Formula 1’s latest attempt to put down permanent roots in America got underway at the Circuit of the Americas today and it was the man who made his debut the last time the sport raced in the United States five years ago, Sebastian Vettel, who enjoyed the most dominant of Fridays.
The Red Bull driver has his first chance to clinch his third consecutive world title this weekend if results go his way and in practice he demonstrated the kind form needed to at least keep to his part of the bargain with big margins of superiority in both FP1 and FP2.
While his 1.4-second advantage in the first session could be explained by the use of fresh tyres on his final run, Vettel’s later 0.7s lead at the end of FP2 on the medium option compound came despite missing almost half of the running with a water leak from his RB8’s radiator.
The feeling even before the weekend was that the new 3.4-mile circuit, with its sweeping opening sector, would play to the strengths of the Red Bull and Mark Webber’s strong start to the weekend would also seem to confirm this, the Australian taking second place in FP2 having consistently vied for the fastest time while the sister car was being worked on in the garage.
Ferrari and Fernando Alonso outpaced McLaren on single-lap pace to take a distant third in relation to the time Vettel was able to set, with the Woking team struggling with tyre warm-up on what was a very dusty and slippery surface throughout. Pirelli has brought the hardest two tyres in its range to the inaugural event and the firm is already predicting a one-stop race on Sunday with degradation not proving a major issue.
Ferrari brought a number of small further updates to the F2012, including front wing and diffuser tweaks, which Alonso tried and, although less than a hundredth adrift of Webber, the gap to the his championship rival was not lost on the Spaniard.
“It’s no surprise to see the two Red Bulls ahead of the field: in the last few races they have had the best package, therefore today’s result is logical,” Alonso reflected.
“We know what are our strengths – team work and reliability – and we will make the most of them in the fight. The updates we have brought here seem to work, but we still need to look more closely at the data before having a definite answer. I am happy about this, but it’s also true that while we are making small steps forward with each passing race, so too are the others, so the distance between us remains unchanged.
“Would I be happy to be third again tomorrow afternoon? Sure, but this is only Friday and we have been in this position before and then on Saturday other cars have got ahead of us.”
The race simulations as usual offered more hope for Ferrari, with Lewis Hamilton actually setting the fastest lap of anyone for McLaren during this phase at the end of the day.
All in all F1 enjoyed an encouraging first day back in the USA, with organisers in Austin revealing that over 65,000 people turned up to watch the day’s action in total.
The drivers were generally very enthusiastic about the challenge presented by the circuit with Hamilton hailing it as a “great drivers’ track”, having taken particular enjoyment from the first sector of the lap which includes the sweeping Silverstone/Suzuka-style complex of corners.
US GRAND PRIX, Circuit of the Americas, Free practice 2
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m37.718s 17
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m38.475s + 0.757 36
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m38.483s + 0.765 35
4. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m38.748s + 1.030 31
5. Jenson Button McLaren 1m38.786s + 1.068 32
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m39.029s + 1.311 33
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m39.448s + 1.730 32
8. Bruno Senna Williams 1m39.531s + 1.813 38
9. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m39.653s + 1.935 36
10. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m40.115s + 2.397 30
11. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m40.166s + 2.448 32
12. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m40.230s + 2.512 35
13. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m40.286s + 2.568 32
14. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m40.326s + 2.608 35
15. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m40.435s + 2.717 30
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m40.516s + 2.798 32
17. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m40.700s + 2.982 34
18. Paul di Resta Force India 1m41.430s + 3.712 35
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m42.476s + 4.758 38
20. Timo Glock Marussia 1m42.652s + 4.934 33
21. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m42.846s + 5.128 38
22. Charles Pic Marussia 1m43.538s + 5.820 38
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m44.453s + 6.735 16
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m45.114s + 7.396 20