United States Grand Prix, 15 – 17 November
Venue Circuit of The Americas, Austin (Texas)
Lap record Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull – 1m 39.347s (2012)
After a highly successful debut in 2012, the United States Grand Prix returns this season and although the Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships are settled in Red Bull’s favour, Austin welcomes the sport to the Lone Star State and to the brilliant Circuit of The Americas, which boasts an impressive layout that had drivers and fans drooling at the prospect of racing here. The track is characterised by a number of elevation changes, most notably the impressively steep incline into Turn 1 which is topped off by a blind apex. Several sections of the circuit, especially Turns 3, 4 and 5 which closely resemble the Maggotts-Becketts sequence from Silverstone, place heavy demands on the tyres which means Pirelli are bringing the medium and hard tyres to this event. Last year the front left tyre was prone to graining but still held out enough to make a one-stop strategy possible across the board. Low temperatures and the texture of the track surface meant warm-up problems last year, leading most to run several laps in qualifying prior to their quick lap, bringing the tyres up to temperature.
Race strategy highlights from last year
The expectation going into the first US Grand Prix since 2007 was that it would be a one-stopper across the board, and so it proved when Pirelli brought their most conservative choice of tyres, the medium and hard, to a race which meant drivers could push throughout the full 56 laps on tyres which were only degrading by around 0.02s per lap. Of concern after qualifying was the potential loss of positions for those on the ‘dirty’ side of the grid, with the resulting decision by Ferrari to deliberately penalise Felipe Massa by breaking a gearbox seal, so as to promote Fernando Alonso to a grid slot on the grippier racing line. It was seen as a cynical move at the time but was effective, as Alonso made up three places from a disappointing seventh, laying the foundations for a podium finish that kept his title chase alive. The race for the win was between Sebastian Vettel and second-placed Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren went into the race with a slight pace advantage that was to prove crucial. Both drivers stopped just once – Vettel on lap 21 to cover Hamilton who stopped a lap earlier – but in the second stint on hard tyres McLaren were pushing Red Bull hard. It was touch and go for Hamilton to get into the DRS zone to build an attack on Vettel, until both happened across Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT on lap 42. Vettel was held up just enough through the Esses in the middle sector for Hamilton launch a passing move at the end of the back straight into Turn 12. Once into the lead, Hamilton’s straight-line speed advantage of around 11km/h meant Vettel could never get close enough to launch an attack of his own. Alonso trailed home in third place, almost 40 seconds behind the leading duo.
What to look out for in 2013
Given Red Bull have won every race since the Belgian Grand Prix it is very hard to see any other result than an eighth consecutive win, and the real interest is likely to lie elsewhere with a huge scrap for third place in the Driver’s Championship. Kimi Raikkonen currently holds the spot with 183 points, but with the Finn not featuring in the last two races of the season due to back surgery, the door is open for Hamilton (175 points) or Mark Webber (166) to steal the place. Webber has finished second in two of the last three races while Hamilton has only managed a sixth and seventh place, so it looks as if Webber is the form man and could well make up the 17-point gap to Raikkonen this weekend if he finishes second again. Raikkonen’s absence would also appear to arrest Lotus’ chances of fighting for second place in the Constructor’s Championship, so that battle looks set to be fought between Mercedes, currently in second with 334 points, and Ferrari who trail by just nine. Ferrari have not had a driver on the podium since Singapore whilst Mercedes have registered a second and third place in the last two races, giving them the apparent upper hand on the Scuderia.
Who has the best record in America?
Lewis Hamilton book-ended the four-year absence from the USA with wins in both Indianapolis and Austin, making him the only current driver to have won at both venues. Joining Hamilton on the Indy podium back in 2007 were Alonso and Massa, and it is the Brazilian who is statistically the second-best current driver in America with two podium finishes and average finishing position of 3.0, narrowly edging out Alonso who also has two podiums but a slightly lower average finish of 3.3. Raikkonen (second in 2003) and Vettel (second in 2012) are the only other current drivers who have stood on the USA podium.
How important is pole position?
With only one race at the track it is way too early to draw conclusions about the importance of pole position, but what we can say is that the Circuit of The Americas, like most current-generation Tilke tracks, is designed to promote overtaking and thus the polesitter cannot assume he will always have things his own way unless they have a Red Bull-esque pace advantage. Last year’s race could have been a win from pole for Hamilton but for a small mistake in qualifying which cost him the 0.109s which ultimately put him second. Hamilton’s advantage in the race was small but would have been enough to do what Vettel normally does so well – builds a gap from which to control the race, pitting only to cover whatever the nearest driver does.
Tyre wear: 4/10
Largely based on last year’s race, but we know Pirelli were conservative in their choice given the venue was an unknown to them. The selection of medium and hard for this year may on the face of it seem to suggest a one stopper, but a softer 2013 range means that it will probably be marginal this time around.
There are several sections which will really reward an aerodynamically-efficient car, principally the high-speed direction changes of Turns 3, 4 and 5, and the long double-apex right-hander at Turn 16. Cars quick here will record the best times.
Average speed: 7/10
After Turn 2 the cars don’t drop below fourth until they arrive in the braking zone for the tight left-hander at Turn 11. A series of 90+ degree turns towards the end of the lap means the final sector is slower, rewarding cars with good corner-exit traction.
Track difficulty: 7/10
Still a new track to most, there isn’t years of historical setup data to fall back on which places the emphasis on getting your car dialled in promptly during Friday practice. Many hours will have been spent in the simulators testing the best settings for this race.
Last year’s race saw 51 overtakes in total, with 23 of those using DRS. Two designated DRS zones for 2013 – the back straight on the run to Turn 12 which saw Hamilton snatch the lead from Vettel last year – and across the start/finish straight and up the steep incline to Turn 1 – should see that number increase this year.
Last year’s race was a triumph and launched Austin onto the map as one of the best venues for racing and partying. It showcased all that we come to expect from racing in America – glitz, glamour, drama, and the inspired choice of Stetson Pirelli hats for the podium finishers in place of baseball caps, honouring Texas’ cowboy heritage.
Driver’s eye view: Mark Webber, Red Bull
“It’s a real credit to everyone involved in organising the inaugural event that it passed so smoothly. Austin is a great city, so I see no reason why F1 can’t gain a true foothold in the US at this venue. Austin 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. There were some initial worries about the length of the first sector because it’s long and has a lot of consecutive corners. But I think it’s okay; it’s very challenging because it’s fast and you have to be very precise because it’s very difficult to regain lost momentum if you make a mistake.”
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director
“We'll be bringing the P Zero Orange hard tyre and P Zero White medium tyre to the United States Grand Prix, as we did on its debut last year. Austin is a circuit that places several high-speed demands on the tyres due to some fast corners and rapid elevation changes that are reminiscent of classic circuits such as Spa or Suzuka. This leads to more energy and therefore heat going through the tyres, which is a key factor in wear and degradation. Even though it's November, we're still likely to have warm weather in Texas, which obviously affects thermal degradation too. In terms of tyre management, ensuring good traction out of the slower corners - such as the hairpin that forms Turn 1 - will be an essential consideration, so it will be important for the drivers to maximise their tyre usage. Obviously the circuit was brand new in 2013, but this year all the teams will have previous information to help them plan their strategy.”