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Changes in the Texas air

ROUND 18 – United States, 15-17 November 2013

Venue: Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas
Circuit Length: 5.513 kilometres
Laps: 56
Lap Record: 1:39.347 = 199.772 km/h • Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) • 2012

Odd note:

You could just about take in a full season of F1 merely by going to Texas! As Williams’ Chief Race Engineer Xevi Pujolar points out, CoTA took the best of the world’s racing features and blended them into a superb new challenge: “Another Tilke-designed track, this one takes some of the best features from some of the classic F1 racing circuits and combines them together to make a challenging layout. There are corners that are strongly inspired by the ‘Senna S’ from Interlagos, the Becketts-Maggots sequence from Silverstone, Motordrome from Hockenheim and the multi-apex Turn 8 from Istanbul.”

The track

The magnificent Circuit of the Americas made an instant impact when it joined the F1 calendar last year. “It's got a bit of everything really, so it’s good,” said Mark Webber laconically. Eventual winner Lewis Hamilton was a little more forthcoming: “This is a great drivers’ track – it’s very tough to pull together three perfect sectors,” said the McLaren man. “Personally, I find the final two sectors easier than the first; those high-speed changes of direction need a good set-up, and balancing that requirement against the demands of the slow-speed stuff is tricky.” The lay-out has 20 corners, 11 left, 9 right: it all starts with the signature uphill, hard left Turn 1, flows through the Esses out to Turn 10, then comes back along the straight where they touch 310 before Turn 12. Turns 13 to 19 are tight with the loop through 16-17-18 before the downhill run to the main straight.

Changes in the Texas air

With the titles done and dusted, the last couple of races are more about next year than this. Take Lotus, for example: we still don’t know who will be driving the #7 car as Kimi Raikkonen has decided to miss the final two races and have back surgery. Cynics will say this is a convenient way of getting out of his closing commitments to the team since the breakdown in their relations, but the positive aspect is that it makes a place available for an up-and-comer. Why wouldn’t they give it to outgoing GP2 champ Davide Valsecchi, their reserve driver? If he doesn’t get a crack when a regular driver is absent, what’s the point of having that role within the team?

How fortunes change in a short time can be seen in McLaren’s position as they return to the Lone Star State. Last year Lewis Hamilton irked Sebastian Vettel by becoming the first driver to win at CoTA; now Lewis is gone, and so are the McLaren glory days. Just two races to score a podium… Undaunted, Jenson Button is looking forward to it: “The first sector of this circuit ranks as one of the best parts of a racetrack anywhere in the world,” says the Englishman. “The first corner is really tricky, because it’s steep and blind, after that, the circuit just winds through an incredibly fast switchback until the heavy braking for the back straight.”

McLaren, too, have questions over their second driver – but not for Austin, which will be Sergio Perez’s ‘home’ race. It may also be his second-last for McLaren if rumour is to be believed. Insiders say Kevin Magnussen is to take over the seat next year: he’s the son of former Stewart GP driver Jan, who was a brilliant F3 champion but couldn’t translate that to F1. Kevin has just wrapped up the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 title and his pedigree as a former member of the McLaren Young Driver Program doesn’t hinder his chances either. Over in the red corner Felipe Massa is approaching his final two races in a Ferrari cockpit. Leaving the Scuderia must always be a wrench for a Grand Prix driver, but the Brazilian at least has his future sewn up. News came this week that he is joining Williams in place of the departing Pastor Maldonado, who is a candidate for one of the Lotus or Sauber seats next year. “When I was a kid, I always dreamed about racing for Williams, Ferrari or McLaren and I’m glad to be signing with another icon of the sport following my time at Ferrari,” Massa said. “It is also nice to remember that some of the best Brazilian drivers raced for Williams and cemented a strong national link with the team.” Felipe is referring to men like Nelson Piquet, World Champion for Williams in 1987; the late Ayrton Senna, briefly with Sir Frank in 1994; and Rubens Barrichello, who like Massa left Ferrari and eventually saw out his F1 days at Williams from 2010-11.

Returning to the front, Vettel will be determined to extend his winning run in the Red Bull Renault from seven to eight races. The all-time record of nine in a row is still within reach as he strives to match Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari performance way back in 1952-53. Denied victory by Hamilton last year, Vettel still took the first Austin pole and fastest lap. For Mark Webber it will be a party weekend: the retiring Aussie has decided to take family and friends for a final bash in Austin rather than the slightly more hostile environment of São Paulo. Mark was a DNF last year when Red Bull clinched the Constructors’ Championship in Texas but liked the track: “It is an incredible racetrack, it looked good on paper and lived up to expectations. It’s really stimulating to drive, with lots of fast corners and some big undulations,” he observed. He could go past the great Sir Jack’s tally of 13 poles this weekend.

For Mercedes, Nico Rosberg has been saying for some time now that they want to be ‘the best of the rest’, and that’s where they sit: in second place in the Constructors’ Championship but with Ferrari just 11 points behind. Last year’s Austin winner Hamilton has joined in the chorus: “We’re going into the final two races with one aim in mind and that’s to finish second,” says Lewis. “It would mean so much to everyone at the team and we’re determined to achieve it. Hopefully we can start with a strong weekend and some good points in Austin.”

But don’t count Ferrari out. The big one may have eluded them this year but third is not where the Scuderia wants to be. Massa will want to leave with happy memories, Alonso hasn’t won since his home race and, as Maranello’s Sporting Director Massimo Rivola says, “We want to show the fans that we never give up.”

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