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RENCKEN: Stars and stripes return

2012-11-15 11:17

DIETER RENCKEN

AUSTIN, Texas - For the past six years Formula 1 has annually introduced at least one new circuit to the calendar, with the latest venue to join the schedule being the turn-key Circuit of the Americas (CotA) outside Austin, Texas.

The United States Grand Prix on November 18, 2012 is an absolutely crucial race, not only from a sporting perspective, but also for F1's future commercial development.

LUKE-WARM RELATIONSHIP

F1 and the “Land of the Free” have long been uneasy bedfellows, with the 2005 US GP at Indianapolis marking arguably the lowest point in a luke-warm (at best) relationship. Just six cars started the race at the hallowed “Brickyard” after the Michelin runners experienced sidewall problems in practice.

The FIA refused permission to modify the circuit, 18 cars were forced to withdraw, and the fall-out continues to this day.

The race stuttered on until 2007, when F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone and Indy failed to agree terms for future rounds. Until this November 18, that is, with Austin being the 10th venue for an F1 race in the US.

CotA’s predecessors were: (permanent circuits) Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen and Indianapolis; and (street) Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix.
 
Having been denied access to the circuit by CotA, according to Wheels24 sources the circuit cited “contractual reasons”,  the teams have little direct knowledge of its layout/surface. Sole tyre supplier Pirelli has supplied each with simulation data which suggests the 56-lap race will pose an interesting technical challenge for both teams and drivers.
 
The circuit, designed by F1’s prolific circuit architect Hermann Tilke, is one of five anti-clockwise tracks on the 2012 calendar, with Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit, scene of the finale, being another.

Simulations suggest the circuit, has more 250 km/h-plus corners than high-speed Spa and more below 100 km/h than slowcoach Hungary, with simulations suggesting a spread of six each of the two varieties. The remainder of the lap is a mix of undulating sweeps, high g-force corners and long straights.

PIRELLI PLAYING IT SAFE

Overall CotA features 20 turns (12L/8R) and an elevation change of over 40m, with the highest point being Turn One, a steep uphill left-hander reminiscent of the old Österreichring’s first corner. Turns 2 and 3 pay tribute to the Senna “S” at Interlagos, with Turns 4-6 aping Silverstone’s Maggots/Becketts/Chapel complex.

Other recognisable elements include a Hockenheim-esque stadium section and a triple apex stretch through Turns 16-18 similar to Istanbul Park’s feared Turn 8.

Downforce levels similar to those at Silverstone are expected, with flattish rear wings permitting top speeds of around 315km/h. CotA’s tight sections call for front-end grip via steep nose wings, so aero settings will be a compromise. Simulations predict qualifying laps in the 1m37s bracket, with racing laps around four to five seconds slower.

Perhaps mindful of Michelin’s 2005 travails, Pirelli has played it safe by specifying a choice of Hard (silver sidewalls) and Medium (white) compounds for the 19th round of the 20-race 2012 season, meaning degradation is unlikely to be a major factor.

Weather forecasts suggest a chance of light rain falling shortly before the race, but these have since been revised. That said, Texas historically has a 31% chance of rain on any November day…

RED, WHITE AND BLUE

Given the national colours of the United States, it is perhaps fitting that the two drivers still standing in the title bout represent blue and red/white corners respectively: Double reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, on 255 points for the (blue) Red Bull team, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso (245), who has dragged his canine F2012 around way beyond its station with a series of inspired drives.

With 25 points to play for in each of the remaining rounds Vettel can theoretically take the title in Texas if: he wins or Alonso finishes outside the top four; he is second or Alonso is outside the top eight; he is third or Alonso fails to score.

Such is Alonso’s current form that he is likely to stretch it to Brazil, ensuring a magical showdown in one of the most F1-centric cities on the planet on November 25, 2012.

Then again, F1 is ‘IF” spelt backwards…

Vettel, who celebrates his 100th grand prix start in the US, having (ironically) made his F1 debut at the last Indy grand prix in 2007 where he become the only teenager in F1 history to score a point. 

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