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Statesman/Maher: Tavo Hellmund will see another F1 dream come to life

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Tavo Hellmund will see another F1 dream come to life in Mexico City

By John Maher - American-Statesman correspondent

After departing Austin, the Formula One circus moves to Mexico City this weekend. What do the two F1 races have in common? Well, their most important connection is promoter Tavo Hellmund.

“Austin is my maternal home, and Mexico City is my paternal home,” said Hellmund, whose father, Gustavo, was president of the organizing committee that brought the Mexican Grand Prix back to the F1 calendar in 1986 after a 16-year absence.


The younger Hellmund was the initial driving force to bring Formula One back to the United States and to Austin. He later left Circuit of the Americas after a litigious split with partners Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs.


Undeterred, Hellmund was then instrumental in bringing F1 back to his father’s country, working on the project with entertainment conglomerate CIE and financial backers.


Although he kept a low public profile last week at the U.S. Grand Prix, Hellmund was there in his suite overlooking pit row, hobnobbing with friends and some of the powerful players in the Formula One world, including F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.


Hellmund also chatted with the American-Statesman about the Mexico race, which he said could record a total attendance figure of 300,000 to 350,000 for the three-day event. U.S. Grand Prix organizers announced a three-day attendance total of 224,011 for the 2015 event.


“Mexico was always part of the plan when I cut the deal with Bernie (Ecclestone) for Austin in 2007 at the Belgian Grand Prix,” said Hellmund, 49. “A lot of people forget that’s when Bernie and I agreed that there would be a race in Austin, even though it wasn’t officially announced until three years later. The idea was always to get the U.S. Grand Prix up and running and then to go back to Mexico.


“I started working on it (Mexico) pretty heavily at the end of 2011, so it was a lot of hard work in 2012, ’13 and ’14. Really for the last eight months, I pretty much handed the keys over to CIE. They’re running the show.”


Some of the challenges of putting together a Mexican Grand Prix were similar to those faced in Austin; others were dramatically different.


“It was a 14-month build, which was similar to what we had in Austin,” Hellmund said. “The difference is that in Austin, we had the luxury of it being in a field. Just an open field. (In Mexico City) we had to get rid of buildings, and getting rid of that old pit building was pretty monumental.”


He estimated that the cost of bringing Mexico’s storied Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez up to F1’s standards was about $85 million.

In Austin, the engineers at German firm Tilke GmbH had to account for the expanding and contracting road-buckling black clay soil in Southeast Travis County.


“The soil conditions in Mexico have been terrible, too,” Hellmund said. “A lot of people don’t realize Mexico City is on basically a dried-up lake bed, so they have a lot of shifting stuff, too.”


The old track was notorious for its bumpiness. Tilke, which paved the Austin track, is known for concocting asphalt surfaces that are as smooth as a pool table top, but that wasn’t the plan in Mexico City.


“Tilke has done a pretty good job of keeping a little of that bumpiness to give it a little bit of character. So the track is not as smooth as Austin,” Hellmund said. “That’s intentional. It was by design. The question is, did they get it just right?”


Perhaps the most famous feature of the old track was the 180-degree final turn known as the Peraltada. On Formula One’s website, McLaren driver Jenson Button recalled: “I remember as a kid watching some incredible battles there, and the drivers hanging onto their cars around Peraltada, which looked mega, if a bit scary! It’s a shame that corner hasn’t been included in the new layout.”


The treacherous turn has been redesigned for the new F1 race because of concerns about the lack of runoff space. It will be known as the Nigel Mansell Turn. In 1992, Mansell won the last Mexican Grand Prix in its previous form, but he’s just as well-known for a daring pass he made at the Peraltada in 1990 that allowed him to finish second behind Alain Prost.


“A lot of people think that the Mexican Grand Prix has this rich history,” Hellmund said. “I don’t necessarily know that it’s a rich history. There have only been 15 Mexican Grand Prix. The United States Grand Prix, there have been over 50, but the ones that were held in Mexico produced some really good racing.”


The Mexican Grand Prix was held from 1963-70 and from 1986-92.


A decade ago there were plans to bring Formula One to the Mexican resort town of Cancun, but those fell apart. The return to Mexico City was initially planned for 2014 but was delayed when the Mexican government had to deal with a far more pressing issue, hurricane damage on the Pacific Coast. Mexico City’s metropolitan population is estimated at just more than 21 million, which is similar to the combined metro populations of Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Austin.


In Mexico, though, there’s no NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball for F1 to compete against, only soccer. Mexico also has a well-known F1 driver, Sergio Perez, whom fans can support.


