The penultimate Formula 1 race of the season sees the sport embark on a new adventure in the United States.
The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas will become the tenth different venue to host Formula 1 in the US and while the sport has never been able to gain mainstream attention it has a significant fan base of loyal supporters and growing this base is key for the future stability of the sport in the country.
Competing with NASCAR is not an avenue that F1 should look to embark upon. Rather the series should look to ensure that they can stabilize their fan base and gradually look to grow this base and over the course of the next five years become a bigger player in the US market.
A population of over 300 million means that even if F1 does not gain the same exposure in the US as it enjoys in Europe it is possible to enjoy success in America. We saw at Indianapolis, where the crowd numbers were the highest of the year, that there is the potential for F1 in the US it is simply that the expectations will have to change and a realisation that immediately competing with NASCAR is not feasible.
Circuit of the Americas
The COTA looks likely to be an immediate favourite for many of the drivers. It will have a mixture of fast and slow corners and Herman Tilke took numerous elements from other circuits when he looked to create this new venue.
Lewis Hamilton, who won the last US Grand Prix, is looking forward to driving the new track:
“I’ve only driven it on the computer and in the sim,” commented Hamilton. “But I think it’s going to be a track that drivers enjoy, which produces some great, close racing, and which fans will quickly love. This is a new circuit, a new challenge and a new opportunity – I’m definitely looking to be the first grand prix winner at the Circuit Of The Americas.”
Red Bull are expected to be very fast this weekend with the downforce heavy RB8 likely to be in an element of its own in the final section of the lap. The team’s driver, Mark Webber, knows that until the action starts on Friday everyone is simply guessing at how the cars will perform:
“Regarding the new track, it’s unproven in terms of what we need to do with the car there,” said the Australian. “We will have a reasonable idea before we turn a wheel, but we’ve got to get into the nitty-gritty from our simulations.
“We need to see track temperatures and how the asphalt is for the car in terms of grip – we’ve got a lot of unanswered questions which we only learn on Friday, but the layout looks awesome. It’s probably one of the best layouts of the year in terms of being challenging for the drivers and the cars.”
Sebastian Vettel can wrap up his third title this weekend but the German knows that hitting the track running will be key for any hopes he has this weekend of ending Fernando Alonso’s title assault. To do this Vettel has been busy at the team’s Milton Keynes base:
“I have been in the simulator learning the Austin track; how it flows and getting a general feel for it,” said the Red Bull racer. “What we know from designer Hermann Tilke is that the hallmark of the circuit will be the big differences in altitude within a lap as the highest point is expected to be 40ft higher than the lowest point.
The site has natural elevation changes, which promises a fast course with difficult corners for us to familiarise ourselves with. It was also important to the designers that the fans in the stands could see a lot of the track and see the cars for a good amount of each lap. The track has 20 corners and we go anticlockwise.”
McLaren’s Jenson Buttonwaseager to talk about the influences that Tilke had when designing his latest track:
“On paper, the circuit looks to have a little bit of everything,” said the 2009 champion.” The plan-view certainly looks familiar; you can see elements of the Maggotts/Becketts complex from Silverstone; there’s a reverse of Istanbul Park’s Turn Eight, too; and I can even see a bit of the Hockenheim infield, too. Whether those elements will blend together to make a satisfying whole remains to be seen, but there are a couple of long straights into tight corners, too, which should at least open up the possibility of overtaking.”
F1 returns to America
F1’s return to America after a five year absence has proved to be exceptionally popular with the teams and drivers.
The teams know that there are tremendous commercial opportunities in the US if the new race can capture the imagination of the host nation. NASCAR ratings are falling and it could provide F1 the chance to gain a stronger foothold in the market. Growing the current loyal US fan base is crucial for F1’s chances of prospering and the ever savvy McLaren team will be looking forward to flexing their marketing muscles this weekend:
“I’ve always maintained that Formula 1’s presence in the United States is crucial, so I’m personally pleased and satisfied that we’re finally returning to America after spending far too long away from its shores,” said Martin Whitmarsh.
“On a wider level, the arrival of a state-of-the-art, purpose-build grand prix track is perfect for Formula 1, and this is a golden opportunity for the sport to finally put down roots and find a long-term home. From a business perspective, too, we are in the right place at the right time. This is an invaluable commercial opportunity for the sport, for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and our partners.”
To be able to grow in the US Formula 1 will need to change their ways and open itself to a much greater degree than what we have seen in the past. NASCAR fans have grown accustomed to a certain level of availability from teams and drivers. The cars are visible throughout the weekend with the garages having windows at the back to allow fans to see their favourite cars as they are being prepared.
In addition to this NASCAR require all drivers to have twitter accounts and the use of social media within the American series is light years ahead of Formula 1 at present. The F1 paddock is trying to use social media to much greater degree this year in a bid to try and engage fans.
Lewis Hamilton’s use of his twitter account has been well documented and the 2008 is in an extremely positive frame of mind for the sports return to the US:
“It’s crazy to think that the last United States Grand Prix was five years ago! It’s a race I still remember like yesterday,” said Hamilton. “The nervy anticipation as I drove into the Speedway for the very first time, the thousands of supportive fans, and the fantastic car I had beneath me that enable me to take my second grand prix victory in the space of a week. For me, those were incredible, thrilling times.
I have to admit – I’m absolutely made-up that we’re going back to the States. It’s a fantastic country and a place where our sport truly deserves to be”.
