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today is Sep 28, 2022

Did the Miami Grand Prix live up to the hype? American journalist @RJOconnell attended Formula 1’s long-awaited second US round for RaceFans last weekend.

Thursday

Arriving early Thursday afternoon after an early morning flight from Connecticut, picking up my credentials, and boarding the shuttle to the track, I spent the first minutes in the Miami International Autodrome eagerly exploring the venue, snapping photographs, and absorbing the scale and the spectacle of the first Miami Grand Prix.

Hard Rock Stadium served as the hub of this venue – this home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins has been the host of multiple Super Bowls, and the promoters of the Miami Grand Prix promised to deliver a Super Bowl-calibre event. The hospitality suites at the north end of the stadium were transformed into a massive media centre, letting in enough of the Florida sunshine to cure even the most brutal Vitamin D shortages.

Naturally, the first thing I did upon arrival was to do what every Formula 1 pundit, influencer, and jokester wanted to do ever since this part of the campus was announced: Walk to MIA Marina at turn eight and attempt to walk on the water of the artificial yacht harbour. Sadly, there was no way for me to walk on the “fake water” by then without stern disapproval at best, so I kept to the artificial docks.

Mock harbour, Miami International Autodrome, 2022 Was it a tacky facsimile of the proposed Miami bayfront race that we never got from years ago? Was it a metaphor for Formula 1’s elitist reputation? Yes, and hell yes. But at the same time, it was inoffensive, and the novelty wore off long before the weekend was over, at least from a comedic standpoint.

A few drivers and team principals made themselves available to the writers and journalists. Pierre Gasly was still beaming with happiness after meeting basketball legend Michael Jordan earlier in the week. Maybe Gasly could have channelled some of MJ’s ruthless competitive nature over the weekend. Tsunoda was jealous that he couldn’t be there, but wearing a pair of “Atmosphere” coloured Air Jordans, he told us how happy he was to find a favourite restaurant in Miami, a diverse city with no shortage of fine dining and entertainment.

The principal figures of Haas F1 Team seemed confident and cheerful heading into their newest home race. Kevin Magnussen was vacationing here when he got the call to come back to F1, bringing the latest chapter of his career full circle. Mick Schumacher’s bright smile was still with him even as he was still searching for a standout performance. Guenther Steiner was his usual unfiltered self, and please he wasn’t being “paraded around on the back of a dump truck” after a mooted pre-race team principals’ parade was scrapped.

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avAlexander Albon, Williams, Miami International Autodrome, 2022Alexander Albon, Williams, Miami International Autodrome, 2022 I also saw Alexander Albon with his hair dyed bright red for the second time this year. Before the Australian Grand Prix, he dyed it to show his love and support for two young children at the Wat Sakaeo orphanage in Thailand. He went on to score his first point for Williams that weekend, so brought the look back in the hope more points would come with it.

Also noticeable was the number of IndyCar stars in the house, from Colton Herta – representing McLaren as their development driver, to Romain Grosjean, who seemingly had a knack for being around the paddock everywhere I turned.

It was a good day to catch up with familiar faces I’d met in the last United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, and to make some new acquaintances. After that it was back to the hotel before the serious business began on Friday.

Friday

Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Miami International Autodrome, 2022 The route from the hotel to the circuit was a straight shot up the Palmetto Expressway on a beautiful, sunny morning. Traffic disruption for a day of practice was mild. I parked at the same place I picked up my credentials, a 24-hour gym.

The shuttle to the circuit took a detour around the stadium, down a dirt road that runs parallel to the north straight approaching turn 17. It gives us journos a taste of what it’s like to drive at Sebring, until now the only other track in Florida to hold a round of the world championship, being bumpy enough to shake the marrow from your bones.

The weather was hot and humid, but cloudier than yesterday. I spent the morning pacing the F1 and support series paddocks. W Series cars were being prepped for their 2022 season debut.

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I encountered the debuting second-generation driver Juju Noda and her father Hideki and gave her my best wishes. I cannot imagine the weight of being hyped as a child racing prodigy, now coming of age, and having to meet those expectations. A crash in her first practice wasn’t a great building block to start the weekend. For her sake, I just hope she never loses the joy of motor racing.

After that came a good, productive chat with Richard Cregan, CEO of the Miami Grand Prix. We covered all manner of topics in our chat. He deftly handed a few sensitive topics which came up, including the overnight news that a piece of cleaning equipment had damaged the track surface, and the long-running dispute with Miami Gardens residents whose latest attempt to block the race from taking place was thwarted just two weeks earlier.

I walked into the stadium itself and went to the Dolphins’ locker room, which had been transformed into the press conference room. This was another new experience. My hand shook when given the microphone to ask Tsunoda about what it would mean for him to stand on the podium or become his nation’s first Formula 1 winner.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Miami International Autodrome, 2022 Thankfully, nobody was talking about me tripping over my words during or after the conferences were done. Because all anyone could talk about was Lewis Hamilton rocking up looking like the jewellery department at Sears, decked in no fewer than eight rings, four necklaces and three watches.

This was his pointed response to the FIA’s clampdown on drivers wearing jewellery in their cars. The unexpected development earlier this year prompted many – Sebastian Vettel included – that it’s being targeted against the seven-time world champion.

The Paddock Club was even livelier than the main grandstand across the track. I made my way to the third floor onto a patio to see the cars rush down the start-finish line in the first practice, just to see what it’s like from that perspective, and to gauge just how much these 2022-spec cars were hauling out of the fast bends of turns 18 and 19 bends.