There has been speculation that the Mexican Grand Prix will hurt attendance at the Austin race, but Hellmund said, “I think those people will still come to Austin because Austin is an awesome city, a fantastic city, and, in my opinion, the best racetrack in North America is Circuit of the Americas … they should enhance each other, not hurt each other.”


Although he never realized his dream of becoming an F1 driver, Hellmund has now carved out his own niche in F1 history, helping to revive the sport in two different countries.


“When people rolled their eyes and said how crazy it is that there’s going to be a race in Austin, I knew what everybody else didn’t know, that it was really going to happen, and the same thing is true for Mexico City,” Hellmund said. “The event in Mexico City, I know my dad will be looking down and be really happy and proud.”

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Very proud to call Tavo my friend.


Tavo - we'll have a Lone Star Legacy car ready for you any time you're ready to step up to the big-time!



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Unreal. Two days, over 200,000 fans. I've honestly never seen F1 crowds like what we're seeing in Mexico City. I'm truly blown away, but at the same time I know this is what we could have seen in Austin had TH not been run off.


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Imagine that. A packed house with virtually every seat in the place occupied by a paying customer. Take a look at the grandstand pics at any COTA event as a comparison.


As Tavo's long time friend, I am proud, but not surprised even a little bit, of what he has been able to accomplish after being forced out of the picture at COTA .



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And here's a BBC story published about Tavo and the Mexican Grand Prix two days before the event.




Formula 1 goes back to the future in Mexico


By Christian Sylt, BBC News, Mexico City


Mexico City (30 October 2015) - The residents of Mexico City will be woken by an unusual alarm clock this weekend.


For the first time in 23 years, the country will be home to a Formula 1 race and this time, the drivers won't be the ones who have most at stake.


The return of Mexico's Grand Prix is part of a bid to boost the standing of the country that has long had a reputation for being somewhat sleepy and economically impoverished. An F1 race puts it on the global sporting map alongside developed nations and trading partners like the United States and Britain.


Tavo Hellmund, the American entrepreneur who was the mastermind behind the US GP in Austin and its track, the Circuit of the Americas, is one of the driving forces behind the Mexican race. He believes it is on track to attract a 120,000-strong crowd and beat all previous attendance records.


But he admits that its reappearance on the F1 calendar is down to luck as much as desire.


"All of the stars have aligned to bring F1 back to Mexico as we have two hugely talented athletes flying the flag in the form of Ferrari's test driver Esteban Gutiérrez and Sergio Perez at the wheel for Force India. We also have Enrique Pena Nieto, a dynamic young president who is passionate about motorsport and has provided the support needed to give the race a green light."


The Mexican GP first raced onto the F1 calendar in 1963 and became a fan-favourite thanks to memorable on-track action, including victories by British world champion Nigel Mansell. He famously passed Austrian driver Gerhard Berger on the outside of the sweeping Peraltada corner in 1990 and won the country's final grand prix two years later.


The race dropped off the F1 calendar because the city centre track, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, fell into disrepair. At the same time that upgrades were needed, Mexico was being priced out of F1.


An increasing number of emerging markets were attracted to the sport and their governments were prepared to pay top dollar to host an F1 race, promoting themselves to the sport's global television audience that hit 425 million people last year.


This drove up the F1 race-hosting fee, with Mexico understood to be paying $25m (£16m) annually to regain its place at the F1 table. It is a price that President Nieto thinks is worth paying. The 48 year-old took office in December 2012, precisely the time at which the exciting new breed of Mexican F1 drivers were emerging.


Esteban Gutiérrez joined Sauber in 2013, but Ferrari's talent spotters snapped him up this year. Sergio Perez started in 2011 and also began at Sauber. Two years later, he switched to McLaren before moving to Force India for 2014. He soon proved his worth by finishing third at the Bahrain GP in April last year, repeating the trick at the Russian GP earlier this month before finishing fifth in last weekend's US grand prix. This has helped rev up home support for F1 in the run up to this weekend's Mexican race.


"Projected attendance in Mexico is probably around 110,000, and when you count personnel, teams, cleaners, security you're probably looking about 120,000," says Mr Hellmund. It dwarves the race's peak attendance of 100,000 in 1992, according to motorsport statistics database Forix. They could have sold 300,000 on race day this year, but the price is a lot for Mexico, if not for Formula 1," says Mr Hellmund.


Tickets start at $91, rising up to $1,132, which is just shy of the $1,300 peak for the US GP - the race's closest competitor geographically.


The difference is that Mexico is one of the poorest nations on earth. In July, government social development agency Coneval reported that the poverty rate increased last year to 46.2%, equivalent to 55.3 million people in the nation of nearly 120 million.


