So, after all the hype the big question mark on Sunday was whether Formula 1’s return to the United States after a five-year absence would live up to the huge expectations. A brand new track in the Circuit of the Americas, the penultimate race of the season, the final two championship contenders separated by just 10 points, championship leader Sebastian Vettel’s 100th race, some pre-race controversy – it certainly had all the ingredients, but who could have predicted that the race in Austin, Texas would deliver quite so spectacularly?
After 56 action packed laps it was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton who came out on top, crossing the line less than a second ahead of pole sitter Vettel, with Fernando Alonso well over half a minute behind the top two. It was the first time that arguably the best three drivers in Formula 1 had ever been on the podium together and it was a result that has kept the world drivers’ championship alive going into the final race. After qualifying, though, it was a result that few would have predicted.
Having dominated free practice on Friday and Saturday it was no surprise to see Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel take pole position. Although it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise for Vettel to see McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton take the other front row grid slot, the fact that he was only a tenth faster than the Englishman might have been a cause for some concern ahead of the race. Indeed, when you take the time to look back at the times in the three free practice sessions, you can see Hamilton making inroads on the German in every session.
Vettel was fast out of the box in Texas, finishing FP1 a huge 1.4 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Hamilton. Although Hamilton was only fourth in FP2, the gap to Vettel was reduced to one second, with the gap in FP3 shrinking further to just a quarter of a second. Given that Hamilton was out of the championship running, Vettel wouldn’t have been too concerned, though, especially as Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – the only man who can prevent the Red Bull driver from taking a third consecutive world drivers’ championship – couldn’t manage the same progression as Hamilton over Friday and Saturday, having started the weekend 2.2 seconds behind his rival in FP1 and finishing qualifying still 1.7 seconds in arrears.
Indeed, the ninth place qualifying position for Alonso looked disastrous, especially given that he had been out-qualified, for only the second time this season, by his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa, who qualified in seventh position. Matters were made even worse for Alonso when Lotus were forced to change the gearbox on Romain Grosjean’s car. The Frenchman had qualified an excellent fourth, but dropped to ninth after the five place grid penalty for the gearbox change. Ordinarily this would have been a good thing from Alonso’s perspective seeing as it promoted him to eighth on the grid, but not so at the Circuit of the Americas.
The Texas track is brand new and the unusually smooth surface, coupled with a conservative tyre selection by Pirelli meant that off-line, i.e. on the even-numbered grid positions, the track was very dirty and not at all rubbered in. Indeed, so dirty was the inside of the grid that Red Bull predicted ahead of the race that drivers starting on that side could lose several positions off the line. What could Alonso do, though? He just had to make the best of a bad situation on Sunday, surely.
If the Spaniard had been driving for any other team, that would certainly have been the situation, but he’s driving for Ferrari. Rumours were circulating on social networking sites ahead of the race that Ferrari were going to change Felipe Massa’s gearbox, meaning that the Brazilian would receive a five place grid penalty and promote his team-mate to seventh on the grid, crucially onto the racing line and the clean side of the track. Rumour became fact ahead of the race, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius by Ferrari which might just win their driver the championship at the end of the season. Alonso got a brilliant start on race day and was fourth going into turn one, a position that set him up perfectly to take yet another podium finish – his 12th of the season – aided by Mark Webber’s 18th lap retirement with yet another Renault alternator failure.
It was the most that Alonso could have hoped for given Vettel dominance in Austin, but things got even better for the Ferrari driver 14 laps from the end when Lewis Hamilton, who had driven brilliantly and refused to let Vettel break free at the front, cruised past the German using DRS to take the lead, which he never relinquished. Hamilton had to start from the dirty side of the grid and was expecting to lose positions at the start of the race, but in the end lost only one to Mark Webber who started third. This proved to be a temporary setback for the Stevenage born driver, though. He soon re-passed the Australian and set off in pursuit of Vettel, but although he managed to get within range of the world drivers’ championship leader in the opening stint, he fell back again by the time he stopped for fresh tyres on lap 20.
Hamilton drove brilliantly in the second stint, but couldn’t quite get close enough to Vettel’s Red Bull to try to overtake. He got his only chance on lap 42, though. Vettel caught Narain Kathikeyan’s HRT at the wrong moment and was unable to pass the slower car easily, allowing Hamilton to close in and storm ahead of the Red Bull down the back straight. The move brought jubilation on the McLaren pit-wall and must have brought a smile to the face of a certain Spaniard driving a red car, too.
It meant that, unbelievably, and despite looking off the pace all weekend, Alonso finished the race just one place behind his championship rival. The championship deficit going into Brazil next week is just 13 points – within reach for Alonso, especially if the weather provides a helping hand at Interlagos. As the Spaniard said after the race, “This weekend it is like a victory for us. Losing just three points was something no one thought yesterday night or Friday night after practice”.
Even though the result means that Red Bull Racing won the world constructors’ championship for the third season in a row, it was very much Lewis Hamilton’s day. A fourth win of the season for the McLaren driver means that he moves into fourth in the world drivers’ championship and is now guaranteed to finish ahead of his team-mate in his final season with the Woking-based team.
Even though Hamilton crossed the line first and Red Bull won the constructors’ championship, the real winners in Austin were the fans. The track delivered probably the best race of the season, with overtaking and great racing throughout. Let’s hope that Interlagos is similarly enthralling…