Monday, 27 October 2014

Austin Preview: The best of times, the worst of times

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch. Call it what you will, but it has applied to the sport's relationship with America for years and decades.

Austin rapidly has become a favourite stop-off
Photo: Octane Photography
The debut Austin Grand Prix two years ago was approached with a degree of trepidation. It was no fewer than F1's US venue number 10 - a record by a distance for the most Grand Prix host circuits in a single nation. And it's a number that betrays the regularity in history with which the bold dreams of a new American home for the sport have evaporated.

In Austin's case too it managed to emit non-encouraging noises in advance - delays (the race contract was even terminated for a while), financial problems, schisms, side-linings, and environmental protests to name just a few. All contributed to a 'here we go again' feeling among F1 folk.

But such doom-mongers could not have been more wrong. It transpired that the sport could hardly have selected a better place to host a Grand Prix. Austin as a city charmed the fraternity: eclectic, outward-looking and lively, also as the self-styled 'Live Music Capital of the World' it was used to putting on large events and giving visitors a thoroughly warm welcome. With around one million inhabitants - just as with Adelaide and Montreal - it is just the right size to embody a Grand Prix; to be it. Not too big so to be just another event there; to be swamped. It continues this way with a variety of fans' events at the track and in the city over and above the on-track action, that rather shames just about all other venues. The place pulsates with the sense that nothing has been spared, and that they are simply delighted to have the race in town. Wherever you look, whenever you turn on the TV or radio, the Grand Prix it seems is being referenced. Chequered flags and other paraphernalia drape from every other shop front and from every other bar.

Even F1's most hardened cynical types agreed after the first visit that it was probably the most successful debut F1 event they could remember, blowing even mighty previous events such as Adelaide's out of the water.

Austin embracing the race is clear wherever you go locally.
This is Austin airport.
Best of all, 120,000 were there on race day to see it all in the debut year (and plenty were in attendance on the other two days), and the numbers were nearly matched in the follow-up weekend 12 months later, even though in both years there were rather unfortunate rival events on the same weekend.

'There's lots that we can learn from the American way of doing things' said victor Sebastian Vettel after last year's fare. And he's absolutely right - far from Austin being the itinerary's raw newcomer it's quickly become the standard bearer and the rest have an awful lot to learn from it. And on another point, if F1 - finally - doesn't get it right in America from here it can have no one to blame but itself.

Austin's Circuit of the Americas facility further is a fine one: the layout challenging, undulating and popular with fans and drivers alike.

The circuit - as just about all Hermann Tilke-penned layouts - has a something-of-everything quality, but in COTA's case it is taken to an extreme. Apparently the lap contains more corners at over 250 kph than Spa and more at less than 100 kph than the Hungaroring. It's also taken direct inspiration from many other tracks, with Silverstone's Becketts section, Istanbul's Turn 8, Hockenheim's stadium section and the Red Bull Ring's uphill hairpin all represented in there.

This bit-of-everything track should of course suit the good-at-everything Mercedes. Not that it needs help, given the W05s have spent just about the whole season on another level.

The turn-out at both Austin races have been strong
Photo: Octane Photography
More pointedly we are reaching a critical point in the Merc-on-Merc drivers' championship battle. Lewis Hamilton has a trailer-load of momentum, and his 17 point advantage built over team mate Nico Rosberg means one more victory from the remaining three leaves Nico needing snookers. In other words, Lewis somewhere, somehow, finishing outside of the top two. Which to be yet more reductive probably means him either not finishing or being hit by a massive delay (as Nico himself demonstrated in Sochi last time out, not even a medium-sized delay loosens the Merc grasp on the first two places these days).

And Austin likely wouldn't be Nico's first choice as the place in which to get one over his stable mate. Lewis won the inaugural Austin race with a superb drive, facing down Sebastian Vettel in an intense tête-a-tête. And last year too, even though he entered the weekend with Rosberg apparently in much the better form, he bounced back and qualified and finished far ahead of Nico. Nico indeed in both Austin visits has been rather a footnote.

But such thoughts must be banished far from Nico's mind. As intimated this weekend he simply must deliver.

In perhaps not the best place for him, Nico Rosberg simply
must deliver this time
Photo: Octane Photography
The rest as ever will be fighting over the scraps, but not for the first time Valtteri Bottas seems a good shout for best of the rest. The Williams should fly down the lengthy COTA straight, while last year at Austin Bottas was astonishing - qualifying ninth (and he thought he was good for fifth but for a mistake) and finishing eighth. And to emphasise what an outlandish result this was, other than that the Williams team scored but a solitary point in 2013, and the chat at the time was that Bottas's Texan score kept Marussia and Caterham away from the Grove team's door in the constructors' battle. Don't let anyone tell you that nothing changes in F1.

About the only bum note in the Austin F1 repertoire thus far is that, although the first Grand Prix here was a fine one, the 2013 race was rather tepid. Pirelli that year just as in 2012 brought its most conservative compound selections of the medium and hard - the Italian firm possibly wary of the sport's previous in the US, as well as was generally spooked at that stage by Silverstone and all that. But one year on chickens rather came home to roost with an easy one-stopper for just about everyone contributing to not much happening. Pirelli appears to have learned though and has gone a step softer this time - bringing the soft and medium - with two-stoppers instead expected.

And while as outlined F1 in Austin is the best of times, the F1 that arrives in Texas is in its worst of times. Two of the 11 teams - Caterham and Marussia - we found out in recent days are giving the race a miss, and due to severe financial struggle. Much for F1 to think about, but for now the number one rule of show business must be adhered to and the show must go on. And go on with a grid of 18.

Indeed come Saturday at COTA the runners will be yet more scarce as in qualifying we'll be down to 17 with the self-same Vettel (how things have changed for him too in the space of 12 months) sitting out as an engine change means he'll be starting at the back of the grid whatever he does therein. It'll all make qualifying more perilous though, given now three non-Caterham/Marussia runners (plus Vettel) will drop out in Q1 rather than the usual two.

How the sport could do with a lift right now. Fortunately, it'll be in exactly the right place to get one.

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