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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scintillating COTA gives impetus to future F1 Stateside

My Pre-US GP excitement was tinged with nervousness but it was a brilliant and exciting return to America. Austin staged a race worthy of all of the pre-race build-up and hype.

Hamilton had a great start to keep third place on a dirty grid
Courtesy Pirelli F1.
We have all seen how Tilke tracks have made for wholly boring races.  Modern design has given us wide sweeping corners, plenty of tarmacked run-off areas, plenty of race track, lots of speed, and lots of technical and challenging corners for the drivers but little in the way of overtaking and excitement for the viewer.

I'm talking Turkey (the country), Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, China, Valencia, etc. These tracks, of themselves, are not designed for overtaking (bar the final corner in Malaysia).  Ultimately they were designed for safety and "challenge" rather than spectacle.

The last couple of years, since the inception of DRS, KERS, and Pirelli, have seen these circuits (bar Turkey which is gone) improve massively in respect of the amount of overtaking at each race meet and the racing itself.

It almost makes me wonder if these overtaking "aides" were not specifically introduced to address the modern circuit deficiencies which were glaringly obvious at the time of their first introduction to the F1 Season.

I know I'm going on a bit about this but that is simply because in Austin last weekend, at the Circuit of the Americas, on the return of F1 to the USA, the package worked.

Embarrassingly public, Lewis and Martin share a moment on the podium
Courtesy: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
The race was astonishing. It had all of the ingredients necessary to enthral anyone who saw it and I'm left wondering how it happened: was it the circuit itself? The drama? The overtaking aides? The atmosphere and anticipation?  How did F1 manage to produce such a memorable first race on a totally unfamiliar circuit?

Even before qualifying on Saturday all of the commentators, and the teams, were saying that they wanted to qualify on the left hand side of the grid as starting from the grid slots on the right would represent a huge penalty to the drivers due to a complete lack of grip.

Some drivers were comparing it to driving on ice, the more conservative drivers said it was like driving on slicks in wet conditions.  The upshot was that the commentary was all about driving for 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc., rather than the even grid slots.

During practice it was all Sebastian Vettel.  His Red Bull dominated the Friday and Saturday morning Free Practice Sessions and things did not bode well for the race.  The last thing we all needed was for Sebastian to take off into the distance on this previously unknown track.

Sebastian couldn't shake Lewis off
Copyright: Mark Thonpson/Getty Images
In qualifying Lewis Hamilton put in stunning laptimes to sit in 2nd place, beside Sebastian but on the dirty, slippery side of the grid.  Mark Webber put himself behind Vettel in 3rd, followed by the two Lotus and Michael Schumacher.  Felipe Massa qualified in 7th with Fernando Alonso in 9th; both Ferrari's in grippy grid positions.

The problem: Romain Grosjean was taking a five place grid penalty for changing his gearbox which promoted both Ferrari's to 6th and 8th respectively, the slippery side of the grid.

Now we all know that Alonso is the only person who's able to take the title from Sebastian Vettel and also that they are very good at spotting opportunities.  This time Ferrari penalised Massa for qualifying ahead of his team-mate.  They made a team decision, broke a seal on his gearbox, changed it, and he took the mandatory 5 place penalty putting Alonso in 7th and himself back in 11th, once again both starting on the grippier side of the track and Alonso gaining two grid places over and above where he qualified.  Once again Massa took one for the team.

There was controversy, commentary, discussion and condemnation of the Ferrari tactic but there was no question over its legitimacy.  This is a team sport and, let's face it, Fernando needed the grip and the grid slot in order to keep up the fight for the driver's title.

One other matter of note in Qualifying was that Jenson Button failed to make Q3 due to a mechanical failure and so was starting from 12th on the grid.  McLaren and/or Jenson decided to start the race on the hard compound Pirelli's contrary to the rest of the grid (other than Nico Rosberg in 17th).