The population is concentrated in Greater Mexico City, which is home to 21.2 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.


It is the city's ardent fan-base that caught Mr Hellmund's attention.


This weekend's race is a homecoming for him as his late father, Gustavo Hellmund-Rosas, was responsible for the Mexican GP returning in 1986 after a 15-year absence.


Mr Hellmund was a born promoter and seized the moment a decade ago when the US GP was in the middle of a turbulent eight years at Indianapolis. In 2007, the city finally severed its ties with F1 and this was the catalyst for Mr Hellmund's bid to bring the US GP to Austin, where he now lives.


"It was always the plan to get Austin up and running then get a second grand prix in Mexico," he says. "It has history and a personal attachment because of my father's relationship with it."


The plan was driven by Mr Hellmund and his counterpart in Mexico, Alejandro Soberon, chief executive of the world's third largest live entertainment company, Corporacion Interamericana de Entretenimiento (CIE), which is promoting the race and leases the track.


"I had to convince Bernie [Ecclestone] that I had found the right location for the race and that I had found the right partners in CIE," says Mr Hellmund.


F1 has raised Austin's profile internationally and Mr Hellmund is confident Mexico will share the same glow.


"I think they will sustain it for at least five years. A lot of the ticket deals sold to the public in Mexico are tied up for that long - more than 20%. There's enough of a following and a passion for motorsport in Latin America that having local drivers is not an absolute necessity, but I think it certainly helps."


On Sunday, all eyes in Mexico will be on them.

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Oh by the way, final attendance figures for the event:


Friday: 89,365

Saturday: 111,964

Sunday: 134,845


3 days: 336,174


And no, I don't think they used the COTA counting method. They had something like 20 grandstands and everything was packed.

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According to Hellmund in this new article, it's not SoCal, and it's potentially a new track. He says Bernie is looking at a race in SoCal. He also talks quite a bit about the prospect of a Manor buyout.

After F1 success in Austin and Mexico, what’s next for Tavo Hellmund?


Tavo Hellmund knows he should be done with Formula One.

After eight years of hard work, insane hours, brutal international travel, legal wrangling and almost constant stress, he has just hit motorsport’s equivalent of a walk-off home run. The recent Mexican Grand Prix he helped organize — after being ousted from his dream project of Circuit of the Americas in Austin several years ago — has been drawing praise from even the most reserved critics.

Tavo Hellmund has been a key player in bringing Formula One to Austin and Mexico City.

If you’ve seen director Ron Howard’s 2013 Formula One movie, “Rush,” you know that Niki Lauda isn’t exactly known for tossing out verbal bouquets. Yet the blunt three-time world champion and current Mercedes chairman gushed to reporters after the Mexican Grand Prix, “It was the best I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

Hellmund, 49, knows this is as good as it gets.

As a racer, he never really sniffed the big time, but he has now proved vital in bringing Formula One, the world’s premier racing series, back to the United States and his hometown of Austin, and to his father’s homeland, Mexico, after a 23-year absence. Nothing he can do from here on out can top that.

The Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City on Nov. 1 was a huge hit ... Read More

“Mission accomplished. I’m at peace. I’m good,” Hellmund said.

He added, “I’m in the fortunate position that I don’t really need to do another project. … I plan to take a step back and really enjoy the moment, try to learn how to smell the roses that everyone keeps telling me I need to do — although I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that.”

And yet, while he maintains he’s going to hit the brakes, he’s now involved with a pair of projects that, if they pan out, could change the face of F1 racing in the U.S. If he and his group of investors succeed in acquiring a struggling F1 team, Manor Marussia, Hellmund said he’ll offer a ride to none other than NASCAR’s ultrapopular Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s also involved in a plan to create an F1 track in California, a project different from the urban street race in Southern California that Hellmund said F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is currently pursuing.

Hellmund, if he slowed down, could probably smell roses or a lot of other soothing plants and flowers at the lush Spanish Oaks Golf Club, where he pulls up for lunch and an American-Statesman interview.

He raves about the club but, of course, doesn’t play golf there. His sport of choice was racing — all fumes and foul smells, bone-rattling noise and frantic action.

“I think I worry that maybe I can’t relax,” he acknowledges.

Many times, however, his restless energy served him well in the far-flung, round-the-clock world of Formula One, where one man’s 8 a.m. start to the working day is another man’s 2 a.m. Beginning in 2007, he worked tirelessly to bring F1 to Austin and later to Mexico City, where he partnered with investors and entertainment conglomerate CIE.

