As the first-time host of a major sporting event, whether it’s the football World Cup the Olympic Games or a Formula One Grand Prix, any venue always generates an air of anticipation. It’s the adventure of sailing into the unknown, the new – sometimes the unexpected. More often than not these maiden venues pull off shows worthy of global attention, something Austin managed last year with a race-long duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for ultimate victory.
There also happened to be the small matter of a World Championship crown to attend to.
All that is gone second time round. 2013 has undoubtedly been the year of the bull. Since Austin’s first foray Hamilton’s moved to Mercedes, McLaren are struggling in the midfield and Vettel has wrapped up not one, but two title victories. Red Bull are also overwhelmingly the Constructor’s Champions for the fourth successive season.
So what is there to look forward to in Austin this time?
It’s what’s been happening away from the circuit that has garnered the most attention. We know now Felipe Massa will drive for Williams in 2014, Sergio Perez will not drive for McLaren and Heikki Kovalainen is set to make his F1 return to replace injured countryman Kimi Raikkonen. This is all well and good, but will any of it stop Red Bull and Vettel taking a record eighth victory in a row? He remains unbeaten since July.
Red Bull – Undoubtedly at the top of their game, it’s very hard to look past Red Bull for victory in Austin this weekend. Vettel came within a backmarker of taking the win last season and with this year’s RB9 streets ahead of the opposition compared to his RB8 of twelve months ago, only a fool or unbridled optimist would put their money on him being beaten. Of course, his luck has to end somewhere; team-mate Mark Webber is out to secure one last F1 triumph before his impending retirement and is as eager as ever to give his German rival a drubbing. There are no weaknesses in this team.
Mercedes – Nico Rosberg’s satisfaction at being ‘best of the rest’ in Abu Dhabi caused ripples back at Brackley among Mercedes’ staff; while he was being philosophical it’s quite true that, barring a Red Bull component failure, 3rd is what Mercedes are fighting for this weekend. High tyre temperatures in the Texas sun may cause some concern as the team have never quite got over their Pirelli-related woes earlier in the year (think Barcelona). With Paul Hembery confirming the hard and medium compound tyres for the weekend, those concerns might be alleviated.
Lotus – Raikkonen’s back injury prompted a flurry of speculation as to the identity of his replacement. Reserve and test driver Davide Valsecchi was the first to throw his hat into the ring but, sadly for the Italian, it was quickly buried under a whole host of unlikely and unexpected competitors. The most jaw-dropping by far was Michael Schumacher; remember him? The seven-time Champion turned down an offer from Lotus management despite admitting he was ‘race-fit’ and ready to cope with the rigours of an F1 Grand Prix again. Most probably an enthusiasm quelled by the criticism he recieved for his first failed comeback attempt between 2011 and 2012. Lotus have settled on Caterham refugee Heikki Kovalainen to fill the vacant half of the garage, a clever and safe pair of hands who could well end up scoring some handy points for the team this weekend.
Ferrari – Austin is not going to be a milestone for the Scuderia. There’s none of the championship-defining tension and determination in evidence this year – that’s long gone. At this point of the year updates are few and far between so don’t expect to see a Ferrari challenging for victory; podiums remain the target but it must jar that Alonso has not been the first man to see the chequered flag since Barcelona in May. Overall the car remains a decent if unspectacular package but a decent double points finish would stand them in good stead against rivals Mercedes.
McLaren – With Sergio Perez on the way out and Kevin Magnussen confirmed to replace him for 2014, it’s hard to know whether this is a calculated move by McLaren to regain past glories or another desperate signing to try and stave off the spectre of a Williams-style decline into the 2010’s. Whatever, Perez will race alongside Button in Austin and will be out to prove a point in front of the many Mexican’s who have crossed the border for the event. He beat Button in India and Abu Dhabi, but team bosses were unimpressed with the margin he had over the Englishman so this weekend he is intent on showing them they made the wrong choice. Hard and Medium compound tyres should suit the MP4/28, as will the flowing nature of the COTA. Double points finish is the goal.
Sauber – Their recent charge toward 6th in the Constructor’s Championship was stopped in its tracks in Abu Dhabi as rivals Force India roared to a healthy dose of points; it’s worth remembering that had Nico Hulkenberg not been penalised for his pitlane incident with Perez he could well have finished around the 7th/8th mark and kept the gap narrowed. That chance is gone but, as some consolation, Sauber should have the speed to challenge for a solid result in Austin. Gutierrez, like Perez, can feed off the ‘home’ support and if he could get his car into the points as he did in Japan it would strengthen his bargaining position for a 2014 seat.
Force India – Went some way to overcoming their tyre-related problems in Abu Dhabi with Paul Di Resta’s desert-circuit preference netting a 6th place. However, it’s difficult to tell if the location of Abu Dhabi in one of the hottest parts of the world masked the tyre-heating issues that have caused those problems ever since compounds were switched after Silverstone. Texas is hot but, sadly for Force India, not as hot as Yas Marina and thus scraping any points to eke out their narrow lead over Sauber has got be counted as success this weekend.
Toro Rosso – Disappointingly subdued for the last few races, their nightmare weekend in Suzuka seemed to knock the Italian team back on their heels. They’re winding down for the year now – Ricciardo signed to Red Bull, merely going through the motions while Vergne with a contract for 2014 safely in his back pocket. The late-season charge to challenge Sauber and Force India has petered out and development long since stagnated on the car, so a midfield qualifying and clever race strategy might warrant a point or two on Sunday; but that’s about it. Planning to run Daniil Kvyat on Friday if his superlicence has been approved.
