After all the speculation, planning and debate surrounding the return of Formula 1 to the United States, the time has finally come for the talking to stop. It’s time to race.
It’s not the first time the essentially-European sport has attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. Since the beginning of the modern championship in 1950 there have been races at Riverside, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Detroit, Phoenix, and a one-off event in Dallas in 1984, and most recently, the eight staged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway between 2000 and 2007. None have enabled Formula 1 to reach the levels of popularity enjoyed by traditional U.S. motorsport such as Nascar or Indycar.
That could soon change. The brand new Circuit of the Americas is not only the newest circuit on the Formula 1 race calendar, but is the first purpose-built Grand Prix circuit in the country. Designed by German Hermann Tilke, the track aims to make the sport more visually appealing and exciting to a market that has largely failed to be turned on by the idea of Formula 1 in the past.
As a British fan, I’m in the privileged position of living less than 200 miles from the bases of no fewer than eight of the 12 teams that inhabit the sport today. Even those with such obvious foreign intentions as Mercedes, Marussia and Force India are, at heart, English teams. So how does the sport translate this into a similar level of participation in the United States? A thrilling race this Sunday would go some way to engaging many currently apathetic Americans in the concept of what this sport is about.
Austin certainly looks, on paper, the kind of circuit a Formula One driver would love to drive: It combines some of the great features of European circuits that make them a favourite with the hardcore fans around the world. On the Mclaren team’s official website, 2009 World Champion Jenson Button commented on how "The plan view certainly looks familiar. You can see elements of the Maggots/Becketts [corner] 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... I think we’re in for a fantastic weekend. I really cannot wait to get out to Austin and see the city, the people and the track. I think it’s going to be brilliant."
Button’s teammate Lewis Hamilton will already be familiar to many in the States as the boyfriend of former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, and he can expect to receive a warm welcome from the American crowd contingent who’ll be filling many of the seats in the incredible state-of-the-art grandstands around the circuit this weekend.
"It’s a fantastic country and a place where our sport truly deserves to be. I think the Circuit of The Americas looks like it could also be the place that modern Formula One finally calls home." - Lewis Hamilton
"I have to admit — I’m absolutely made-up that we’re going back to the States," smiled an excited Hamilton in an interview with the official Formula 1 website. "It’s a fantastic country and a place where our sport truly deserves to be. I think the Circuit of The Americas looks like it could also be the place that modern Formula One finally calls home."
Mclaren have slipped behind rivals Red Bull and Ferrari since the F1 circus left Europe, and despite winning the Hungarian, Belgian and Italian races in the summer, the silver cars have failed to score a podium since Button finished 2nd in Singapore back in September. Hamilton lost almost certain victory a fortnight ago in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after a fuel feed problem starved his car of power, allowing F1-returnee Kimi Raikkonen to take a historic victory. It was the first for the Lotus name in Formula One since the late, great Ayrton Senna claimed victory somewhat ironically on the streets of Detroit way back in 1987, and therefore Lotus return to the United States with high hopes for a second successive triumph.
The fighting isn’t just to be found at the front of the field though, oh no. The midfield is just as competitive, with each team desperate for bragging rights on their rivals.
If you’re lucky enough to be there this weekend, keep an eye open for the black and white Sauber cars, the orange and green Force India machines and the royal blue Williams. All three teams are locked in combat to decide who should claim the coveted 5th place in the constructors championship behind the "big 5" teams of Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren, Lotus and Mercedes.
The fighting isn’t just to be found at the front of the field though, oh no. The midfield is just as competitive.
Sauber have a pretty good chance of deposing current 5th place sitters Mercedes from their spot in Austin, the Mercedes cars having failed to score points in the last four races. Mexican Sergio Perez, Mclaren-bound in 2013, will be hoping to put on a strong performance for his ‘home’ fans, with the U.S. race being the closest to a Mexican Grand Prix. Likewise Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, for whom the coming U.S. and Brazilian Grand Prix present an opportunity to impress his growing fanbase. The Williams driver took his maiden victory in the Spanish Grand Prix in May, proving fast but inconsistent in the months since, and a couple of good results could do him wonders as he gears up for the challenge of 2013.
There’s just one problem here though for these aspiring winners. Two men that have consistently controlled the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship sit between them.
Sebastian Vettel will start his 100th Grand Prix this weekend in Austin, and what better way to celebrate than securing his third straight Championship crown? Since entering the sport in 2007 the young German has redefined the boundaries of possibility, winning 26 races and taking back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011. A fortunate 3rd place last time out in Abu Dhabi, aided by the deployment of the safety car, put the 25-year-old back on track after a difficult qualifying session, and he consequently sits ten points ahead of his nearest rival; a healthy margin given Vettel is driving the fastest racing car in the world right now— the masterpiece that is the Red Bull RB8 designed by the legendary Adrian Newey.
However, it’s not as plain cut as all that. For the man Vettel will be up against, if he is to take the title in Austin, is one Fernando Alonso, a double World Champion himself in 2005 and 2006 — and the man who finally broke the hold of Michael Schumacher on the sport in the first half of the decade. Alonso’s Ferrari F2012 is nowhere near as quick as Vettel’s Red Bull machine but that hasn’t stopped the gifted Spaniard taking three victories this season. Many a time Alonso has appeared out of contention, only to manhandle his scarlet car to the finish within touching distance of his rivals.
One of these two men will be World Champion when the checkered flag falls. But will it be in Austin this weekend, or will we be forced to wait until the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo before we have our answer? For Vettel the task is simple: Win the race, and hope that Alonso is no higher than 3rd. His job is straightforward, with the characteristics of the Circuit of the Americas apparently tailored with Red Bull’s aerodynamic RB8 car in mind. If Alonso beats Vettel and remains within 25 points of the German once the race is over, then it will go down to the wire in Brazil.
Simple on paper, but in the harsh and realistic world of motorsport so much can change so quickly.
In the four short years since Formula 1 left America, we’ve seen some incredible moments. A last-gasp Hamilton to snatch the laurels in 2008, the Honda team of the same season resurrected from the ashes to title glory in 2009 under the Brawn GP name, Alonso and Ferrari losing the 2010 fight in the dying laps of the year to Sebastian Vettel, who went on to even greater success in 2011.
It would be fitting if, this weekend, Austin could give us a show cast from the same mold. The focus is on your city!