Mercedes’ Norberg Haug was keen to comment on the long standing relationship that his marquee has with the US and also on the fan base that has made itself know at previous races in the country:
“It is five years since we last visited the United States and there is a great sense of anticipation in Formula One to be returning to a custom-built, state of the art venue at the Circuit of the Americas,” said the German. “Our sport has always enjoyed a very dedicated audience in the USA; their knowledge is impressive and they have always given Formula One a very warm welcome.
It is an important step to return to the United States for our sport and its image. The USA is the biggest market for Mercedes-Benz cars in terms of sales and a race in the USA belongs in a world championship. The circuit looks to have exactly the right ingredients for an exciting weekend and we look forward to delivering a great race for the American fans.”
Preparing for a new circuit
Recent years have made it a lot easier for teams to prepare for the challenges of racing on a new circuit. The use of simulators has become common place for each of the teams and drivers are now able to have a much greater understanding of the demands of each new venue while also giving teams the opportunity to form a baseline setup ahead of the weekend.
Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn commented on the challenges of learning a new circuit:
“Visiting a new circuit for the first time is always a significant engineering challenge, and we have been working hard at the factory to prepare for the weekend,” said the Englishman. “The team has done over five race distances on the simulator to assess the layout, gradients and G forces.
“The track layout looks quite varied with a high-speed twisting section in the first sector, elevation changes with an uphill approach to the crest of turn one, and a slower, more technical section at the end of the lap. Nico was in the sim yesterday to complete our preparations and his feedback, along with that of our other sim drivers, will be used to prepare for the Friday practice sessions next week.”
How Vettel can wrap up title
A ten point advantage means that Sebastian Vettel can claim a third title this weekend. The German needs to leave Texas with a 25 point lead so the only realistic chance for Vettel to win the title is for Alonso to fail to finish. If that is the case Vettel would need to finish on the podium.
With winning the title clearly difficult for Vettel this weekend the focus of Red Bull will be to win the race and let the championship take care of itself. To those means the likelihood is that the Red Bull will once again be the car to beat this weekend.
Teams will bring new developments to America-McLaren will have a new front wing, Ferrari also have new parts-but unless they can find a significant step it should be expected that Red Bull will maintain their qualifying advantage but in race trim the battle should be much closer and it is likely to come down to who can maintain their tyres best.
Can Sauber catch Mercedes?
2012’s surprise package has undoubtedly been Sauber and the team goes to America with a very realistic chance of claiming fifth in the Constructors’ Championship.
The team trail Mercedes by just 12 points with two races remaining and with Mercedes having struggled for form for the second half of the season it is highly likely that Sauber will be in prime position to leapfrog ahead of Mercedes in the remaining two races.
The team’s drivers are looking forward to the challenge of learning a new track. Kamui Kobayashi’s future is still far from certain but even though the Japanese driver has not driven the track on the simulator he seems unperturbed:
“I have not seen the circuit on a simulator and, in fact, have no idea what it is like,” said the Japanese racer. “However, it will be okay and a surprise for me. I shall walk the track when I first get there. I don’t know how many laps it will take to learn it, as it very much depends on the track. It can take three, ten or more laps.”
For Sergio Perez racing so close to Mexico is clearly a major positive:
“I am very much looking forward to this race! I think it is the closest race for eight years for me to my home town of Guadalajara,” said the Mexican. “I expect many Mexican Formula One fans to attend and this, for sure, will give me an extra boost. Of course I also hope there will be a Mexican Grand Prix one day, because I am aware of the great enthusiasm for Formula One in my country, but for now I regard the race in Austin as my home Grand Prix.”
Setup challenges for this weekend
A new track provides challenges to drivers and teams and while Ross Brawn commented on the use of simulators to come to a setup Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara went into more detail on the setup compromises that faces teams this weekend:
“Going to an unknown circuit always requires a bit of extra work in advance,” said the Italian. “Along with all the other teams we have been supplied with the relevant data about the Circuit of the Americas. We implemented a simulation for the aerodynamic configuration of the car, gear ratios, braking systems and, more generally, for a baseline set up. A rather unknown factor is how abrasive the tarmac will be. In this regard we rely on Pirelli and the tyre allocation they decided to go for, which is the medium and hard compounds.
“Unlike at circuits we are very familiar with, you will probably see a bit more driving in the first free practice session to double check the set up and, of course, to allow the drivers to learn the track. The lap begins with an uphill straight leading to corner one and then to a number of high speed corners. This part, I think, should suit our car best. After a very tight left hander we will have a long straight followed by a couple of slow speed corners and a multi apex long right hander before arriving back on the start finish straight.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Pirelli announced this week that all drivers will be given an extra set of the prime tyres so that teams are encouraged to use the circuit more on Friday than would be traditionally the case. The medium and hard compound tyres will be brought to America. These are the same compounds used at Silverstone and Spa.
Over the last two years Pirelli has gained a lot of experience of producing tyres for new circuits and this weekend will be no exception. As a result the Italian manufacturer should be expected to produce a decent tyre combination for this weekend’s race.
While Pirelli will have information on the track layout, gradients and will have a sample of tarmac used in Texas it will only be on Friday, or indeed Saturday, that we see exactly how the tyres will react during the weekend. The last two races, India and Abu Dhabi, saw one stop races but with most new surfaces being slightly more abrasive than normal it is more likely that we will see a two stop race in America.
The track layout will also make it difficult for the tyres this weekend. With the opening sector of the lap places a tremendous load on the tyres as a result of the high speed sweeping corners the end of the lap will see a lot of high speed braking into slower corners and will see a lot of drivers snatch a brake and lock up the tyres.
Weather for this weekend
There is little chance of rain this weekend in Austin and temperatures are expected to be in the low to mid twenties.