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United States Preview: Crunch time for Hamilton's title hopes

20 Oct 2016

For the first time in his career, Nico Rosberg heads into a Grand Prix weekend knowing the world championship crown is his to lose. Now 33 points ahead of Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton, the German's fate is in his own hands. The pressure is on, then, for Hamilton to find something special in response - but what better place to start than a venue where he has triumphed on all but one occasion?

Hamilton has to start climbing the mountain...

After Japan, Lewis Hamilton knows it is no longer enough to win the last four remaining races - even if he were to do so, Nico Rosberg can still clinch the title by finishing second each time.

Austin is therefore the first race where the title fight is not wholly in Hamilton's hands - but if that means he has a mountain to climb, the Briton is ready for the challenge.

"Seeing all the guys and girls at the factory last week really brought home just what we've achieved together this year," he said after he and Rosberg led the celebrations in Brackley following Mercedes' third consecutive constructors' crown.

"They've worked so damned hard to give Nico and me this great car and you can see how much it means to them. We've got four races left to make the most of it and that's exactly what I plan to do. 

"It's just about hitting every race weekend as hard as I can, going all out for every win and seeing what happens from there. 

"I'll be holding nothing back out there."

Rosberg, meanwhile, finds himself in a position he's never enjoyed before: the title is his to lose.

"It was a great week, heading back to the UK with the constructors' championship in the bag and celebrating with all our colleagues at Brackley and Brixworth," the German says.

"It's job done in that battle for this year - but I know they're already focused on 2017. We've got four more races left of this season for everyone to hopefully enjoy some great action on track - starting in Austin this weekend. 

"Last year this race obviously didn't work out so great for me, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there and doing my best to get it right this time..."

...but is history on his side?

Of the four races to have been held at Austin, Hamilton has won all but one - Sebastian Vettel is the only other man to taste the winner's champagne in Austin, the German prevailing in 2013.

Hamilton also had the honour of clinching his third world championship crown in last year's race. Add in three podiums and three front rows, and the Circuit of The Americas would appear to be a happy hunting ground for the defending champion.

Despite that success, it's worth noting, however, that Hamilton has never claimed pole in Austin. He came close in 2012, missing out to Vettel by just 0.109s - and was similarly within fractions of landing P1 on the grid for the last two years. On both occasions, though, the same man denied him - Rosberg...

A big home weekend for Haas

Prior to Gene Haas forming his eponymous team, there hadn't been an American F1 team since 1986. Thirty years on, an American crowd will therefore be able to cheer for their own this weekend in Austin.

For Haas, 2016 has exceeded expectations - and their home race might just coincide with a new upturn in form following the success of recent upgrades.

"As an American team, having an F1 race on American soil is incredibly important," Haas says. 

"We come to COTA having scored some points and proving that we can hold our own with the established teams of Formula One. We're looking forward to our first home race."

They also arrive hunting more points to add to their impressive tally of 28 so far, the best for a new team this millennium, after a breakthrough with their new front wing in Japan recently.

"It's difficult to say, but I think we learned a lot again there," team principal Guenther Steiner explains. "We keep on learning.

"With our new front wing we figured out how to set that one up. I hope we can do well in Austin like we did in Japan, but nothing is for sure. You know, everybody else will do a good job; the thing is we know the car can be quick. We just need to get the best out of it."

Austin: A true driver's favourite

The Circuit of The Americas has always been hugely popular with the drivers, with its elevation changes and tricky sequences of corners testing them to the limit.

The anti-clockwise track notably borrows elements of other famous circuits. Turn 1 is a tricky left-hand hairpin approached uphill, which makes it very hard to judge the braking point. Turn 11 is another key hairpin, where the cars are braking and turning in at the same time, while the long and fast straights tend to cool the tyres, making the following braking areas quite tricky. The asphalt, which dates back to 2012, is offering greater grip the more it matures. 

The favoured set-up is usually to run medium downforce, and with overtaking possible in the sequence of corners which follows Turn 2 a number of strategy options open up. 

Top speeds around 330 km/h (205 mph) are likely on the approach to Turn 12; the fastest corner is Turn 18, taken at 260 km/h (162mph), the slowest Turn 15 taken at 80 km/h (50mph). Sixty-three percent of the lap is run at full throttle.

"The Circuit of The Americas is a big challenge for every car - each sector offers something completely different," Fernando Alonso says.

"The first section requires a lot of precision, as it's a big climb up to the first corner, which you go into blind. The elevation changes put a lot of pressure on the car and it's important to get good traction out of each corner. It's a really exhilarating circuit to drive and you need to work hard at every braking point to keep good momentum around the circuit, as the rhythm is constantly changing along with the elevation as you go around the lap."

King gets his F1 break

There will be a new face on Friday morning in Austin, as GP2 racewinner Jordan King makes his Grand Prix weekend debut for Manor in FP1.

The 22 year-old is the team's development driver and has participated in tests with them already, acquitting himself well in Abu Dhabi last year and in Barcelona and Silverstone this season. But this is the first time he'll run on a race weekend itself.

"First of all, I'd like to thank the team for making this possible," says the Briton, who will take over Pascal Wehrlein's car. "It's another big step in the right direction for me, after two really positive tests in the MRT05 which paved the way for this opportunity.

"It's a dream come true, but at the same time I have a job to do in the car on Friday and I want to make sure I give the team plenty of quality feedback and data to help with their US GP challenge.

"There's quite a lot to cram into 90 minutes. I'll be exploring the balance of the car and correlating that with the team's simulation work. There'll be some new components to evaluate, along with the tyre specifications for this event. I'll also be learning the circuit and getting up to speed with the car, which has been developed quite a bit since I last drove it at Silverstone. I can't wait!"

Manor racing director Davy Ryan said the team are keen to have this further opportunity to appraise King's performance in the MRT05.

"It‘ll be good to give Jordan his first FP1 session. He's done a really great job in his development driver role and this opportunity was a planned part of his programme with us."

Pirelli get softer

After a couple of races featuring their hardest compound, Pirelli have gone softer for Texas, bringing their white-marked medium, yellow-marked soft and, for the first time here, red-marked supersoft compounds. Of the front-running teams, Ferrari have been the more aggressive, selecting more sets of the supersoft compound than either Mercedes or Red Bull.

Last year's torrential rain saw a lot of running cancelled and slicks weren't used until race day. This year the weather forecast is far more benign, so it's likely  the teams and drivers teams will get plenty of dry-road running to assess the three tyre choices.

"The 2015 Grand Prix was particularly challenging because of the weather, meaning that the teams are lacking recent data on the slick compounds at Austin," says Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery. "We're also bringing the supersoft to the track for the very first time. As a result, the free practice sessions in particular will be extremely important this year, with the optimal strategy yet to be defined."

With no dry running until the race, the grid was based on Q2 times. Hamilton won the 56-lap race after starting on intermediates then switching to softs on laps 18 and 43. The best alternative strategy was Vettel's; a three-stop strategy from 13th on the grid, using the medium tyre as well, in a race that was affected by two safety cars, got him on to the podium.

The opening practice session starts at 1000 local time, or 1500 GMT, on Friday October 21. The race itself takes place at 1400 local time (1900 GMT) and runs for 56 laps or 308.896 kilometres. For a full timetable and schedule, click here.