United States Grand Prix (Rd. 19): Pre-race Coverage
Season’s penultimate race and F1’s ultimate frontier! That’s United States Grand Prix 2012. F1 circus is back to the state of Texas with a fresh influx of arsenal to attack the unconquered fortress, first time since 1984 and this time it’s Austin with America’s first purpose-built Grand Prix circuit. The circuit at Austin comes after the F1 fraternity has had its fair share of chances to woo the masses with nine different circuits. For fans that have dug into the sport’s history at America, F1’s attempt to establish its base here is like a dog chasing its tail or us trying to scratch that inaccessible itch on our back. But frankly speaking, the desperation isn’t unwarranted- all said and done, a global event without a base in US is kind of an absurd idea. Its shift to the east is exciting and all but it needs America- the potential fan base and investment is too generous for it to turn its back to.
As we have already mentioned, this is the tenth venue in US and those in the past have failed at some point of time and if we leave the make-shift nature of the circuits out, the failures have been mysterious. The good old days of Watkins Glen in 60s and 70s and the quarter-million turn-out for the inaugural race at Indianapolis in 2000 tell the same story- there’s no inherent reason for F1 to not capture the attention of the people here. Anyway, this time it’s going to be different.
For starters, we are past the days of compromise with tracks (not sure if some of them even qualify to be called a track) – Circuit of the Americas (CoTA) is the first dedicated Grand Prix track, a permanent road circuit in the US. And from slight looks of it, the circuit looks promising. Tilke seems to have put together a jigsaw of all the best features of other F1 tracks to get us a super-track- for instance, a Maggots/ Becketts-like series of sweeping corners in the first section which is also reminiscent of Suzuka’s esses. There has been lot of talk about the circuit’s gradient (in the range of 133 ft. between the lowest and highest points on the track) particularly the steep climb to turn one though most of it is confined to straights. The corners are largely flat and beyond the first section the lap is more or less a typical modern F1 track with long straights and a series of slow corners (read Tilke-ish).
Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull outfit seemed to have no problems in adjusting to the unknown Austin track. He dominated all the three practice sessions with Alonso and Hamilton in close company and looks all set to take pole for raceday unless the two can do something about it. An interesting aspect of qualifying today is that the drivers are not only concerned with getting good track positions but also odd-numbered ones. Apparently the new track is very slippery and more so, on the left-hand side of the tarmac. The tyres on offer this weekend are option medium compounds and hard prime compounds. Romain Grosjean faces a penalty due to a gearbox change and will start five places below the position he qualifies in this session.
Q1: The first cars out on track were the up-for-sale HRTs followed by Glock. Majority of the field started on the faster option tyres. It was business as usual for Q1 and there weren’t any upsets, thought the times flickered back and forth erratically for a while. For Torro Rosso, it was the same old story of having only one driver making the cut- Eric-Vergne got through this time while Ricciardo failed to get through to Q2. It was an impressive performance from Marussia to get both the drivers ahead of the Caterhams in P19 and P20. The last driver to qualify was Rosberg who managed to squeeze through in his last attempt. The session was topped by Vettel followed by Hamilton and Webber.
Not making it into Q2: 18. D. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso), 19. T. Glock (Marussia), 20. C. Pic (Marussia), 21. V. Petrov (Caterham), 22. H. Kovalainen (Caterham), 23. P. de la Rosa (Hispania), 24. N. Karthikeyan (Hispania)
Q2: We saw something interesting in the Ferrari pit-garage- after Monza, Ferrari came up with yet another novel idea (in a desperate bid to usurp the RedBulls) in qualifying- they scrubbed two sets of both medium and hard compounds in the final practice to get lap times straight away in the qualifying. Q2 had a major upset as Jenson Button drove back into the pits midway with power and throttle issues. McLaren’s reliability gremlin continues which is rather irritating and this comes after Button’s “worst car” fiasco. Among others, Perez and Rosberg failed to have an impact especially Rosberg who trailed his teammate by 1.4 seconds in potentially same car. Vettel went fastest followed by Webber and Massa as Ferrari improved their pace.
Not taking further part: 11. B. Senna (Williams) 12. J. Button (McLaren), 13. P. Di Resta (Force India), 14. J. Eric-Vergne (Torro Rosso), 15. S. Perez (Sauber), 16. K. Kobayashi (Sauber), 17. N. Rosberg (Mercedes)
Q3: The final 10 minutes of the qualifying went green with Schumacher coming out first followed by the Ferraris. The highlight of the session was the nail-biting contest between Vettel and Hamilton for pole. Only 0.052 seconds separated them in their penultimate flying lap. Vettel improved with his final run but Hamilton was absolutely flying, though finally he fell short of the German’s time. It was yet another disappointing outing for the Ferraris as they finished P7 and P9 with Massa out-qualifying Alonso this time. The situation only got worse after Grosjean’s penalty and they will start from the slippery side of the track.
Rounding up the top 10: 1. S. Vettel (Redbull), 2. L. Hamilton (McLaren), 3. M. Webber (Redbull), 4. R. Grosjean (Lotus), 5. K. Raikkonen (Lotus), 6. M. Schumacher(Mercedes), 7. F. Massa (Ferrari), 8. N. Hulkenberg(Force India), 9. F. Alonso (Ferrari), 10. P. Maldonado (Williams)
Heading into the race
It was yet another case of Ferrari biting the dust on Saturday while Alonso comes out saying he isn’t surprised by the results. And once again he believes… no he asserts he will finish ahead of Vettel. Not to undermine Alonso’s grit and confidence (not that it’s a wise choice either for us or Vettel), Seb has the upper hand. A ten-points advantage might not be such a key factor, but the momentum he has is very vital. While Ferrari are struggling to produce a car capable of starting in the front-row or even a row down, Red Bull has been dominant pretty much everywhere since their revival. Austin seems to be no different, especially in the up-tempo first sector where the advantage is with the RB8s than anyone else. And starting back from P8 and on the dirty side of a rather slippery track just adds to the Spaniard’s woes and doing what he claims will take a super-human effort. He has been doing that all season earning podiums for Ferrari where they shouldn’t have but this time around he might have to bank on ”the weird” to kick-in at Austin (read miracle).
All eyes will be on this race, not just for the contest part of it, but also to see how F1 fares in Austin. Early signs are good with a sell-out of around 125,000 for Sunday even though it’s unseasonably chilly at Austin. As we have discussed, there are reasons to believe that this time F1 has finally got it right with US and add to it the fact that Austin isn’t typically Texan but has a much more diverse and outward-looking audience. It prides itself on its weirdness- ’Keep Austin Weird’ is the motto (for sitcom buffs, it might be easy to relate to if you know what Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory fame is all about) and that adds a little flavour to this race. Whether all the evidences culminate into success on D-day is something that will be interesting to see.