United States Preview - Its good to be back 15 Nov 2012
The 2012 championship continues to build to a fabulous end-of-season climax, not just with the gripping fight between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso for the drivers title, but with the return to America for the 2012 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix and the inaugural race at the impressive new Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas.
Few races have been so eagerly awaited, on the track recently described by 1978 world champion Mario Andretti as Phenomenal. Everything I had hoped for, and more.
It is one of only five anti-clockwise circuits on the calendar (the others being Singapore, Korea, Abu Dhabi and Interlagos) and features 20 corners, 11 left-handers, nine rights; there are more corners above 250 km/h than at Spa, and more below 100 than at Hungaroring. It promises to tax drivers and engineers to the maximum with its blend of sections from the worlds great tracks, especially in Fridays two free practice sessions.
Turns 2 and 3 echo the Senna S in Interlagos; 4-6 pay homage to Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel at Silverstone; 12-14 reflect the stadium section at Hockenheim; and 16-18 are a mirror of Istanbul Parks famous Turn 8. The circuit will feature a single DRS Zone, on the back straight between Turns 11 and 12, and the activation zone is likely to be approximately 650 metres before Turn 12.
The race is a step into the unknown, and a track which has never been raced on before. As a result, teams are unlikely to run test drivers on Friday, though HRT have confirmed that China's Ma Qing Hua will get another FP1 outing in Narain Karthikeyan's car.
Pirelli are bringing their P Zero Silver hard and P Zero White medium tyres, the conservative compounds reflecting the number of factors that remain uncertain at this stage, and the teams will be given an extra set of the hard compound for Fridays two free practice sessions in order to help them learn the all-new track.
Pirelli expect the track to be fast and challenging, with warm ambient temperatures adding to the mechanical demands placed on the tyres. The 5.513-kilometre (3.425-mile) lap features varying elevations that alternate slower and more technical sections with other areas that are very quick. Initial information suggests that the surface will be quite smooth.
The opening sector of the lap is particularly demanding, with a uniquely profiled hairpin Turn 1 and then a rapid sequence of direction changes from Turns 4 through to 6. This puts a lot of energy through the tyre structure, particularly the outside tyre that has to withstand the majority of the cornering forces. Traction is also a vital aspect of tyre performance in order to find optimal grip coming out of the slower corners.
Austin is one of just three new tracks for us in Formula One competition this year, alongside Bahrain - which weve tested at previously - and Hockenheim, where we previously raced in GP3, says Pirellis motorsport director Paul Hembery. So in many ways America will be the biggest challenge for us of the year, but stepping into the unknown is a situation that we are used to: last season the majority of tracks were completely new to us.
Weve chosen the hard and the medium compounds as we think it will be quite a demanding track, based on the asphalt samples and simulation data we have gathered. Naturally weve leaned towards a slightly more conservative choice in order to cover every possibility at a brand new circuit, but the tyre choice in Abu Dhabi was also conservative and yet we saw one of the most exciting races of the year. Were all absolutely delighted to be returning to America with Formula One: its a crucial market for us as well as being the home of many of the most enthusiastic fans out there. Weve felt a huge buzz about this race, and with the championship so finely poised it couldnt come at a better time.
Because of the time difference to Europe - Austin is six hours behind GMT - FP1 begins at 09.00 local time on Friday, FP2 at 13.00. FP3 begins at 09.00 on Saturday, with qualifying getting underway at 12.00. The race begins at 13.00 on Sunday and will run over 56 laps, or 308.405 kilometres (191.643 miles).
The odds continue to favour Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, as the German nurses a 10-point lead over Alonso and has what is currently a faster car than the Ferrari F2012. Much will thus depend on what Ferrari can bring in the way of upgrades.
I think it's great that we are travelling to the United States again, Vettel says. Ive been in the simulator learning the Austin track; how it flows and getting a general feel for it. What we know from designer Hermann Tilke is that the hallmark of the circuit will be the big differences in altitude within a lap as the highest point is expected to be 40 feet higher than the lowest. The site has natural elevation changes, which promises a fast course with difficult corners for us to familiarise ourselves with. It was also important to the designers that the fans in the stands could see a lot of the track and see the cars for a good amount of each lap. The track has 20 corners and we go anticlockwise.
Alonso has his head down, focused purely on making the most of whatever Ferrari can provide, and says simply of the title fight: We just need to concentrate on our race and if we finish in front of Sebastian in the next two races then maybe we have a chance. So thats our concentration now.
I'm confident, Alonso adds. We will fight until the end. We are not fast enough, this is true and we are honest with ourselves, we know this. We need to accept this. It's a weak point, the performance that we have at the moment in our package, but we have some strong points which we will try to use.
After losing the Singapore and Abu Dhabi races to mechanical failure, Lewis Hamilton - the winner of the last US Grand Prix, at Indianapolis in 2007 - is even more determined than ever to sign off his McLaren career with a win.
Its crazy to think that the last US GP was five years ago! Its a race I still remember like yesterday, though - the nervy anticipation as I drove into the Speedway for the very first time, the thousands of supportive fans, and the fantastic car I had beneath me that enabled me to take my second grand prix victory in the space of a week. For me, those were incredible, thrilling times.
I have to admit, Im absolutely made-up that were going back to the States. Its a fantastic country and a place where our sport truly deserves to be. I think the Circuit of The Americas looks like it could also be the place that modern Formula 1 finally calls home. Ive only driven it on the computer and in the sim, but I think its going to be a track that drivers enjoy, which produces some great, close racing, and which fans will quickly love.
This is a new circuit, a new challenge and a new opportunity - Im definitely looking to be the first Grand Prix winner at the Circuit of The Americas.
More than anything besides outright speed, McLaren will be praying for reliability. Red Bull have virtually got their hands on another constructors trophy, but the situation is finely poised for second with Ferrari only 22 points ahead of McLaren, and Lotus only 30 adrift of McLaren. Further back, Sauber are within 12 points of Mercedes for fifth, and Force India are 22 ahead of Williams. And dont forget the fight between Marussia and Caterham, for the crucial 10th place. Thats not over yet, either.
The weather for the Austin weekend is expected to be settled with partial cloud and ambient temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius.
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