German Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel during practice at the Circuit… (Larry W. Smith / EPA )
Formula One returns to the United States on Sunday after a five-year absence and, for the international racing series' sponsors, it's not a year too soon.
The U.S. Grand Prix will be held at a newly built, $300-million track called Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
With the race being the next-to-last event on the F1 schedule, Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull team is trying to win his third consecutive F1 title. He has a 10-point lead over Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, a two-time champion.
Formula One last raced in the U.S. in 2007, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and "the American market is crucial for Formula One to be recognized as a world championship," Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner said.
It's also crucial for Red Bull and F1's other sponsors, who are delighted the sport is returning because the U.S. is their largest sales market.
Whether it's selling $8 quarts of Mobil 1 motor oil or $80,000 Mercedes-Benz cars, the sponsors are leveraging the Austin race to pump up their promotional efforts.
"Our target is to sell more cars and use the U.S. F1 race ... as a platform," said Norbert Haug, vice president in charge of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport.
Even Hollywood is capitalizing on the Austin race.
Director Ron Howard plans a new movie next year, "Rush," about the 1970s rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and Howard already has been to Austin to promote the film and show some behind-the-scenes footage to get the word out.
Another example: Mobil 1, which sponsors 2008 F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, is showing humorous television commercials featuring the two drivers.
The goal "is to sell more product at the end of the day," and "people are very loyal to the teams and their drivers," said Debra Emory, global marketing communications manager for the ExxonMobil group that includes Mobil 1.
With races on several continents, Formula One's global TV audience reportedly exceeds 300 million people. Its U.S. fan base is fervent about the sport.
Formula One's fans include Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, who owns a lower-level racing team of his own. His Twitter handle is "@str8edgeracer," and this week he tweeted, "Stoked to take #F1 pictures @circuitamericas!!!"
Formula One cars also are considered the most technologically advanced in motor racing. As a result, the cost of running a top-flight F1 team can exceed $200 million a year, compared with about $20 million for a premier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team.
Those lofty costs have driven some automakers out of Formula One in recent years, including BMW, Toyota and Honda, which spent heavily to back their own teams. But for other companies, the sport remains a worthwhile investment.
Brembo, an Italian-based maker of automotive brakes, does about $300 million of annual sales in the U.S. market and those sales are growing. "We felt [Formula One] really needed to be here to support our business," said Daniel Sandberg, chief executive of Brembo North America.
For Brembo and other sponsors, he said, "to have the F1 race come here again, it's like taking the World Series or the Super Bowl to Europe."