The world championship is finely balanced as F1 makes its third visit to Austin, Texas, which proved a huge hit with teams, drivers and fans last season. The two Mercedes drivers have scored 565 points between them – enough to secure the constructor’s championship already – but there are only 17 points separating Lewis Hamilton from his team mate Nico Rosberg.
There will be only nine teams participating in the Grand Prix after Caterham and Marussia went into administration.
This means that the FIA is likely to change the format of qualifying with four cars dropping out at the end of Q1 and four cars at the end of Q2. There is some debate about whether world champion Sebastian Vettel will take part in qualifying in Austin. He needs to take a 6th power unit and wants to take one with all the new components, which means starting from the pit lane. But the FIA is believed to have told the team that he can still use some of the other components from his original allocation of five for the season together with a new Internal Combustion engine, in which case he will have to go out and qualify on Saturday and then take a grid penalty.
The Circuit of the Americas, which runs anti clockwise, is a wonderful mixture of many of the most famous circuits on the F1 calendar; it has more corners at over 250 km/h 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. There were a total of 55 overtaking moves during the 2012 race, but only 18 in the 2013 edition.
Strategy wise, the race has been a one stopper for both the previous races, due to a conservative choice of medium and hard tyres by Pirelli. This year they have opted for soft and medium.
Circuit of the Americas – 5.516 kilometres. Race distance – 56 laps = 308.896 kilometres. 20 corners in total. Average speed 197km/h.
Aerodynamic setup – Med/High downforce. Top speed 315km/h (with DRS open) 305km/h without.
Full throttle 58% of lap.
Brake wear- medium/hard. Number of braking events – 10 (Four heavy). At Turn 12 the drivers incur 5.5g in braking forces.
Time needed for a Pit stop – 21/22 seconds
The US Grand Prix is round 17 of 19 in the 2014 FIA F1 World Championship.
Lewis Hamilton has now won nine races this year and is the form driver going into this Grand Prix. It is a track on which he has won before in 2012.
Sebastian Vettel won the race last year and took pole position in 2012. He has yet to win a race in 2014. He has only three more races for Red Bull before leaving the team.
The track has similar characteristics to Silverstone and Suzuka, which were both strong tracks for Williams, so they should be podium contenders this weekend.
The forecast for the weekend is for warm weather, with temperatures of 24 to 26 Centigrade.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Austin: Soft (yellow markings) and Medium (white markings) This combination has been used six times already this season.
For the last two seasons, Pirelli has brought the medium and hard tyres to Austin and it has led to one-stop strategies. This year they have gone for the soft and medium tyres, but that is because the 2014 compounds are harder than last year’s. So we could have one or two stops as the preferred strategy, Pirelli thinks two.
Tyre warm up has been a factor at this race track in the past as it can be very cool, in the mornings especially.
In the 2012 race drivers found themselves doing five lap runs in qualifying to set a fast time. The track is now three years old so the surface will have matured and there should be more grip.
Friday’s practice session will be vital for working out whether one stop or two is the faster race strategy. The pit lane is of average length at 395m and it takes around 21 seconds to make a stop, so there is no discouragement there from making an extra stop.
The big question mark will be the difference in performance between the two compounds; we have seen some significant differences, for example in Russia the soft tyre was clearly a second a lap faster than the medium, which meant that in the first part of the race, none of the runners on the soft were in any hurry to make their pit stop for the medium. At other venues the pace difference has been closer.
The main limitation is front inner shoulder wear from sliding.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
Typically with the harder compounds of the past in Austin one stop has been around 10 seconds faster than two stops. One stop has another advantage in that it offers track position in the final stint, so the two stopping car has to overtake it on fresher tyres in the closing stages.
A typical one stop strategy is to start on soft tyres and pit around lap 20 for a new set of medium tyres.
Two stops would mean starting on the soft tyre, taking another set of softs around lap 15 and then a set of mediums around lap 37. Alternatively, two stints on the medium tyre if the wear on the soft was marginal and the medium had good pace.
Counter strategies have worked in the past; in 2012 Jenson Button started 12th, but came through to finish fifth by starting on the hard tyre and pitting once for new mediums on lap 35.
Chance of a Safety Car
There have been two races so far and one safety car so the probability is 50%.
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 2014 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.
Net gained positions
21 Maldonado, Hulkenberg
8 Alonso, Bianchi
7 Hamilton, Bottas,
4 Magnussen, Lotterer, Perez, Vettel,
Net lost positions
Melbourne Notes: Kobayashi, Massa eliminated in a first corner accident; Perez, Gutierrez pitted at the end of Lap 1; Bianchi, Grosjean started from pit lane.
Malaysia Notes: Perez started from pit lane, Bianchi pitted at the end of lap 1 Bahrain notes: Vergne pitted at the end of lap 1 after contact
China Notes: Sutil lost power at start and dropped 8 places, retiring soon after.
Monaco notes: Maldonado did not start, Ericsson started from pit lane, Perez crashed Lap 1.
Canada Notes: Gutierrez started from pit lane; Bianchi and Chilton crashed lap 1; Ericsson pitted lap 1
Austria Notes: Grosjean started from pit lane
GB Notes: Raikkonen and Massa eliminated in 1st lap accident
Germany notes: Massa eliminated in 1st lap accident, Magnussen and Ricciardo dropped back as a result
Hungary Notes: Hamilton, Magnussen, Kvyat started from pit lane
Belgium Notes: Grosjean and Bianchi collided on lap one, Kobayashi absent and replaced by Lotterer.
Italy Notes: Ericsson started from pit lane.
Singapore notes: Kobayashi did not start; Rosberg started from pit lane
Japan notes: Race started behind Safety Car.
Russia: Rosberg and Massa pitted at the end of Lap 1
Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and consistency is the key; nevertheless, we have seen tyre stops carried out in two seconds this year.
The table below shows the fastest single stop by teams in the recent Russian Grand Prix from the car entering the pit lane to leaving it.
1. McLaren 29.736 seconds
2. Force India 29.876s
3. Williams 29.912s
4. Red Bull 30.006s
5. Lotus 30.037
6. Ferrari 30.097s
7. Toro Rosso 30.272s
8. Sauber 30.303s
9. Mercedes 30.503s
10. Caterham 30.760s
11. Marussia 31.374s
The UBS Strategy Briefing is prepared by JA on F1, with input and data from several F1 teams and from Pirelli