Monday 19 October 2015

Austin Preview: Getting it right

It will be no revelation to you that F1's previous round, that in Russia, is not one to win popularity awards. Not aside from those judged arbitrarily by Bernie Ecclestone at any stretch. This is for a number of reasons, as explored in my recent Grand Prix Times article. But cheek-by-jowl it's followed by a round that rather is at the opposite end of this particular scale. One which you will not hear a bad word spoken of. A round that demonstrates that modern F1 doesn't always get it wrong, not even with the outputs of its chief architect Hermann Tilke. This is the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

The Austin stop-off is a popular one
Photo: Octane Photography
And if the Sochi round's unpopularity is down to a few things in combination, Austin's star pupil status similarly is attributable to a multitude of factors brought together.

For starters possibly no other host ever, not even Adelaide, has given such an impression of being thoroughly delighted to have a Grand Prix; so determined to most the most of it and give a lasting impression. Possibly not even Adelaide has embodied a Grand Prix as much. Possibly it's a matter of size - being big enough to have the race but not so big to be just another event there; to be swamped. The Texan city has around one million inhabitants just as Adelaide.

Austin more broadly as a city charms even the sport's grizzled bunch. It is eclectic, outward-looking and lively, also as the self-styled 'Live Music Capital of the World' it's well used to putting on large events and giving visitors a warm welcome.

During a Grand Prix weekend in the city of Austin it seems wherever you look, whenever you turn on the TV or radio, the F1 event dominates. Chequered flags and other paraphernalia drape from every other shop front and from every other bar. Various events are put on for fans. The vibrant 'Fanfest' for four days occupies 12 blocks of closed-off streets right in the centre of town. All told it rather shames just about all other venues.

Best of all the crowds at the track on all three days of every visit have been fantastic, even though in the first two years in that strange F1 way of things there were rather unfortunate rival events on the same weekend.

The crowds in Austin always have been strong
Photo: Octane Photography
There will however be the odd anxious eye on the numbers through the gate this time. That it's called the Circuit of the Americas tells us something - it was built with it in mind that large numbers would travel to Grands Prix there from Central American countries too, particularly Mexico. And this has been borne out in previous visits where the Mexican contingent was numbered in tens of thousands. This time of course, for the first time in COTA's short existence, Mexico has its own race...

Most importantly an F1 race in America was for years, decades indeed, the sport's major unfinished business. The world's largest economy, sports mad with it and likely inimitable in its attachment to the automobile, plus that F1 purports to have a world championship, but somehow F1 never seemed able to pitch a tent Stateside that wouldn't fall down upon the merest gust of wind Bernie may have limited enthusiasm for the country (as we got our latest indication of in recent days) but you'll struggle to find others in the fraternity - be they teams, manufacturers, sponsors, perhaps even fans - that share the view.

There was a touch of paradise lost about it too. F1 contrary to some presumptions did used to get it right in the States, with for a time well-established and popular rounds at Watkins Glen and Long Beach. One east, one west. One a road track, one on streets. Perfect. But both were lost in the early 1980s. Watkins Glen was down to fate as the track run out of money, but in the case of Long Beach it was down mainly to Bernie (him again) playing hardball over the financial terms.

The US race then went into a state of flux with various venues - many of them cringe-worthy - coming and going and in many years the sport not visiting the States at all. Underlining as much Austin was US stop-off number ten in F1 history (no other country gets close to that total). A few even in this case expected more of the same indeed as there were a few non-encouraging noises came out of the area in advance. But when everyone arrived in Austin for the first time in 2012 the doom-mongers simply could not have been more wrong.

The Austin track boasts a variety of corners,
 including these sweeps
Photo: Octane Photography
A prediction that we can be altogether more assured about is that this time Mercedes should be well on top again. The Circuit of the Americas layout itself is about as popular as everything that surrounds it, being varied, challenging and undulating. In that Tilke way it also has a bit-of-everything quality - indeed as James Allen has pointed out it has more corners at over 250km/h than Spa and more below 100km/h than Hungary. But even with it being new-fangled its closest cousins in terms of its demands are in fact Silverstone and Suzuka, two flowing old school tracks. Tilke excelled himself this time.

This should suit the Mercedes down to the ground as it's tended to be on the quick tracks with long fast corners that it's been even further away from the rest than usual, indeed it dominated on those two other circuits mentioned earlier this campaign.

Yet while 12 months ago we came to Austin with the drivers' title still somewhat in the balance this year there is no doubt about its eventual destination. There is a source of tension of sorts though, over whether Lewis Hamilton will finalise the championship here. He needs two points over Nico Rosberg and nine over Sebastian Vettel for this, which means a Merc one-two with Lewis ahead - hardly the most unlikely outcome given everything - will make Lewis's third crown official.

And it's a pretty good place for him to do it. Lewis has triumphed in two of the three Texas visits and in the other left team mate Nico far behind. He seems to like this place. Nico's record at Austin is rather modest even within its context, though last year he did take pole and looked good for the win for the opening stint at least. But then when he and his team mate switched to the other tyre compound and Lewis made a few other adjustments accordingly the Englishman was able to move up on Nico smoothly then equally smoothly cruise by. By the time Nico had collected everything up again first place was done.

Last year Lewis Hamilton won out against Nico Rosberg.
The same result this year will bag him the title
Photo: Octane Photography
The rest likely will be fighting for scraps, and as usual it'll be Sebastian Vettel probably fighting for them more effectively than the rest. He is another for whom much has changed since 12 months ago. Last year while Ferrari awaited he was in the midst of his annus horribilis and it rather bottomed out in Austin as it looked in advance that he wouldn't even take part in qualifying due to impending engine penalties. As it was, it was suggested apparently via the stewards that he should at least put in a token effort. Seb did however affect a spirited effort in the race to finish seventh. He also has a win and a close second here.

Williams has been in good form lately though also has developed a habit of being usurped by Vettel on race day. Partly it's that the Ferrari is a better proposition in the race than in qualifying generally but also some reckon that Williams' in-race strategy decisions still aren't the sharpest. Austin with its long straights should give the Grove pitwall another opportunity to get it right finally.

One characteristic of early Austin visits has gone however. In the first two races here Pirelli went ultra-conservative by bringing the medium and hard compound tyres, and in both of these weekends the rubber gave the impression of being able to run for the whole race and most of the journey home too. Indeed the first Austin weekend was an extreme case with some doing as many as five warm-up laps before their qualifying hot laps.

Pirelli twigged eventually and last year took it down a notch by selecting the soft and medium which it has stuck with this time. With this 12 months ago suddenly multi-stops were the norm with most going for two halts in effect (though Kevin Magnussen managed an effective one-stopper albeit with two stints on the medium after ditching the softs during a lap one safety car). Soft-medium-medium was the standard for the Mercs at least while Felipe Massa tried putting on softs for the middle stint but it ended up not working as it left him vulnerable to an undercut from Daniel Ricciardo to claim the bottom podium slot. Fernando Alonso and Vettel both created a bit of fun though with late-race sprints on softs.

We've also seen in previous visits that temperatures can vary quite wildly here and when it drops tyre behaviour and warm up can become incredibly knife-edge. There might be an unlikely source of variation this time too with long range forecasts having rain around on the Friday and Saturday. Perhaps for the third round in a row Friday running will be in effect lost.

But one thing stays the same. That F1 will be in Austin, which is something to be glad about.

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