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

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

 

By John Maher - American-Statesman correspondent


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.

 

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

 

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.

 

“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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