“The last eight years have felt like 30,’’ Hellmund said. “To do anything right in Formula One, it’s all-consuming.”

Sometimes there’s a payoff. At the Mexican Grand Prix, world champion Lewis Hamilton uneventfully trailed winning teammate and rival Nico Rosberg, but hardly anyone complained about that procession. The race-day attendance was 134,850, and the three-day mark was 335,850. The crowds were not only huge; they were loud.

“It did not feel like a motorsports electricity in there. It felt like a prize fight, or an SEC or Texas-OU game,” said Hellmund.

Part of the charged atmosphere was created by moving the podium from its traditional place above pit row to an area in front of the baseball stadium grandstands at the park/track, which seats 40,000.

Hellmund said Ecclestone was initially skeptical about the switch but was won over by the spectacle. Hellmund added that he fully expects the Mexican Grand Prix to win F1’s Race Promoters’ Trophy for the best organized event of the year.

“I think Mexico City set a new bar the way we did things,” Hellmund said. “I think Bernie is pretty pleased with both Austin and Mexico City.”

Ecclestone knew Hellmund’s late father, Gustavo, and has known Tavo since he was a child. Hellmund’s friendship with and his ability to work with Ecclestone has not gone unnoticed in the F1 world.

“I get approached from a lot of places now — not just North America, but all over,” Hellmund said. He realizes, however, that his window of opportunity, if not closing, might be narrowing. Ecclestone recently turned 85, and the leading shareholder of Formula One, CVC Capital Partners, might finally be close to parting with its stake. No one really knows what Formula One will look like a few years from now. One possibility, however, is that the teams near the back of the grid will get a bigger share of the revenue than they do now.

That’s one reason Hellmund’s investor group is looking to purchase at least a controlling interest in the Manor Marussia race team from British businessman Stephen Fitzpatrick.

If that does happen, a big goal of the team would be to put an American driver on the grid. Hellmund said he’s serious about his first choice being Dale Jr., even if that seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea.

A more realistic option would be his second choice, Alexander Rossi. He raced in the U.S. Grand Prix this year and has competed successfully in a couple of series that are considered steppingstones to F1.

“He has the resume,” Hellmund said, adding that Rossi has done better than any American driver who journeyed to Europe with hopes of making it to F1, a path Hellmund once tried.

Although the teams at the back of the F1 grid have complained about their financial plight, Hellmund said there is a way to be financially viable.

“It would never be our goal to compete with the manufacturer teams. We’re never going to spend $400 million a year like Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren,” Hellmund said “But we think you can run it respectably and not be in the red. I think you can fight for fifth.”

Hellmund said a fifth-place team could get $60 million or $70 million in prize money from F1, and that would cover about half of a $110 million to $120 million budget. Money from sponsors would also be key.

To compete for fifth place, currently five places higher than the team’s dead last standing, Manor Marussia would need to be powered by better engines.

“Manor Marussia cut a deal to be able to have Mercedes motors next year, which is a step forward as opposed to a year and one-half old Ferrari spec engine,” Hellmund said.

The engine deal would have to go through and the team’s financials would have to check out for a purchase to happen in time for the 2016 F1 season.

Hellmund said there’s about a 60-day window for that to happen.

“I think if we get to late January or February, it may be too late, and my partners and I would probably lose interest,” he said.

He said there’s a similar time frame to see whether an effort to bring Formula One to California is serious. While Ecclestone apparently has been looking at a couple of sites in Southern California, Hellmund said he was contacted about a year ago by a Northern California party interested in building a track.

“They own some of the land but not all that would be required. So that’s one of the hurdles,” Hellmund said. “And then, can you get all the permits?”

He said that the land would be a really good location for a track and that the German engineering firm that has built most of F1’s newest tracks, Tilke GmbH, will be checking it out.

Hellmund said he would not be a principal in that project, only a consultant.

“We’ll see if they have the stomach for it — I guess that’s the right word,” Hellmund said of the myriad hoops to jump through in the F1 world. There, plans for races in Las Vegas and New Jersey have faltered in recent years, but there always seems to be some group or country angling for a race.

“Some people are really enthusiastic and have a decent business plan in mind. Some of them are just dreamers and actually don’t understand the undertaking, and once that’s realized, what is required, it kind of fizzles out,” Hellmund said.

Both of the projects he’s currently working on could melt away within two months. Hellmund said he’d be OK with that. But after his part in bringing F1 back to the U.S. and Mexico, there will be those who will tempt Hellmund to be sucked back into that frantic world.

Can he stay away? Can he really slow down and just relax?

“I think we’re going to find out,” Hellmund said. “I’m certainly going to give it a good try.”

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