It's official, F1 has cracked America -- and this is just the beginning

AUSTIN, Texas -- The U.S. Grand Prix was special. If there was any doubt before this weekend, Sunday's race was proof that Formula One has finally arrived in America. And it could be here to stay for a long time.

A record crowd and a carnival-like atmosphere saw the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) race return in style at the weekend. Boosted by one of the sport's all-time great championship battles between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton and riding the wave of popularity created by three seasons of Netflix's wildly successful "Drive to Survive", the steps F1 has made since the last U.S. Grand Prix in 2019 were clear to see.

These are uncharted waters for Formula One after having spent decades trying and failing to crack the American market. This U.S. Grand Prix felt different from any that has come before, in Texas or at any other venue. It felt as much like an Indy 500 as it did a Formula One race. It wasn't just the buzz of a record crowd or the return to a popular venue after the pandemic forced the cancellation of last year's edition; this one felt different. It felt so much bigger.

Hamilton, the sport's most globally recognisable star, remarked after the race how the whole event felt like F1 finally making a breakthrough.

"I think this is definitely our acceptance into the U.S.," the seven-time world champion said immediately after the race, in which he finished second after a tense battle with Verstappen worthy of the race's bumper crowd numbers.

"What a place to be. It's a real honour to be out here, I hope we get more races out here.

"I hope that the sport continues to grow because you can tell just how great the fans are out here, so I hope we get to come back more."

Crucially, the race between Verstappen and Hamilton was worthy of the occasion.

"Formula One's made a big statement this weekend this weekend in the U.S.," Red Bull boss Christian Horner said. "Big crowd, maybe a world-record-breaking crowd for Formula One over a grand prix weekend.

"Fantastic to see the American fans and public engaging in Formula One. We can thank Netflix, but without great content then it's not a good show, and I think the racing today really delivered and I think the fans are really engaging with what F1 can deliver."

Hamilton will get his wish of more races next year. The Miami Grand Prix will make its debut in May 2022 at an event outside Hard Rock Stadium, meaning next season will be the first to feature two U.S. races in the same calendar year since 1984.

COTA's slot on the 2022 schedule has an asterisk alongside it as the circuit has yet to secure a new deal beyond Sunday's race. But COTA boss Bobby Epstein told ESPN ahead of the weekend that a contract extension is all but certain, and after witnessing the 2021 race, F1 boss Stefano Domenicali would be foolish not to want to keep the Austin venue on the schedule long into the future.

Epstein joked to ESPN ahead of the race weekend that he planned to drive Domenicali around the circuit at some point to show how big the event was. He didn't quite manage that, although he did take Domenicali to see Kool and the Gang in the circuit infield on Sunday evening.

The band joined a slate of musical acts throughout the weekend headlined by Billy Joel on Saturday evening and featuring Shaquille O'Neal DJing under his musical alias DJ Diesel on Sunday.

COTA welcomed a record attendance -- 400,000 across the four days, with 140,000 on race day alone -- having added capacity with new grandstands around the final sector.

F1's rise in popularity Stateside was obvious outside the circuit as well. The drivers themselves noticed. On the drivers' parade ahead of the race, Charles Leclerc remarked at how much more he's been recognised since arriving in America this time around compared with previous years.

McLaren's Lando Norris, named F1's second-most popular driver behind Verstappen in a survey of 167,000 fans ahead of the weekend, noticed the same thing.

Asked by ESPN whether his experience was similar to Leclerc's, Norris said: "Yes. It's been crazy.

"Just away from the circuit, even in the hotel every morning and evening, they're waiting there. I feel like they just never sleep!

"I guess 'Drive to Survive' has made a massive difference in that aspect. The amount of fans here probably because of 'Drive to Survive,' it's probably a large percentage of it.

"We had a lot of fans last time, I feel like there's a lot more than there was in 2019.

"It's pretty cool to see how much it's engaged people in America, because it's pretty awesome."

Norris' McLaren teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who is the living and breathing embodiment of Netflix's success having been featured prominently in every series, said this year's race felt bigger than any of its predecessors. Ricciardo was stunned at how much he was recognised while in New York in the days before the race and you could see how much he enjoyed his time in Austin.

"The crowd was insane this weekend," Ricciardo said on Sunday evening. "Even downtown, it's by far the busiest it's ever been. It's just cool.

