Free Practice Sessions: Why they are more important at Austin than anywhere else this year
The F1 circus has landed in Austin and is getting ready for the penultimate race of the season at this brand new track. On paper, the track looks stunning with a combination of corners resembling some of their most famous counterparts around the world such as Maggots and Becketts of Silverstone, Istanbul’s Turn 8 etc. And not to forget Turn 1! That corner can really be a very interesting prospect come raceday.
Every weekend there are three practice sessions- FP1 being for testing the updates and setting up the cars to the drivers’ liking, FP2 used for long runs to analyse the race pace on both sets of dry tyres and FP3 for qualifying simulations. This is what has normally happened in the 18 race weekends so far this season.
But Austin is bound to be a bit different.
First of all, there will be very less grip on the track and so it will be a very tough job for the drivers as they try to learn the track because however advanced the simulators might be, nothing can perfectly replicate an actual run in the car. The lap starts with the uphill blind Turn 1 hairpin, reminding us of the iconic Osterreichring track in Austria. After that, there is a sequence of fast flowing corners which will take some time to master just as it takes drivers a bit of time to find the perfect racing line through Suzuka’s Esses. Sectors 2 and 3 are also challenging with a long straight and heavy braking zones. All in all, it will be a challenging experience for drivers on a track which has more corners above 250 km/h than at Spa and more below 100 km/h than at Hungaroring – so it is a mix of everything.
Another thing which teams will pay great attention to are the tyres as they have no significant data from the past to rely on. Pirelli have been conservative by bringing the hard and medium compounds this year (to encourage more running, Pirelli will be supplying an extra set of hard compound tyres to each driver for FP1 and FP2) but it will be interesting to see the time difference between them both on single-lap as well as long runs. That will provide a good basis for the race strategies, although all that can be made null and void if the rain gods want to have a say- a brand new track with challenging corners in the wet will provide the sport with a great opportunity to finally make its mark on America.
Talking of rain, we know how big an impact it can have on a drivers championship so late into the season- 2008 perfectly exemplifies that. Ferrari will be desperate to make their updates work during the practice sessions so that it can give Fernando Alonso a car to fight Sebastian Vettel on equal terms. Jules Bianchi recently carried out straight line aerodynamic tests at the Idiada facility in Spain, so we can expect lots of flow-viz paint on the Ferrari during the Friday sessions.
Jenson Button‘s comment about 2nd on the grid being better than pole position is an interesting one, and one that the teams are bound to look into. According to Button, the run to Turn 1 from the left hand side of the grid is less steep. Although there is a luck factor involved in getting a specific grid position, teams might play a strategic hand to give their lead driver the starting position on the left. But things are not that simple – nothing is, in Formula 1 infact – because COTA being a brand new track means as the weekend progresses, a clear racing line will start to develop and drivers going off line will be at a big disadvantage. Hence, it is a very fine line but the teams should be sure of what to do come the end of FP3 on Saturday.
To sum up, the normal procedure might be a bit delayed with drivers needing some extra time to learn the track – hence we might see some testing of updates in FP2 and some long running in FP3.