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Between practices, I again joined the journos for a chat with McLaren leaders Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl. Even if I had to sit on the floor to do it, I was going to get what I needed to, on the record. I asked Brown about Pato O’Ward’s imminent contract extension in IndyCar, and whether he still was in the frame for F1.

Other IndyCar figures I saw included Herta and Grosjean, Callum Ilott (representing Alfa Romeo), Pietro Fittipaldi, and one of my all-time racing heroes, Juan Pablo Montoya. From F2, Williams protege and Florida native Logan Sargent was also happy for the chance to be here. I also passed by a few world champions of the past, Mika Hakkinen, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Jackie Stewart, specifically.

The evening ended with a lovely sunset over the stadium, and a group session with Pirelli’s Mario Isola, who had given his debrief of the day’s practices that were interrupted by multiple red flags. The people at Pirelli were kind enough to offer a bottle of sparkling water, and were incredibly friendly and hospitable.

Saturday

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Miami International Autodrome, 2022 Saturday was the day that the drivers took their rose-coloured glasses off, and major problems with the circuit became louder and harder to ignore: The ponderous turn 14/15 chicane. The lack of grip off the racing line. The solid concrete wall at turn 14 which Esteban Ocon clattered into, less than 24 hours after Carlos Sainz Jnr had the same accident at the same corner.

The frustration was audible and visible from almost every driver that walked into the interview pen, which was packed into one of Hard Rock Stadium’s spiral ramps that go up to the top of the grandstands. It was hot, the space for written media was claustrophobic, and the flat-six engine noises from the Porsche Sprint Cup support races, which I normally love, were a nuisance for anyone with a sound recorder.

Earlier in the day, I took a complementary trip up and down the cable car which runs from the turn nine bridge, to the west campus near the MIA Marina, and back. The view was splendid, even through the glass bottom floor which allowed patrons a chance to see cars – in this instance, the supercars used for Hot Laps – driving at full speed below us.

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I sat in for a team principals’ press conference which quickly centres on the efforts of Mario Andretti and son Michael to enter a Formula 1 team. The team principals held the line that expanding the Formula 1 grid would only be worth it if it added monetary value to the sport.

The brightest moment of my day was the chance to meet and speak with another of my heroes, the incomparable Bob Varsha, a face on the Mount Rushmore of American motorsport broadcasters. Among the many things we discussed as we watched free practice three together was just how Formula 1 was shifting towards destination races,. Bringing the race to the people of the city, and how traditional American venues such as Watkins Glen or Road America (a venue Vettel name-checked the day before) just aren’t viable for F1 in its current state – not like anyone who loves those circuits would want F1 to modify them to suit their needs, anyway.

When I returned to my hotel, all I could think about was hoping that the race itself would be better.

Sunday

Sunday, race day, arrived at last. I’d somehow missed overnight showers and couldn’t notice any trace that it had rained in parts of Miami overnight.

I reached the circuit as early as possible, way ahead of the swarm of race traffic to follow. I had fallen in love with the ‘cortadito’ as my morning coffee of choice. In the morning I watched Jamie Chadwick cap off a perfect weekend in the W Series, then was left to wonder, and worry, what her career mobility would look like if she goes on to a hat trick of championships by the end of this season. There was just too much time before the grand prix to dwell on whatever negatives may have come up.

I needed a pick-me-up, and one of the people I bonded with closest this weekend was ESPN digital presenter Spencer Hall. He’s best known as a college football writer and podcaster with a warped sense of humour, but he has genuine love, enthusiasm, and respect for motor racing – a perfect fit for ESPN’s digital pre-race show. I also caught up with Elizabeth Blackstock of Jalopnik, with whom I go back many years, and Mandy Curi of MotorLAT.

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The atmosphere was at least year’s United States Grand Prix, where a record crowd of spectators were spilling over barricades and ramming the grandstands to see their heroes in action, was electric. The Miami paddock had that same energy compressed into a smaller space.

Even people who work this gig regularly, and have done so for decades, have never seen a paddock containing so much humanity. It was, admittedly, overwhelming, to the point that even the likes of Jordan, Serena Williams, David Beckham, and Tom Brady started to blend into the crowd. It sounds weird – and I’m not one of those people who categorically hates celebrity involvement in motorsport – but it was a total overload of human souls.

The build-up to the race also saw a very Florida phenomenon: Brief, powerful sun showers that brought rain for a minute, vanished, then re-appeared again. The hardest one came just an hour before the start, but as soon as the rain came, it vanished, and dried within minutes.

I was back to the media bullpen mid-race, jammed in the same crowded space in the spiral ramp with fans shouting for their favourite drivers’ attention from up above.

I was the only writer around to speak with Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo after his short, frustrating day that ended after seven laps. Later, from the moment the rest of the field arrived, it was a full-on scrum to capture the words of the drivers after what I could objectively describe as a race which was fine but no classic.

From the inside, the wonderful people who worked hospitality and media communications for this event took care of us so well that it could help gloss over nearly any issue this race had. In the final reckoning, the cringe factor of a fake marina and Pirelli’s football helmets on the podium mattered less than the astronomical ticket prices. The race itself didn’t live up to all the hype it promised, but then how could it possibly have done?

I would, of course, gladly do this all over again and hope that others get the chance to experience it again in the future, hopefully better than it was in year one. I never forget that every opportunity to do this is a blessing – flaws, fake marinas, and all.

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