Over the course of Free Practice and Qualifying it was clear that it was difficult to get heat into the tyres to get them operating at their optimal temperature.  This was especially true of the hard compounds, so taking the hard tyre option first meant that all those cars on the medium compound options would have their tyres working a lot faster.  It was a serious gamble.

Once the lights went out the Red Bulls made a blistering start, with Mark Webber overtaking Lewis Hamilton into the corner but Hamilton made a brilliant start from his completely green grid slot to hold third.  Behind him Alonso and Schumacher fought over 4th into the first corner.

Button meanwhile, also starting on the slippery side of the grid, lost three places from 12th at the start.

What happened next? Hamilton dispatched the Red Bull of Mark Webber on the Fourth lap and began putting in the laptimes to bring him within touching distance of Sebastian Vettel in the lead.

Behind the leaders, with heat finally bringing the hard compounds to working temperature, Jenson Button began to move up the places.  On the move were Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, Felipe Massa, and Jenson Button and the TV coverage showed all of the battles as they moved forward.  Massa's recovery from his enforced grid penalty was particularly worthy of airtime.

When Mark Webber stopped on Lap 16 with another alternator failure questions went asked over Vettel's reliability.  Hamilton chased Sebastian down through the pitstops and eventually took the lead on lap 42 from a very irate Sebastian Vettel.

In a straightforward DRS move down the back straight Hamilton pulled out and then watched Vettel drift across the line pushing the McLaren as wide as he dared.  If anything Lewis would have been within his rights to question Vettel's tactics, rather than Sebastian's, very public, fit of pique.

It reminded me of Fernando Alonso's righteous outburst in Valencia in 2010 when Lewis Hamilton pulled out of the pit's in front of the safety car, overtaking it while within the pitlane white line, except that in that instance Hamilton's move bordered on illegitimate and warranted investigation.

In the US last weekend there was no question over the legitimacy of Hamilton's move and Vettel's outburst showed us, much as the Abu Dhabi podium did, that he isn't quite as mature as perhaps we expect him to be.

While he continued to chase Lewis down, the McLaren maintained the gap right to the end to take first place: back-to-back wins in the United States for Lewis (even though the last one was 2007).

Behind the two front runners Fernando eked out enough of a gap to ensure third place and keep the title alive to Interlagos, while Massa drove the perfect race to come in 4th behind his team-mate.  Felipe's consistency and speed were such that he might well have been fighting with Hamilton and Vettel if he hadn't taken the hit for Alonso.

Behind him, in 5th, came Jenson Button. Starting on the the hard tyre really paid dividends in the second half of the first stint.  His hard tyres were working perfectly while the rest of the field came in to the pits around lap 20-24 and he stayed out until lap 35, pumping in 1m41s laps to drag himself into contention.

Kimi pitted quite late on his medium compound tyres, lap 24
Copyright Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic
He would probably have been fighting with Massa over 4th if he had come in one or two laps earlier.  As it was his hard tyres just began to go away from him before he pitted. A nearly perfect strategy for McLaren.  Kimi and Grosjean came in 6th and 7th, with Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, and Bruno Senna rounding out the points scoring places.

Kimi couldn't keep a charging Felipe Massa behind him
Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic
Towards the end, around Lap 52, Maldonado, who was following Senna, radioed the pit and asked for permission to try to overtake his team-mate.  As we all know, Williams have always let their drivers race so, having received permission Pastor went on to undertake Bruno, pushing his team-mate wide and bumping wheels.  It was that hold your breath moment at the end of a Grand Prix where Maldonado nearly committed the ultimate F1 sin of taking out your team-mate.  Fortunately both came home in the points, though they still lie well back from Force India and are unlikely to catch them in Brazil.

All credit to Lewis Hamilton for a great qualifying, great start, great race and exuberant winning celebration.  He deserved the win having driven impeccably.

Thrilled with victory, Lewis demonstrated the strength of the cockpit.
Courtesy: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes