As the Formula One circus moves from Mexico to the USA this week, two of its racers are about to take an even more wild ride than usual on Circuit of the America’s (COTA) 3.426-mile, 20-corner road course.
On Halloween Thursday, at the race track located just outside Austin, Texas, American-owned Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will climb into a newly-installed installed passenger seat of a No. 14 NASCAR Haas Automation Ford Mustang from Stewart-Haas Racing as team co-owner Tony Stewart shows them what a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) is all about.
The occasion marks Stewart’s first time back in a stock car since that final checkered flag in the Cup series came November 20, 2016 at Homestead, FL. The multi-talented star exited the series that allowed him to earn three driving championships and become the co-owner of what is now a four-car Cup team.
The four Stewart-Haas drivers will compete in their NASCAR race as well this weekend, a couple of hours up the road from Austin at Texas Motor Speedway. Only 2014 Stewart-Haas Racing Cup champion Kevin Harvick remains in contention for the 2019 championship with three races remaining; Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez have all been eliminated.
Team co-owner Stewart, the only driver in American history to earn championships in both NASCAR Cup and INDYCAR, has been exercising his skills in sprint cars since departing the stock car wars. He’s said he’ll be racing as many as 100 times throughout this calendar year.
One can only imagine the maniacal smile under “Smoke’s” helmet when he shows Frenchman Grosjean and Dane Magnussen how to hit the marks in a 3,200-pound racecar as he attacks this country’s only purpose-built Formula One road circuit. “It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been three years since I last drove a stock car,” Stewart said, “but seeing some of these road-course races – especially the Oval at Charlotte – have piqued my interest a bit, so this is a good way to sort of satisfy that hunger.”
This trick-or-treat thrill ride isn’t the first time Stewart has inflicted his love of different types of racing on partner Gene Haas’ F1 drivers. In October of last year, Stewart showed Magnussen how to handle a 1,350-pound sprint car with 750 horsepower. “I found my feet in that sprint car last October pretty quickly, thanks to his advice, and also thanks to him jumping in the car and showing how it’s done before I got in,” Magnussen remembered.
Last year Magnussen, son of sports car ace Jan Magnussen, dropped by Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, NC for his dirt-track tutorial. “I had a great time with Tony – he’s a great driving instructor and he knows his way around these things. His experience and knowledge, when it comes to stock cars, is probably just as impressive.” Oh, wait until he finds out!
Both Magnussen and Grosjean have minimal experience in cars with a roof, as their primary objective, coming up through the ranks, was to reach the open-wheel pinnacle of motorsports, F1. Grosjean did drive a Ford GT1 in the 2010 FIA GT1 championship; Magnussen piloted a GT2 car only once and did test a DTM car. Both realize the Cup car’s lack of aerodynamics, compared to what they’ve driven – both with and without a roof – will be revolutionary for them.
Grosjean is expecting the braking on the heavyweight Cup car to be drastically different from his Haas-Ferrari rocket ship. He’s looking forward to the experience, but from what he’s said, he expects to be taking Stewart for a ride, not being his passenger. “I think we just need to slam the brakes a bit earlier than we do with an F1 car,” Grosjean said. “We’ll see how the engine responds to throttle application – the sound of it is going to be great. I think having Tony Stewart helping us and giving us advice is going to be bloody amazing.”
As the Haas F1 Team alights in Austin, team principal Guenther Steiner states F1 interest in the USA is full of growth potential, especially with the prospect of a second race at Miami as early as 2021. With Netflix presenting an F1 show, with the recent “Art of Racing in the Rain” film, along with the upcoming “Ford vs Ferrari” film and its sports-car bent, motorsports is getting the kind of promotion it warrants.
“All motor racing at the top level – and NASCAR is top level, and Formula One – it’s all very similar in terms of trying to get the best people for the job,” said Steiner, who has managed both NASCAR and F1 teams. “The opposition is always pushing. There’s never a day where you can rest. You just need to work harder and smarter than anyone else – then you have success. They are very similar, not as cars and technology, but in terms of managing a team, there’s not a big difference.”
At this time Haas F1 Team is in ninth place in the team championship, 27 points ahead of Williams and trailing Alfa Romeo by only seven points. Both team drivers have earned points at COTA, which is now hosting its eighth Formula One race. There is a corner named for the team between turns 18 and 19 at COTA; it is called Haas Hill, and brings plenty of team fans to the area of this long track near the entry to pit road.
Formula One will have two Friday practices on the COTA circuit, followed by a third Saturday practice session and qualifying before Sunday’s 56-lap race. After competing at COTA, only two contests remain on the Formula One schedule: Brazil and Abu Dhabi.