Formula 1 heads west this weekend for the much-anticipated new grand prix in Austin, Texas.
This Sunday, it will be 1981 days since F1 cars last graced the United States of America. That 2007 race took place about 926 miles away from Austin, at the Indianapolis Speedway – an oval track with a specially built infield road course.
But this latest attempt for F1 to break into the States incorporates a completely purpose-built facility, known as The Circuit of the Americas. It has been designed by regular F1 architect Herman Tilke, and promises to be something quite special.
The new track includes some huge elevation changes, including a 40-metre climb to the first corner, which is on the crest of the hill, followed by a steep drop.
Some of the corners draw their inspiration from the best corners of other tracks, including a series of fast-sweeping corners modelled on the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel sequence of Silverstone, and a four-apex right-hander inspired by the infamous (left-handed) Turn 8 in Turkey.
First impressions of those who have driven the new track – either in simulators or reality – seem positive, and it will be interesting to hear the drivers’ verdicts when they finally get out on the circuit for the practice sessions this Friday. The real test, of course, will come on race day.
The fact that the US now has this brand new, state-of-the-art facility, designed and built, first and foremost, for F1, masks the tricky relationship that this popular sport has on the other side of the Atlantic.
F1 and the USA have not always made perfect bedfellows. After a long period of a United States Grand Prix being held at Watkins Glen, the sport left the country in 1980, and then returned for a three-year run at Phoenix in 1989, before disappearing again until 2000.
The eight occasions in which F1 visited Indianapolis in the last decade were largely successful. There were record crowds, and exciting races. However, that episode of ‘F1 in America’ will forever be marred by the 2005 race, in which all of the Michelin runners drove into the pits at the beginning of the race, and refused to take part on safety grounds. That left only the six Bridgestone-shod runners – the two cars of Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi – and some very unhappy crowds.
Michael Schumacher won that race with Rubens Barrichello second in what is probably the most straightforward one-two finishes Ferrari has ever scored, and Portuguese driver Tiago Monteiro finished one lap down in third, but was delighted with his first and only F1 podium. Incidentally, Narain Karthikeyan was the second Jordan driver in that race; he finished fourth and recorded his only F1 points finish to date.
However, F1 will not spend too much time dwelling on the past when it arrives in Austin this weekend. This is a brand new chapter in the F1/America story and, besides, there is a championship to be decided!
Despite his win in Abu Dhabi last time out, Kimi Räikkönen is no longer in the running for the 2013 drivers’ championship. It is now just a two-horse race, with Sebastian Vettel leading Fernando Alonso by 10 points in the standings.
With only two races now remaining, Vettel can wrap up the championship this weekend by scoring 15 points more than Alonso. Therefore, Vettel will be champion if one of these three scenarios plays out:
- Vettel wins and Alonso finishes fifth or lower
- Vettel is second, and Alonso finishes ninth or lower
- Vettel is third, and Alonso fails to score a point
Based on the results from the last seven races, the only way that Alonso will not finish on the podium is if he retires altogether. Unless Alonso is to fall victim to some reliability problem, or is shunted out of the race, Vettel, in all likelihood, will have to wait until the final race in Brazil to claim his crown.
However, the US crowd are very likely to see one championship decided this weekend. Red Bull enjoys an 82-point lead over Ferrari in the standings at the moment, and there are only 86 points left on the table, meaning that only two results this weekend that could extend this battle to the season finale at Interlagos:
- Ferrari scores a one-two finish and neither Red Bull car finishes higher than ninth.
- Ferrari gets a one-three finish, and Red Bull fail to score any points.
The problem with a new track is that it is so difficult to predict how it will suit each car, and which teams will be advantaged or disadvantaged by the layout. Will it be a track that strongly favours either Red Bull or Ferrari, hence giving either Vettel or Alonso an advantage is the title race? Or will some other team emerge dominant?
McLaren, for example, might find themselves kings of COTA. Lewis Hamilton was the last driver to win in the United States, scoring his second-ever F1 win at Indianapolis during his first season in the sport. He will no doubt want to leave McLaren on a high, and will be desperate for a final victory with the team before he moves to Mercedes, particularly after the disappointment of Abu Dhabi.
Räikkönen, who gained the most from Hamilton’s technical problems in Yas Marina, inheriting the race lead after the Brit pulled off the track, may also fancy himself as a back-to-back race winner for the first time since 2007.
With other drivers on the grid still desperately trying to impress prospective new employers, or just eager to finish 2012 on a high, there could be more of the erratic and over-optimistic driving that characterised the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and made it so exciting.
The US crowd are most certainly in for a treat this year and hopefully, after decades of trying woo America, F1 will finally make its breakthrough.
- Qualifying for the United States Grand Prix begins at 18:00 GMT on Saturday, with the race starting at 19:00 GMT on Sunday.
- Coverage in the UK is available on Sky Sports F1 HD and BBC Radio 5 Live.