ROUND 19 - United States 16-18 November 2012
Circuit Length:5.516 km
Lap Record:to be established
BACK IN THE USA: COTA TAKES UP THE F1 CHALLENGE
The second-last race of the season has brought us to one of the most eagerly-awaited venues in years. It’s the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star State will try to provide the permanent home in North America F1 has been seeking for years. This is the 10th venue to stage a Grand Prix in the US (can you name the other nine?). This will be the 52nd Grand Prix in the country, but it is the first circuit to be purpose-built for Formula 1 cars.
“I just love the idea that all of this is happening. I love the sport so much and I think it’s going to have a wonderful home now.” The speaker is a great American driver who is in town as well as an ambassador for the Circuit of the Americas. That’s Mario Andretti – the last US racer to win a Grand Prix, and that was back in his World Championship-winning year of 1978! “This is what was needed,” says ‘Supermario’.” Now we can compete with the rest of the world, some of the new venues that have gone up in the last few years, the Middle East and so forth and Asia, so finally the US will have that standard and I think that’s so important because that was the ingredient that was sadly missing here in the United States.”
Surprisingly enthusiastic about coming back to America is Kimi Raikkonen, F1’s latest race-winner and a man with recent knowledge of racing over here. “Last year I tried NASCAR. I did two races on the Charlotte oval and I really liked it a lot. That was probably the experience I needed to open my eyes for racing again,” says Lotus’s Finnish driver. “After that I really wanted to come back to Formula 1, while it was a tempting idea to do more NASCAR, too. After seeing the excitement of the American NASCAR fans I hope Formula 1 gets people as eager to enjoy our racing in Texas, too.”
It’s another Hermann Tilke design, and to the racing fan it looks like a beauty. It’s another anti-clockwise challenge, and it’s a decent lap at 5 and a half kilometres. Its dominant feature is right at the start: a stunning uphill sprint to the blind, left-hand Turn 1, followed by Esses like Suzuka; Turn 11, a left-hand acute hairpin, is another stand-out and there is a stadium section in the ‘twisty’ bit in the second half of the lap. Renault, whose engines have been doing a lot of winning lately, expect a lap time of around 1 min 39 secs and a top speed of about 314 km/h at the end of the long straight between Turns 11 and 12. It will be thirsty on fuel, they say, thanks to the on-and-off throttle stuff in Sectors 1 and 3.
Former French F1 driver Jacques Laffite, winner of six races between 1977 and 1981, is here in Austin commentating for television. “It’s absolutely stunning,” he said after a quick tour of the track on Wednesday. “It reminds me of the old Zeltweg in Austria with that climb up to the first corner, and it’s certainly a place that’s going to sort the men from the boys. They’ve done an outstanding job.”
“In many ways America will be the biggest challenge for us of the year,” says Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, and to meet it the tyre company has decided to go conservative with the Medium and Hard compounds on offer. Pirelli’s tester Jaime Alguersuari agrees: “It looks like a great track and a lot of fun to drive,” says the Spaniard. “It’s clear that all the teams have good knowledge of all the Pirelli tyres now, so I would say that understandably the hard and the medium tyres are quite a conservative choice, but of course this depends on many other factors such as the macro-abrasion of the surface in Austin. We could be looking at a one-stop race although there are other outside circumstances that can always affect this, such as safety cars and the weather. A new track often shakes things up a bit, so I’m sure it will be interesting.”
Happily for American fans F1 arrives in Austin with the 2012 titles still in the balance. While Red Bull will almost certainly wrap up their third straight constructors’ title (they are 82 points clear of Ferrari), Sebastian Vettel now has a 10-point margin over Fernando Alonso with just this race and Brazil to come. Vettel could win his third straight World Championship if he finishes 15 points ahead of Alonso, but given the form both men have been in recently that seems a pretty unlikely scenario. Vettel has been spending a lot of time in the simulator learning the track, while Alonso was one of the first drivers actually seen at the circuit on Wednesday.
One man looking forward to his first racing excursion to the USA is Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez, who will be making his second-last appearance as a Sauber driver before moving to McLaren in 2013 – and he doesn’t have to travel far. “I am very much looking forward to this race!” says the Mexican. “I think it is the closest race for eight years for me to my home town of Guadalajara. I expect many Mexican Formula One fans to attend and this, for sure, will give me an extra boost. Of course I also hope there will be a Mexican Grand Prix one day, because I am aware of the great enthusiasm for Formula One in my country, but for now I regard the race in Austin as my home Grand Prix.” Since his spectacular podium at Monza, Perez has scored exactly one point in five races – and not a single one in the last four.
Mark Webber needs to be on his finest form to hang on to fourth place overall – he is just two points clear of Lewis Hamilton after his no-score in a difficult outing in Abu Dhabi. Mark has a lot of time for Austin, which is t wined with Adelaide but reminds Webber of another great Australian city: “The layout looks awesome. It’s probably one of the best layouts of the year in terms of being challenging for the drivers and the cars. I’ve been to Austin a few times, I’ve got some buddies there. It’s a really vibrant city, similar to Melbourne, and I know the locals are going to really embrace it.”
Heikki Kovalainen certainly hopes so. “I think one of the key things to how successful the weekend will be is how the American fans take to the race,” says the Caterham driver. “We’ve obviously been there before and there’s a lot of other racing that US fans are very passionate about, but F1 has changed since we last raced there and we know what it takes to put on a show so I think it’s going to be really good.” Let’s hope he’s right…