Was this the rebirth of Formula 1 in the USA? Well, it’s early days, of course, and they always say that it’s the second year that tells you most: will the fans come back for more? From everything that was being said and heard after the race, there is every reason to believe they will. The whole weekend at the Circuit of the Americas was an emphatic success.
The great hope, of course, was for a memorable race, one which would capture the imagination of a crowd unfamiliar with this branch of motor sport. There were fears that Sebastian Vettel – on pole, of course – would stroll away to another easy victory, but Lewis Hamilton, robbed of victory in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, was again bang on form in Austin. For 41 laps he stalked Vettel, sometimes closing, sometimes falling away, before making his move; thereafter they ran the final 15 laps together, rarely separated by more than a second, but Hamilton came away with his first victory since Monza.
Joining Lewis and Sebastian on the podium was – almost inevitably – Fernando Alonso, in the thick end of the points once again, but losing more ground to Vettel in the World Championship. With only one race to go, Fernando trails by 13 points: even if he wins in Brazil, third place will be enough to give Sebastian his hat trick of titles.
Ferrari have let Alonso down in 2012, no question about it. On Thursday, the day before official practice began, he talked through the weekend ahead: “Tomorrow the usual things – trying new parts for the car, doing long runs on both types of tyre… Saturday morning setting the spec of the car for the weekend, Saturday afternoon qualifying… then Sunday, the race – and 56 more qualifying laps…” All of which added up to, ‘As usual, the Ferrari won’t be quick enough, and I’ll have to drive the wheels off it again…’
From their first exploratory laps on Friday morning, the drivers raved about this new venue on the Grand Prix calendar. They savoured the elevation changes, the mix of fast and slow corners, and Hamilton reckoned the series of ultra-quick swerves, modelled on the Becketts complex at Silverstone, were better than the original. Lewis’s love of all things American is well known, of course, but his enthusiasm for the track, it seemed, was shared by all his fellows.
From what they had done with simulators, though, most reckoned that Austin, like so many others, would be ‘a Red Bull circuit’, and sure enough, it quickly began to look that way. Hamilton or Button might head the time sheets for a while, but as soon as Vettel took to the track it seemed that in no time his name would appear at the top of the list, with Mark Webber not far behind.
The development at Red Bull never flags. On Friday evening new front wings (for both cars) arrived at the circuit, and – of course – they worked well from the word go. Ferrari, by contrast, had all manner of new bits and pieces in Austin, Alonso’s car having a new floor and rear wing, while Massa’s remained unchanged. Result? In qualifying Felipe was ahead of Fernando…
While Vettel and Hamilton took the front row, with Webber next up, Alonso found himself down in ninth – which became eighth when Romain Grosjean was docked five places for a gearbox change. Problem was, this moved Fernando from the clean side of the grid to the dirty, and it was expected that on this very new track surface that would be a greater disadvantage than usual.
Hence Ferrari folk put a bit of lateral thinking to work, but as Stefano Domenicali said, “When you’re trying to win a World Championship – and you’re competing against a team like Red Bull – you have to consider all alternatives…” Thus, to gain an advantage, Ferrari decided to penalise itself…
How so? Well, as everyone knows, if you have to change a car’s gearbox, you incur a five-place penalty on the grid, right? And in fact you don’t actually have to change it – you simply have to break the FIA Seal on it. Thus they broke the seal on the gearbox of Massa’s car, which dropped it from sixth to 11th on the grid – and automatically promoted Alonso’s car from eighth to seventh, and – more importantly – from the dirty side to the clean.
It was hard on Felipe, of course, and many people didn’t like the fact that it was done at all, but that’s F1 in the 21st century, I’m afraid: you use whatever is available to you – and this was available because of a damn silly rule in the first place.
In point of fact, the so-called ‘dirty’ side of the track proved far less of a disadvantage at that start than had been anticipated – in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of traction to be found on either side. When the lights went out, Vettel duly led away, but Webber was able to get the jump on Hamilton, while Alonso did his usual number, somehow managing to thread his way through the traffic – and emerged from the first corner in fourth place.
