MCKINNEY (CBS 11 NEWS) – For the first time in five years, Formula-1 Racing returns to the United States this weekend and the drivers will be climbing behind the wheel at the new Circuit of the Americas Track in Austin.
F1 is the most closely followed form of motorsport in the world, except in the United States, where NASCAR reigns.
There are North Texas ties to the F1 race. A local sports icon is helping train members of one international team. Austin-born Michael Johnson has been busy since winning gold at the 1996 Olympics. He now coaches the performances of top-flight athletes, including the entire Williams Formula-1 Racing Team, based in England.
“We’ve been following it very closely, working with the pit crew, working with the drivers, very exciting for us,” Johnson told CBS 11 News from Michael Johnson Performance, his training center in McKinney. “A little bit different for us but [they are] still athletes, so we are well at home with what we’re doing with them.”
Johnson says he was bitten by the Formula-1 bug back in 1996. This week he’s testing vision and response times of drivers Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado, who won the Grand Prix of Spain this summer. “We’re very excited about it,” Johnson said of the race, adding, “We’ve got staff down there already working with the pit crew trying to make sure they’re ready to go and at their best for Sunday’s race.”
But Johnson’s work began nearly a year ago when he flew to Williams’ home base in England to coach the pit crew on faster ways to change tires, basically having between 18 to 20 people perform in a tightly-choreographed ballet of less than three seconds.
“We’re working with them on physicality and efficiency of the tire changeover, which is extremely important,” Johnson said. Driver Bruno Senna agreed. “ In Formula-1 only a half second sometimes in the pit stop can make a difference in being in front or behind someone else and the races are that close.”
Formula 1′s Texas racing roots actually run through Dallas. The very first F1 race was here in 1984 — a street course built around Fair Park. Much has changed since then.
By rule, drivers and teams are limited in the times they can practice. So individual training is imperative, according to Pastor Maldonado. “Because we are not every day in the car we need to try to improve our performance outside of the track, outside of the team.” Senna agreed. “Here you get a new depth of assessment, you get to see how your brain is working as well as your body. It’s quite cool to see how much you can improve against certain athletes and their benchmark.” And in the exotic and expensive world of Formula-1, shaving off split seconds can mean millions in winnings.
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