Williams – Needing a major result soon to avert their worst-ever F1 season, it’s difficult to imagine Pastor Maldonado wanting to provde that kind of determination. Believed to be in an advanced state of negotiations with Lotus about a 2014 seat and shunned by Williams in favour of Brazilian veteran Massa, his single point of 2013 is a far cry from the heady heights of Barcelona 2012. While impossible to imagine the team winning in Austin, it’s certinly not beyond Valterri Bottas to get among the lower points on a good day and he certainly needs to if he is to preserve his ‘super-rookie’ billing of the pre-season.
Caterham – A strong weekend to wrest 10th in the Constructor’s Championship from Marussia is needed, but it remains as difficult as ever. Rain to upset the order is unlikely and the guidance of test and reserve driver Kovalainen has been temporarily lost to Lotus so they are fighting a losing battle to overturn the order. They will run US driver Alexander Rossi in a repeat of his 2012 FP1 appearance on Friday.
Marussia – Long since off the pace of Caterham, hampering the green cars and hoping they can’t climb as high as 13th is the limit of Marussia’s aspirations this weekend.
What They Say
“I love the States and the first race at the Circuit of the Americas last year was such a great occasion, particularly for me as I was lucky enough to win! The enthusiasm and passion from the fans at the new venue was amazing and it was fantastic to see the support at the track and in the city; Austin is such a cool place. The track itself is a lot of fun and a real challenge to get the perfect lap. The high-speed changes of direction combined with the long straights and slower sections make it quite tricky to find the right set-up and balance. We’re going into the final two races with one aim in mind and that’s to finish second. It would mean so much to everyone at the team and we’re determined to achieve it. Hopefully we can start with a strong weekend and some good points in Austin.” Lewis Hamilton, GBR, Mercedes AMG
“The first sector of this circuit ranks as one of the best parts of a racetrack anywhere in the world. The first corner is really tricky, because it’s steep and blind, after that, the circuit just winds through an incredibly fast switchback until the heavy braking for the back straight. After such an intense start to the lap, the straight offers a bit of a breather until you commit once again to the final sector, which is a series of slow-speed, quite technical corners. Again, there’s a real variety of corner here, and it’s fun to nail the sequence. It’s definitely a place where accumulated knowledge of the layout can add to your speed. I’m optimistic that the track will suit the high-speed characteristics of our car, which showed improved pace in both India and Abu Dhabi.” Jenson Button, GBR, McLaren Mercedes
“Sector one stands out for me. It’s very similar to the Maggots and Becketts sequence at Silverstone and the fast chicanes work the car and tyres really hard. It’s a very enjoyable part of the lap and those corners really show you the potential of a Formula One car. The rest of the lap is quite open with a great flow. A lot of the corners are off-camber, too, which adds another challenge.” Paul Di Resta, GBR, Force India
“Last year we were all sliding quite a lot because the tarmac was still so new, especially on the tight and twisty bit towards the end. It was sometimes almost more rally style than Formula One, because it was so slippery! The section after the steep hill at the beginning is particularly challenging. Last year it took me quite a while to get my bearings and to position the car correctly.” Sebastian Vettel, DEU, Red Bull
“It’s quite a balanced circuit in that you don’t need one particular thing over another for the car to perform well, but it should be a circuit where the E21 can go strongly once again. Last year the challenge was finding the level of grip we wanted and I expect this to be a challenge again. The tyre allocation is quite hard so you really have to work the tyres to get them in the best performance window. We expect warmer temperatures this year which will help and the track surface will have changed a bit from the very new surface we had last time. All in all, I think we have potential to go quite well.” Romain Grosjean, FRA, Lotus
“I’m happy to call the United States Grand Prix my ‘home’ race! Texas is on the border with Mexico, so the venue provides the perfect opportunity for many Mexicans to make the trip to Austin for a taste of Formula 1. Last year, I was really overwhelmed by the level of Mexican support – you could see the grandstands full of Mexican flags, and the fans that I met were all really passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. For a first race, Austin put on a fantastic show. For me, this will be the most important weekend of my year, and I’ll be especially keen for a strong result to send my fans back home with a smile on their faces. I think we’ve shown some solid improvement and greater understanding of our car over the past few races, yet, frustratingly, both Jenson and I have had few opportunities to really demonstrate what the car is capable of.” Sergio Perez, MEX, McLaren
“I very much look forward to the US Grand Prix week starting. This is an important time in my career and the sport for America and another major step forward for me, to drive FP1 in my home country, in front of my own friends, family, supporters and fans. It means a lot to me that the team is giving me this opportunity, while trusting me with the responsibility and I want thank everyone who’s helped make this possible. It’s obviously going to be a very busy week, but I’m totally prepared for it all. I have a full plate of media appearances before we even get to the track, the FOTA Fan Forum event downtown on Wednesday evening, and then a karting event straight after that. I will have a good chance to meet fans and tell the local Austin media all about our sport, but then on Friday morning it’ll be time for the real work to begin on track.” Alexander Rossi, USA, Caterham
Friday – Low 17c/High 23c – Sunny
Saturday – Low 20c/High 26c – Cloudy
Sunday – Low 13c/High 29c – Sunny Spells