“I think,” smiled Fernando Alonso, “they could put a GP2 engine in it – and still be on pole…”
No prizes for guessing which car he was talking about, of course: as in Abu Dhabi, two weeks ago, the Red Bulls had the front row to themselves, but this time it was World Champion Sebastian Vettel on pole, with Mark Webber next to him, and not pleased with himself: “I screwed up – drove like a **** in the last sector…”
Well, maybe so, but if Webber was six-tenths away from Vettel, he was still – mistakes and all – half a second clear of the rest, who were led by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Alonso, sixth for Ferrari, wasn’t surprised: “The Red Bull is a second a lap quicker than anything else, and that’s the end of it. I am very much looking forward to 2014…”
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Day one report
I was there when… 1979 United States GP
Fernando was speaking for a lot of people. It has been another very long season, with a lot of people enduring constant long flights, hotel rooms and hire cars, and by now, as someone said, it’s not surprising that weariness is exacting its dues, with people getting on each other’s nerves, a lot of coughs, a lot of folk plainly run down, and ready for a break.
The weather in Austin
On the track, though, it was business as usual. And if the sun was less in evidence at Circuit of the Americas than before, with the increased cloud cover came increased temperatures. It got to 80 today, and the forecast for tomorrow – race day – is nearer 90.
It was also a lot more windy today, obliging the drivers constantly to adjust their lines. And if it didn’t seem to affect the Red Bulls, other teams struggled with tyres: like last year, Pirelli has played it ultra-conservative in Austin, bringing hard and medium compounds.
“It’s very hard to describe,” said Nico Rosberg, who qualified his Mercedes an untypically lowly 14th, “but for some reason it was extremely difficult to bring the tyres in – to have them all working as they should at the same time. I never really managed it, and the wind didn’t help, and… altogether it was just a messy day…”
While Rosberg missed Q3, his team mate Lewis Hamilton made it, setting fifth best time, eight-tenths quicker than Nico. If you left the Red Bulls out of it, there were far greater discrepancies between teams’ cars than usual: Felipe Massa, for example, has been highly praised for his pace (particularly in qualifying) since learning that his Ferrari days were done, but today he was nowhere, 16th on the grid, and in Q2 – his last session – more than a second slower than team mate Alonso.
Most pole positions
Michael Schumacher 68
Ayrton Senna 65
Sebastian Vettel 44
Jim Clark 33
Alain Prost 33
In many ways the star of qualifying was Valtteri Bottas, whose Williams was among the quick times in both the final practice session and qualifying. While a sulky Pastor Maldonado did not so much as make it out of Q1, Bottas made it to Q3, and delighted the team by qualifying ninth, alongside Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber.
The huge Mexican contingent in the crowd was delighted to see both its representatives in the top 10, with Sergio Pérez comfortably out-qualifying McLaren team mate Jenson Button, and starting seventh – but later there was to be disappointment for them when it was announced that Gutiérrez had been found guilty of holding up Maldonado, and the punishment was a 10-place grid penalty. Pretty tough, one thought.
Vettel and Webber apart, though, everyone was fighting for grip. “There’s definitely more grip than last year, when the track was brand-new,” said Nico Hülkenberg, a brilliant fourth for Sauber, “but still less than at many circuits, and a combination of that and the wind and the very conservative tyre compounds made it not easy to get everything together. Tomorrow it’s supposed to be much hotter, so it could be a very difficult for everyone – apart from Seb and Mark, of course…”
Could he see anyone beating the Red Bulls? Nico gave me an old-fashioned look. “You never know,” he said. “There might be a miracle…”
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