"The anthem at the beginning, that was cool and just seeing up the hill the sea of people in the crowd was... it's one of the cooler ones so I hope we keep coming back again and again."

The success of the Netflix show has been undeniable. According to Business Insider, 50 million people have watched the series in 2021 alone.

Arizona Cardinals star JJ Watt is one of the high-profile American sports stars to have become an F1 addict as a result of watching it -- he recently admitted knowing next to nothing about the sport other than Hamilton's name before he saw the show in the summer. Now he's hooked.

Watt's experience is shared by plenty of people. "Drive to Survive" has been credited with elevating the stars behind the crash helmets, whether it's the infectious personality of Ricciardo, the cussing of Haas boss Guenther Steiner or the sassy feuds between Horner and Renault's former boss Cyril Abiteboul, people who had never watched a single lap of an F1 race before discovering the series now suddenly can't get enough of it and the people who take part in it.

It's all very significant. It's almost impossible to imagine now, but Michael Schumacher, one of F1's greatest drivers and the joint-record holder with Hamilton of seven championships, once remarked that he was rarely recognised by people in America and was even asked to spell his name out when checking into an Indianapolis hotel ahead of a U.S. Grand Prix in the early 2000s. The opposite was true in Europe and other parts of the world, which was one reason Schumacher and his family frequently holidayed in the U.S. at the peak of his career and fame.

The series hasn't been for everyone. Verstappen, this season's championship leader and Sunday's race winner, has declined to take part in the upcoming series over frustrations at how it distorted the severity of rivalries within the sport. Verstappen's decision is a fair one, but creative licence seems to be a small price to pay for the incredible exposure "Drive to Survive" has given the sport.

Before COTA hosted its debut race in 2012, the question about F1 in America seemed to be, will this work? The purpose-built Texas track was immediately popular with drivers and existing fans, but it seemed to take a while to convince the people who mattered in F1 that a race in rural Texas was the right answer for the sport's hopes of taking a foothold in the States.

Now the question is, what's next? The answer is tantalising.

Next stop: Vegas?

F1 might not stop at two races in America: rumours of a third race in Las Vegas continued to build in recent weeks. Several sources told ESPN throughout the weekend that F1 is exploring options about racing in the city in future.

On the prospect of a third race, Red Bull boss Horner said: "Why not?

"There's some great venues. We're looking forward to going to Miami next year, and the U.S. is the biggest market in the world, biggest economy in the world, so that's important for us."

F1 is set for a record 23 races in 2022 but seems to be steamrolling towards 25 in the very near future. Right now, Vegas seems like a no-brainer given what's happening to the sport's popularity in America.

Significantly, COTA boss Epstein seemed unfazed by the addition of a Vegas race. A few years ago he was one of the loudest opponents to the Miami race -- at that point a proposed downtown street race -- as he felt it would cannibalise ticket sales for his own event.

A few things have happened since. For one thing, F1 has shifted Miami to May, the other end of the calendar to COTA. COTA has also seemingly got past the difficult days of a few years ago when there were very real concerns it would not continue on the calendar.

Epstein now seems very confident in COTA's long-term security on the calendar. If anything, he is now of the belief that more races in America can only be a good thing if scheduled the right way.

Speaking about Miami's first race, Epstein said: "They're gonna be sold out if they're not already... your first-year event. I don't think we're competing for the same customer.

"They're different types of events. I think that will become evident over the course of time as they develop their own personality and their own character. I think there will be differences.

"Their first few years are pretty well guaranteed sellouts. That's what we experienced. Because I think the first couple of years we did this, compared to how it is now, it's not to say those events weren't really good, but they stink compared to what we're doing now. We've learned a lot.

"Nevertheless, we sold those first two years out as people came and checked it out. So I think they'll sell for the first couple of years and then hopefully the F1 audience will have grown and they can bring Vegas on and continue to grow the sport in the U.S., because I think we're on the right path."

Epstein thinks the success of a third U.S. race will hinge on scheduling.

On Vegas joining the calendar, Epstein said: "We're already paired with Mexico City. We're a lot closer to Mexico City than Vegas would be to Miami. So I think if Vegas and Miami came in May and Mexico City and Austin come in the fall, that could be a great complement in helping it grow."

"I don't know if Vegas, Austin, Mexico City [in a row] is as great a platform as splitting the four races into a two."