In the early laps Vettel quickly extended his lead over Webber, but Hamilton was right with the second Red Bull, intent on finding a way by, which he duly did on lap six. Alonso, meantime, plainly didn’t have the pace to live with the first three, although he was secure in fourth, well clear of Hulkenberg, who had an impatient Räikkönen on his tail. Not until lap 13 did Kimi force by, and by then Fernando was 12 seconds up the road.
Lap 17: Webber pulled off, out for the day. For a few laps he had been complaining that he was without KERS, and he had suffered the team’s perennial problem: alternator failure. Is this a Renault problem, or the consequence of the ultra-tight ‘packaging’, which is Red Bull’s hallmark? Depends who you talk to…
The situation now was that Vettel led Hamilton by around three seconds, with Alonso third, but nowhere in the vicinity, more than 11 seconds back, and with Räikkönen closing in on him. On lap 20 both Hamilton and Alonso made what was to be their one and only tyre stop, switching from the medium Pirellis to the hard; next time around Vettel did the same.
The Circuit of the Americas being new to F1, it was hardly surprising that Pirelli chose to be conservative in its choice of compounds, but if the drivers well understand that, still they regretted that no softer compounds were available. As things stood, tyre wear was no problem, and a one-stop strategy was virtually guaranteed for all. Much of the early season ‘mystery’ has been removed from the tyre situation.
When Alonso rejoined the race after his pit stop, he found himself just ahead of Jenson Button, who had qualified outside the top 10, and thus chose to start the race on the hard Pirellis. These were still going strong, and while Alonso struggled to get his new tyres up to temperature, Jenson nipped by into fourth place.
The pattern of the race was now set. Vettel still led, but Hamilton was hard after him, and gradually whittled away at the gap until it was down to less than a second – which therefore meant, of course, that the Red Bull was now within DRS range.
Sometimes Lewis looked poised to pounce, only to drop back. “The first part of the lap is so quick that it’s very difficult to follow someone closely. The place where Sebastian really extended the gap was at the exit of turn nine – I was really struggling through there, and he was making up loads of time on me. The traffic, though, worked out well for me today – usually it seems to catch me out, but today I was lucky…”
On lap 42 the lead finally changed hands. Vettel claimed that at a crucial moment he was baulked by Karthikeyan’s HRT, which allowed Hamilton to get a run at him. Charlie Whiting said that, in his opinion, Narain had done nothing wrong – it was unfortunate, perhaps, but just one of those things. From his instant reaction on the radio, Seb didn’t see it that way, but there was nothing to be done: Lewis was past, and gone. Through to the end of the race the two cars would run in close company, still very evenly matched, but Hamilton was not to be denied.
At the line the gap was less than seven-tenths of a second – with Alonso, third, well over half a minute behind. “A particularly difficult weekend,” he said, “but an unexpected podium. We simply didn’t have the pace to match Red Bull and McLaren, so to lose only three points to Vettel is actually a nice present. Maybe our chance of winning the championship is not so big – maybe 25% – but deep down I feel it’s much more than that. There’s always the chance of rain in Interlagos, and maybe that’s my best hope…”
Fernando was, of course, fulsome in his praise for Massa, who selflessly gave up places on the grid in support of his team mate, and then went on to drive a very strong race to fourth place, ahead of Button, the somewhat disappointing Lotuses of Räikkönen and Grosjean, Hulkenberg’s Force India and the Williams pair, Maldonado and Senna.
Afterwards many were saying that this had been the best Grand Prix of the season, a complete success in every respect. The race day crowd was 117,000, a figure to make virtually every other F1 race organiser swoon. They sat in the glorious late autumn sun, and watched the three greatest drivers on earth – World Champions all – finish 1-2-3 in a race packed with interest from start to finish.
When the elation dies down, though, both Lewis Hamilton and McLaren will surely be reflecting on what they have lost. How can they not?