This weekend the F1 teams will race on the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the first time. And it could well be the title decider with Sebastian Vettel 10 points ahead of Fernando Alonso and only 50 points left on the table.
So what will this race turn on? What is the secret to being competitive at Austin and how will the all-important race strategy play out?
The new Circuit of the Americas looks very attractive from a drivers’ and spectators’ point of view. It has a little bit of everything; Mercedes’ simulations suggest the circuit has more corners over 250 kph than Spa and more below 100kph than Hungary, which is quite a combination.
It has one very long straight with a hairpin at either end and this is where the single DRS zone will be located, which should promote overtaking. And it features numerous corners, which pay tribute to some of the great corners of tracks around the world. For example, the first turn is an uphill turn, similar to the great 1970s Osterreichring track in Austria, then there is a sequence of high speed corners which are very like Maggotts/Beckets at Silverstone.
The first and last sectors of the lap, which are all about cornering, look like they will favour Red Bull, with its massive down force, but McLaren, Lotus and Ferrari should also go well here.
In terms of finding the key to winning at Austin, qualifying will be very important because the sequence of corners at the start of the lap will string the field out on the opening lap, so making sure you get away first on the opening lap will be vital. Then breaking the DRS tow will be the next target.
It has quite a short pit lane so there is scope for trying things with strategy.
Austin is the tenth different venue for the Formula 1 US Grand Prix. F1 has had several homes in America over the years and has never really taken root. The last one was Indianapolis, but the circuit and Bernie Ecclestone fell out over how much they should pay to host the race. There are lots of Ferrari loving car fans in the USA, obviously, and the key is to get them energised about F1 again. The Austin race is a sell out, but getting them back in year two will be the acid test.
Sebastian Vettel can win the title in Austin, if he scores 15 points more than Fernando Alonso. If not, the title fight will go on to the final round in Brazil. Alonso cannot afford another retirement.
Red Bull will almost certainly clinch the constructors’ championship in Austin.
Here is our guide to the Race Strategy for Austin. When you’ve read it, see if you can find the fastest strategy for the race using our RACE STRATEGY CALCULATOR
Circuit of the Americas – 5.516 kilometres. Race distance – 56 laps = 308.896 kilometres. 20 corners in total. Average speed 197km/h. A brand new circuit, replicating some classic corners of other circuits
Aerodynamic setup – Med/High downforce. Top speed 315km/h (with DRS open) 305km/h without.
Full throttle – 60% of the lap. Total fuel needed for race distance – 142.8 kilos (ave). Fuel consumption – 2.55kg per lap (ave)
Brake wear- medium. Number of braking events – 8.
Loss time for a Pit stop = 16.5 seconds
Total time needed for a pit stop: 3 seconds
Fuel effect (cost in lap time per 10kg of fuel carried): 0.38 seconds (ave/high)
The US Grand Prix is round 19 of the 2012 FIA F1 World Championship.
Sebastian Vettel is the form man at the moment, having won four of the last five races. And this Austin track looks like it will suit the Red Bull car very well, with its series of high speed corners and the long Turn 17, which are well suited to the high downforce of the Red Bull and its powerful double DRS system, which will be used in qualifying. Expect at least one Red Bull car on the front row of the grid.
Vettel will be champion if he ends the race with 25 points more than Fernando Alonso. While Red Bull need just 4 points to clinch the Constructors’ Championship for the third year in a row.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton performed very well at the last round in Abu Dhabi, which indicates that his McLaren will be competitive here.
The forecast for the weekend is for stable weather, with temperatures in the low 20 degrees C and little chance of rain.
Pirelli tyre choice for Austin: Medium (white markings) and Hard (silver markings). This combination was seen in Malaysia, Belgium and Italy.
At the two most recent races in India and Abu Dhabi Pirelli went too conservative with the tyre choice and it led to a largely one-stop strategy race in both cases. The selection for Austin again looks fairly conservative.
On any new track, working out the best race strategy could once again be the decisive factor.
Austin appears to be similar to Silverstone in terms of the energy that will be put into the tyre, while its general character is similar to Korea and India.
