Preview of the US Grand Prix
The 2012 Formula One World Championship is nearing its climax – Red Bull have all but secured the constructors’ crown while Sebastian Vettel could clinch a third drivers’ title this weekend if Fernando Alonso slips up. And yet there is also the intriguing prospect of the return to the USA and a brand new circuit – Austin’s Circuit of the Americas.
So what should you expect this weekend? Well here’s our guide to the weekend but to mark the return of the US Grand Prix to the calendar we also have a special magazine version with bonus feature articles, downloadable in pdf format from here.
Track and Conditions
Featuring more corners over 250 km/h (155 mph) than Spa-Francorchamps and more below 100 km/h (60 mph) than Hungary, the Circuit of America is certainly a mixed bag of tricks.
There are also some hefty changes of gradient, starting at the first corner which rises steeply and drops away which should mean that the apex is hard to pinpoint – a recipe for some fun and games at the start if the drivers don’t all sensibly show some caution.
A series of high-speed sweeps and curves follow – Turns 2 and 3 should be flat-out before feeding in to a series of sweeping-esses which have drawn comparisons with Silverstone’s famous Becketts complex. It’s a section which should be crucial to lap times, and drivers who put a foot wrong here will find themselves wrongly positioned for the subsequent turns, costing time and writing off a qualifying lap in the process.
Turn 9 will probably be a third gear corner but from there it is a foot to the floor drag down to the Turn 11 hairpin. On paper this could provide an overtaking opportunity but as it will be hard to follow cars through the esses the run to the hairpin is more likely to be used to set up the pass on the following straight.
That’s a decision that will be influenced by the positioning of the DRS zone on the 1 km (0.62 mile) back straight. A roller-coaster ride, it initially heads down hill before rising over a hill at its centre. Turn 12, then, will provide the main overtaking chances.
That’s followed by a tight, technical section with a series of second-gear corners. Negotiating this section will depend on the kerbs in place. Turn 16-18 is a multiple-apex corner that, while slower and right-handed, resembles Istanbul’s Turn 8. It won’t be as fearsome but it is likely to be the key point on the circuit for tyre wear and understeer will want to be avoided at all costs. Two more left handers then throw the drivers back out on to the start-finish straight where Turn 1 may provide some overtaking for the brave, although the uphill finish to it will mean a short braking zone.
A qualifying lap time of around 97 seconds (1:37) is predicted with a race lap time of approximately 1 minute 42 seconds.
In common with many modern circuits, the Circuit of the America presents a blend of challenges: it opens with high-speed sweeping curves, is followed by straights and climaxes in a tight twisty section. It means a set-up conundrum for the teams even if they were heading into the weekend with all the information they need at hand.
Aerodynamically, it’s likely to be similar to Korea and India with stability through the esses and traction out of the slower corners dictating an above average level of downforce at the expense of straight-line speed. Understeer is to be avoided through the triple-apex Turn 16-18 to reduce tyre wear. The suspension is harder to predict: the high speed corners will move the teams towards a stiffer set-up to give good change of direction but the final choice will depend on the kerbs and how bumpy the track is.
There are three significant braking zones but they are sufficiently spaced to give the brakes relief.
The circuit will favour outright power for much of its length although good drivability and response will be equally valuable to negotiate the slower corners. Gearing may be particularly challenging for the engineers faced with a preponderance of slow and quick corners but little in between – the significant uphill finish to the start-finish straight being a particular issue.
With Pirelli providing its two hardest compounds in their range, tyre wear isn’t expected to be a challenge and one-stop strategies are the likely outcome. The one proviso on that is that the pit lane is short enough to make a second tyre stop tempting.
The tight and blind opening corner has the potential for carnage but with generous run-off areas, the likelihood of a safety car intervention would seem to be quite low.
When F1 arrived for the inaugural World Championship US Grand Prix, the 1959 Drivers’ Championship was a straight fight between the front-engined Ferraris of Tony Brooks and the revolutionary rear-engined Coopers of Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss, the latter driving a privately-entered Rob Walker car.
The crown would be Moss’s if he won and leading from the start he rapidly built a ten second gap. Alas, after just five laps his transmission failed. Brooks, who needed to win, was also out of the running as team mate Wolfgang von Trips had run into the back of him at the first corner. A two minute stop to assess the damage had proved unnecessary and was now left hoping for retirements.
Meanwhile, Brabham was at the front of the field and seemingly cruising towards the Drivers’ crown but two turns from the finish, his car began to sputter. Out of fuel and frantically waving team mate Bruce McLaren on, the Cooper rolled to a halt on the uphill straight, just 400m from the finish.
McLaren took his, and New Zealand’s first victory while Brabham gamely pushed his car up the hill to finish fourth. Brooks had snatched third but it wasn’t enough to prevent Jack Brabham taking the first of three World titles.
Ones To Watch
The focus will be on the two title contenders but on recent form, Red Bull and McLaren would appear to be the favourites for the victory. Both have their reliability concerns, however, and Fernando Alonso will be waiting to pounce.
Food for Thought
What do you think of the Circuit of the Americas? Will Sebastian Vettel clinch the Drivers’ Championship this weekend? Who will win on Austin’s debut?
United States Grand Preview Magazine
Circuit Profile – Circuit of the Americas
Photos: Circuit of the Americas