annual pilgrimage was as much about the fun to be had off track, and the drink-fuelled partying in the circuit's muddy 'Bog' area was the stuff of legend.
There were many great races at Watkins Glen over the course of its two decade stint on the F1 calendar, and the venue provided some good memories for McLaren, not least when Emerson Fittipaldi clinched the team's first World Championship in 1974.
However, the race that sticks in the mind took place in 1976. Much has been written and said about the famous finale at Fuji Speedway that year, but it was his successes in Canada and in the penultimate race of the season at Watkins Glen that really propelled James Hunt to that year's world title.
After Niki Lauda's crash at the Nurburgring on August 1st left the reigning champion and points leader fighting for his life everything seemed to be going in Hunt's direction. But then at Monza he was demoted to the back of the grid and crashed out in the race, while Niki – who shocked the racing world by returning to the cockpit – finished fourth.
With the three “flyaway” races to come Lauda led Hunt by 62 points to 47, and with only nine available for win in those days, the McLaren man's chances appeared to be slim. He thus had little to lose heading to the Canadian GP at Mosport Park.
He responded by taking pole, tracking and passing early leader Ronnie Peterson. He duly won the race ahead of the six-wheeled Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler. Lauda failed to score, so it was now 64 points to 56, with potentially 18 up for grabs. It was thus game on for Hunt as the F1 circus made the relatively short trip across the border to Watkins Glen, although he still played down his chances.
“It was really too much to do,” he said in his 1977 book, Against All Odds. “So by Watkins Glen I wasn't too bothered about the championship, but I hadn't given up on it completely, because while there's life there's hope. I could only knuckle under and go after each race as it came and try to win it.”
Once again Hunt took pole, and once again he was beaten away at the start, this time by Jody Scheckter's Tyrrell. James was sometimes regarded as a little impetuous, but at the Glen he drove a finely judged race. From the outside it appeared that he was biding his time with an oversteery car on full tanks, but as he later revealed, there was much more going on in the cockpit.
“After about 10 laps at Watkins Glen I realised I was driving like an old grandmother. Jody was about three seconds up on me and I was holding the gap, so there was no problem about that, no danger that he would disappear into the distance. But I wasn't closing on him either, and I ought to have been.
“I was making mistakes all around the track and I had to spend five laps learning it all over again, concentrating purely on the driving and nothing else.”
It was a sign of Hunt's growing maturity that he recognised that he was underperforming: “The important thing to me is that I was able to pinpoint the fact that I was driving badly and do something about it.”
Thanks to the oversteer he lost time to Scheckter coming out of two vital corners onto straights, but having closed the gap he was finally able to pounce when the South African hesitated behind a backmarker. Later a missed gear change when James was himself wrong-footed by a tardy backmarker allowed Jody to get back in front. Hunt now had to start from scratch, and the laps were running out.
“The adrenalin was pumping, and it was the old calculated risk being run up the pole again. I had to get close and just drive on the ragged edge until I could get a passing opportunity. Finally I was close enough at the chicane to suck out of his slipstream on the straight, and then I was alongside him and away.”
James had driven a superb race to win under the most enormous pressure given the championship implications, and those nine points were to prove to be worth their weight in gold. Lauda meanwhile secured four vital points with third place, but his lead was now 68-65 heading to Fuji, and the first ever Japanese GP. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hunt would win the US GP again in 1977. Sadly there were to be just three more races at Watkins Glen, the last, in 1980, won by Alan Jones. By then it was clear that the high downforce F1 cars of the time had outgrown many of the old school road circuits, where the unsettling bumps and the proximity of the barriers made many of the drivers a little nervous. Mosport had been replaced by Montreal in 1978, and the Glen now suffered the same fate.
Alas, in October 1981 we in that infamous Las Vegas car park. Not a venue that anyone looks back on with fond memories...