The sounds of construction crews operating heavy equipment and putting together buildings and grandstands were finally replaced by those of race car engines as the Circuit of the Americas was officially opened by F1 drivers past and present.

A host of drivers from across the USA took the chance to complete the first high-speed laps of the all-new Austin track, but the stars of the invitation-only show - officially entitled 'First Lap Ceremony' and presented by F1 tyre supplier Pirelli - were former Lotus and Ferrari legend Mario Andretti and current Lotus reserve Jerome d'Ambrosio, who put black-and-gold cars from across the ages through their paces on the layout which will host its first USGP in a month's time.

Circuit ambassador Andretti, the only driver to win both Indy Car and F1 titles and a visitor the CotA during its lengthy construction, helped cut a special ribbon of chequered flags before completing a lap in his title-winning Lotus 79.

"It's everything I expected - and more," he exclaimed, "You can tell that there was a lot of thought put into the design of this course. The track is extremely technical, with 3.4 miles of real estate to learn. And that's what we're doing all day out here - with each and every lap, the driver learns a little bit more.

"But, quite honestly, I think the track is phenomenal. It has all the features that race car drivers are looking for, as far as giving them the opportunity to overtake other drivers in the tighter corner. But then it widens out so there's plenty of room to manoeuvre. The bottom line is that there should be some really terrific racing out here in the months - and years - to come,"

d'Ambrosio, who last drove a contemporary F1 car as stand-in for the suspended Romain Grosjean at Monza in September, got the chance to turns the first high-speed laps of the circuit, the first time he had ever ventured out onto an American track. Driving one of last year's R30s, the Belgian proffered similar views to Andretti.

"The track is going to provide plenty of challenges, as it has several unique features that make it quite complex," he explained, "It will challenge the skills of even the most experienced drivers, and certainly expose any weaknesses a driver may have, especially when it comes to handling the cars through the corners, especially the Esses at turns 12-15."

Actor Patrick Dempsey, who races part-time in ALMS and Grand-Am between castings, achieved a lifetime ambition as he got behind the wheel of an F1 car for the first time.

"Frankly, it was a really great experience, and I was in one of the first cars to go around the track, which was a great honour," he admitted, "I think all the drivers are really going to be excited to have the opportunity to come racing here. Not only is it a thrilling course, it's a very technical course. There are some genuine challenges out there, too."

Dempsey also believes that the new circuit will be very important for rebuilding the F1 brand in the USA.
"They've never really had a home base in the United States," he noted, "Although they worked really hard to make a go of it at Indy, things just didn't work out, so I think the Circuit of the Americas represents a real opportunity to re-establish F1 experience in the US market and start to develop a good strong relationship with the American fan base."

Pirelli, meanwhile, believes that it is well prepared for next month's race thanks to simulation work using data obtained from a visit to the Austin circuit during its construction.

Last season, practically every circuit was new to Pirelli but, this year, only Hockenheim and CotA, needed recreating.

"There's no doubt that preparing for a circuit that is completely new is more difficult than going to one of the established venues," Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery admitted, "However, we now feel fully ready for this magnificent track, where we will bring the hard and medium tyres."

CotA is the most complex new track of the year for Pirelli, as it has never been raced on before. Understanding the nature of a new surface is always complicated, particularly when there is no previous data, which is why two Pirelli engineers inspected the circuit while it was being built over the summer, looking at the track surface and layout in detail.

They used sophisticated laser measuring equipment to assess the abrasiveness of the circuit by examining closely the spacing and shape of the stones that make up the aggregate. Several readings were taken from the machine, in order to ensure an accurate representation. Using these readings, a virtual representation of the track from the tyre's point of view can be created on computer.

Together with some asphalt samples from the new venue, this allowed Pirelli to calculate the likely wear rate and the effect of the asphalt and ambient temperatures on the tyres at different points on the circuit.

"The technology and know-how that we have at our disposal means that we can forecast some very accurate predictions without actually having raced at a circuit these days," Hembery concluded.



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