The track is brand new, so it will be covered in dust at the start of the weekend, but the improvement is likely to be significant once the cars run and plenty of rubber goes down. The lap times should tumble, with a lap around 1m 38s predicted for qualifying.
The performance gap between the medium and hard Pirelli tyre is going to be critical to race strategy, as always.
It is estimated that the medium will be around 0.8 secs per lap faster than the hard in qualifying trim. Estimates of tyre life are that the medium will last around 20 laps, the hard around 26-28 laps.
Pirelli is to give the teams an extra set of hard tyres to encourage teams to do lots of laps in practice and to gain more data.
Based on the forgoing assumptions, it is likely that this race will be predominantly a one-stop race again for most teams, based on the conservative tyre choice.
Before a wheel has turned in practice it looks as though one stop is around three seconds faster than two stops (see Race History Simulation above) and it offers track position in the final stint. But all the teams will be working hard in practice to understand if the simulations are accurate, or whether two stops might be better.
If the performance difference between the two compounds is more significant than expected in Friday practice, or if the surface is more abrasive than expected, then there may be a few more two stoppers, particularly as the pit lane time is short so there is not as large a time loss in making an extra stop as there is at some venues.
See if you can find a faster strategy for the race than the one on this chart – using our RACE STRATEGY CALCULATOR
Chance of a Safety Car
As this is a new track the statistical chance of a safety car has yet to be calculated.
Recent start performance
Starts are a critical part of the race and strategy can be badly compromised by a poor start, while good starts can make strategists change their plans in the hope of a good result.
As far as 2012 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost (-) places off the start line this season on aggregate as follows. Please note that where a driver has been eliminated on first lap this has been noted and removed from the sample as it skews the table. So this is intended as a guide of trends, rather than a definitive list.
+34 Massa ***** *******, Kovalainen
+24 Perez***, Vergne **********, Pic
+22 Karthikeyan, Senna* ***** ********
+16 Raikkonen, De la Rosa ****
+14 Kobayashi**** *********, Schumacher* ****** **********
+8 Maldonado****, Button*********, Petrov***** *******
+4 Di Resta ***** ***********
-5 Grosjean** **** ***** ******** ***********
-10 Rosberg******** ***********
* Senna, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg were all involved in accidents on 1st lap in Australia
** Schumacher and Grosjean collided on Lap 1 in Malaysia, Senna and Perez pitted for wet tyres on opening lap
***Perez punctured on lap 1 in Spain and went to back of field
**** Eliminated by or involved in first lap accident in Monaco
***** Di Resta eliminated lap 1 at Silverstone, Petrov did not start
***** Massa, Senna and Grosjean involved in first lap collisions dropping them to the back
****** Schumacher forced to pit lap 1 in Hungary (lost six places)
*******Massa (puncture) and Petrov (broken nose) pitted for repairs on lap 1 in Singapore after making contact.
******** Alonso, Rosberg, Webber, Senna and Grosjean either retired or dropped to the back following first-lap accidents in Japan
********* Button eliminated, Kobayashi pitted for repairs, on lap 1 after collision in Korea
********** Schumacher and Vergne pitted for repairs at the end of lap one after first-corner collision in India
***********Rosberg, Grosjean di Resta pitted for repairs and rejoined after first-lap incidents in Abu Dhabi. Hulkenberg eliminated after first-corner accident
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and there have been some amazing performances; we have seen tyre stops carried out in less than two and a half seconds this year.
The league table below shows order of the pit crews based on their best total time in the pit lane in the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
1. Red Bull 2.41secs (1)
2. Ferrari 2.7secs (2)
3. McLaren 2.80secs (3)
4. Sauber 2.82secs (6)
5. Mercedes 3.04secs (5)
6. Force India 3.17secs (7)
7. Marussia 3.22secs (11)
8. Toro Rosso 3.23secs (8)
9. Lotus 3.62secs (4)
10. Williams 4.06secs (9)
11. Caterham 4.11secs (10)
12. HRT 5.61secs (12)