Formula 1: United States Grand Prix Preview

Neil JamesFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2012

Formula 1: United States Grand Prix Preview

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    Formula One takes a giant step into the unknown this weekend as the United States Grand Prix makes its return to the calendar.

    Absent since 2007, the event will be held for the first time at the somewhat grandly named Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas.

    F1 has never really taken off in a big way in the United States, though not for want of trying. There have been 60 Grands Prix held on American soil at venues ranging from Watkins Glen to Indianapolis.

    But the Circuit of the Americas is the first purpose-built F1 venue in the US—will it be the one to finally push the sport into the wider American conscience?

    We'll see.

As It Stands

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    Sebastian Vettel used up a lifetime of luck (and a bit of skill) in Abu Dhabi, somehow finding his way up to third. This meant Fernando Alonso's second place cut the German's lead by just three points.

    Despite his win in the UAE, Kimi Raikkonen is now officially out of the title race—with two races to go, we're down to two horses. The current Top 10 are:

    Pos Driver Team Points
    01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 255
    02 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 245
    03 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 198
    04 Mark Webber Red Bull 167
    05 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 165
    06 Jenson Button McLaren 153
    07 Felipe Massa Ferrari 95
    08 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 93
    09 Romain Grosjean Lotus 90
    10 Sergio Perez
    Sauber 66

     

    Only a catastrophic collapse coupled with a giant leap forward for Ferrari would see Red Bull lose their grip on a third constructors' title in as many years. They need just four points to be confirmed champions.

    The current standings are:

    Pos Team Points
    01 Red Bull 422
    02 Ferrari 340
    03 McLaren 318
    04 Lotus 288
    05 Mercedes 136
    06 Sauber 124
    07 Force India 95
    08 Williams 73
    09 Toro Rosso 22

     

    Marussia, Caterham and HRT remain pointless.

Circuit of the Americas

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    Yes, the name is somewhat grandiose, but we should be thankful this isn't called "Austin International Circuit" or "Speed City." And COTA is a fairly nice acronym to use.

    A competitive lap in an F1 car has never been driven around the circuit, so it's hard to say exactly what challenges each corner will throw up. Consider this educated guesswork, rather than a perfect guide.

    A lap begins on the pit straight, with the drivers heading towards a rather steep hill—the circuit rises a staggering 130 feet between the start line and Turn 1.

    This looks like one of the best elevation changes on the calendar, and one of the best overtaking spots on the circuit.

    Turn 1 is a tight left-hand hairpin perched right on top of the hill, and—because the slope is so steep—as the drivers approach they won't be able to see it. They have to brake and perhaps even start to turn in before the apex becomes visible.

    That's easier than it sounds because they have other visual markers to use such as trackside decoration and advertising hoardings, but on the first lap especially it may prove difficult.

    As soon as Turn 1 is out of the way the track drops sharply down the other side of the hill and through the medium-speed right-hander of Turn 2.

    Fans will recognise the next section, as it's very similar to the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex at Silverstone.

    The track flicks first left, then right, and left again before a longer right. The next left looks slightly slower (but still quick), and the sequence is ended with one more right and one more left.

    That section—accounting for Turns 3 to 9—was designed to be a tough challenge for both the car and driver, and there's every reason to expect it will deliver. The elevation changes through here make it look very good fun to drive.

    But it may be tough to follow another car closely through, which could have knock-on effects later in the lap.

    Trivia break: Does any other top-level racetrack have alternating lefts and rights for its first nine official corners?

    Turn 10 is a quick, possibly blind left before a short straight and braking for the slow left of Turn 11, which looks to be another possible overtaking spot. The entry is very wide (similar to several corners at the Indian Grand Prix) and a good exit out of here is crucial, because up next is the Tilke hallmark—a ridiculously huge straight.

    After a very busy first half of the lap, the drivers will probably be glad to get a break. The straight is one kilometer long, and it has noticeable elevation changes. This is supposed to be the circuit's primary overtaking place, and it curves very lightly to the right all the way down.

    The braking zone for Turn 12—a slow left-hander—is slightly downhill, and the biggest test of the brakes anywhere on the lap. It's wide here, with plenty of room for cars to get alongside each other.

    Next up is a section modelled on the famous stadium at Hockenheim. First up is a tight right-hander (Turn 13), followed by a more open but tricky-looking right (Turn 14). After that comes a fairly long left (Turn 15) which starts out gradual but quickly tightens up to become a very slow corner.

    Out of here is a short run down to a very nice looking corner which has been modelled on the wonderful Turn 8 at Istanbul Park. Accounting for Turns 16, 17 and 18, this is a multi-apex right which looks fast and interesting to drive.

    It doesn't look quite as brilliant as its older brother, but it's still probably the best corner on the circuit and it'll put the tyres (and the drivers' necks) through a good deal of stress.

    Turn 19 is a slightly downhill medium-speed left, and the final corner (Turn 20) is a tighter, quite slow left. The exit out of here is very important, as it sends the cars back onto the pit straight.

    The pit lane entrance is on the inside of Turn 20, and the exit is on the pit straight before Turn 1.

Tyres and DRS

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    The plethora of fast corners—some very long—means the tyres won't (in theory) have an easy time of it here.

    That, perhaps coupled with the necessity to take a cautious approach when visiting a new circuit, has led Pirelli to opt for the two most durable compounds.

    The white-marked medium and silver-marked hard tyres have been used together three times so far this year—at Sepang, Spa and Monza.

    The choice when visiting a new circuit is always educated guesswork and it'll be interesting to see how the decision plays out.

    It'll also be worth watch to see how the track evolves, and how much quicker laps get as the weekend progresses. The brand-new surface will be quite slippery, and should increase in grip as the track is "rubbered-in" by the cars.

     

    DRS

    DRS is also tough to get right on a brand new circuit, but there are enough circuits with huge straights to have a passable idea of where to put it this weekend.

    The detection point will be around Turn 11, with the activation point a little more than a third of the way down the back straight. The zone will end under braking for Turn 12.

Weather Forecast

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    Austin has a humid subtropical climate, and current forecasts are suggesting a dry, bright weekend with pleasantly warm daytime temperatures. The nights may be a different matter, with overnight frost a possibility.

    Rain looks unlikely at this stage, but forecasts can and often do change.

    You can get the latest from BBC Weather, the US National Weather Service or Accuweather.

Session Times

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    As always, the United States Grand Prix weekend will consist of three free practice sessions, qualifying and the race.

    Practice One Friday 09:00-10:30
    Practice Two Friday 13:00-14:30
    Practice Three Saturday 09:00-10:00
    Qualifying Saturday 12:00
    Race Sunday 13:00

     

    All times are Austin local time (North American Central Time, or CST). Formula1.com has a handy one-click tool to convert them to your own time zone.