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Pray for a long, dry summer: Construction lags on Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 track near Austin

Austin Photo: Author_John Flood
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_formula 1_ticket sales_jan 2012_pit building
Courtesy of Circuit of the Americas

The Formula 1 track being built by Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in southeast Austin is dangerously behind schedule. For months, Austin's Formula 1 track owners (COTA) have officially reported construction as "on schedule." It's not.

I've seen the June 2011 construction schedule, and I've laid it out below in summary form. COTA can do it, but with 30+ years of engineering experience, I can say the track needs more than efficiency, it needs a little luck.

Bobby Epstein, the founding partner of COTA, disagrees. CultureMap spoke to him by phone late Monday afternoon. "It's not so much a matter of whether the circuit will be completed — it will be completed," he said, "It's really about how much it will cost if we need to accelerate the construction in order to finish."

Last week, the world Formula 1 press reported that construction of Austin’s Circuit of the Americas was on schedule for an August completion. This was of course seen as very good news by anyone with an interest in Austin's Nov. 18 United States Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the 2012 World Championship. "On schedule" is a matter of perspective.

"There’s very little float in the [construction] schedule," responded William McAdoo, senior vice-president of Austin Commercial, the general contractor in charge of completing the circuit construction. "We have no time to spare and the weather is factor. We're hoping for a long, hot summer and we’ll be able to accomplish a lot. There is some work that has some time, the track being one. The rain like we had a few nights ago doesn’t help our cause."

And weather is the one thing even Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone can't control.

 ​The key is to have no more delays like the one caused by the contract dispute in November/December. They need good weather, a little luck, and flawless execution to get the job done. 

By regulation, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) is required to approve Austin’s circuit via inspection and certify it fit for competition 90 days before the first event. That would be somewhere around Aug. 20, 2012. The inspection is a firm scheduling milestone and all construction activities are planned based on that date, not the race date.

"We will have a significant amount of the items that FIA needs done by that point in time," said McAdoo. But not all? I asked. "I’m confident we’ll be able to give them what they need to commission the track and have the race ready to go."

It is true that FIA often relaxes the inspection date to give the constructors time to tidy up loose ends. Of the two most recently added events, Korea and India, Korea conducted its inspection only one week before its 2010 Grand Prix. FIA vowed to never let that happen again and said that future exceptions to the rule would not be allowed. However, India conducted its inspection 60 days before its 2011 event, proving that the FIA still allows a reasonable amount of flexibility.

Behind schedule

The Circuit of the Americas has several permanent structures that must be completed. These structures include a 300,000 square foot main grandstand, a 210,000 square foot pit building consisting of three levels and 36 garages, a 39,000 square-foot media center, a 6,000 square-foot medical center, 18 two-story 4,000 square-foot team buildings, a maintenance building, a fuel distribution building, the grand plaza and a variety of ticket booths, bathrooms, concession areas and a couple of helipads.

Of course 100 percent of those structures are not required for the inspection, but they must be finished before the race. The grand plaza could wait until after the first event, but that will result in horrible press and needs to be avoided.

The project is definitely behind schedule.

I have access to the June 2011 baseline construction schedule. It was developed to reflect the realities of the first six months of construction and was updated to realign the schedule. I have taken the original document, a very detailed schedule consisting of 13 pages, and summarized it into a high level schedule.

Shown below is page 1 of 3 of my schedule summary.

CLICK PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

The pictures we have seen from the site focus on the pit/paddock structure. That structure is the only obvious evidence of any “vertical” construction, and construction progress is significant. It appears that it is far enough along that it can be completed on time as the construction team has about seven months before the inspection.

However, look at line 12 on the schedule above. The pit/paddock roof was originally scheduled to be finished on Nov. 8 and the facade was to be finished over a week ago. Obviously, they are well behind. The real question is whether they can get back on track and finish by the August inspection. The original completion target for the pits was June 16,  2012.

"The rain doesn't bother us as much on the building side. We don't lose a tremendous amount of time in bad weather when it comes to building structures," explained McAdoo. "The pit building is a concrete structure and it's moving forward, it's a relatively simple skin, the interior finishes are relatively straight forward."

 There is only one threat to the main race track completion according to McAdoo, "When you’re looking at the track, the concern is weather." 

The schedule originally had two months of “slack” time at the end, and all of that will be needed, but will it be enough?

Circuit of the Americas (COTA), the track owner, also announced that vertical construction of the main grandstand would start this week. Line 30 shows that the original intent was to finish the structure by Feb. 10. Once again, that will not happen, and they will need all of their scheduled “slack” time to make it happen.

"The grandstand steel is being fabricated and once it hits the site that structure should go up pretty quickly," said McAdoo. 

The same can be said of all of the other structures shown on the schedule. Every one of them has slipped significantly, and every structure will require every day of the available calendar to get back on track.

As a guy who spent the last 30 years+ in engineering/construction, this makes me very nervous.

The brightest spot on the schedule, and the one area that I am not concerned about, is the track surface itself. The time required to pave the surface is very short, and the foundation bed appears to be in great shape: They have done a massive amount of work on that. They will wait until late in the schedule to place the asphalt. It is best to let the road bed settle as much as possible and to avoid any heavy construction traffic on the racing surface. There is only one threat to the main race track completion according to McAdoo, "When you’re looking at the track, the concern is weather."

I still think the circuit can be finished on time. However, I think they will not be ready for the August inspection. I suspect the FIA will be flexible and allow the work to continue for at least a month beyond the required inspection date, just as they did India. The key is to have no more delays like the one caused by the contract dispute in November/December. They need good weather, a little luck and flawless execution to get the job done.

On this point McAdoo was emphatic. "There's a high level of confidence that we’ll work through this and a high level of confidence that the race will happen. The race will happen."

For what it’s worth, I put my deposit down to buy a personal seat license, and I’m booked at the Omni downtown for the event. I still have faith in the project, but my experience has made me a bit careful. I like to know the facts.

Kevin Benz contributed to this report.

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