There were 56 laps run in Austin's Travis County prairie to complete the inaugural United States Grand Prix at the newly minted Circuit of the Americas. Coming into the race, there were nothing but questions and calculations: Would the track be any good for Formula One? Could Red Bull Racing get the five points it needed to take the F1 Constructor's Championship? Would Turn One be the Golgotha everyone predicted? Would the race be the triumphal return to America that everyone was afraid to predict? Could Sauber get enough points to overhaul a struggling Mercedes-AMG Petronas team for fifth in the Constructor's Championship? Could Marussia manage a twelfth-placed finish to overhaul Caterham? Could official track ambassador Mario Andretti conduct a post-race interview?
And most importantly, could Sebastian Vettel put an end to the issue of the Driver's Championship? He would put up a Texas-sized fight...
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Vettel qualified his Red Bull on pole, but he didn't put entire counties between himself and all the drivers behind: Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren was just a tenth back. At the beginning of the race, there was another four-tenths to the rest of the bunched-up pack, starting with Mark Webber in second Red Bull in third, then Romain Grosjean in the Lotus in front of his teammate Kimi Räikkönen, Michael Schumacher vastly outperforming his Mercedes-AMG Petronas to take sixth, Felipe Massa outperforming his teammate Alonso in the Ferrari to take seventh, the consistently solid Nico Hülkenberg in the Force India in eighth, then Alonso in ninth, then Pastor Maldonado in the Williams in tenth. The major surprise was Jenson Button, a throttle problem in his McLaren leaving him back in twelfth.
Before the start, Grosjean would drop back to ninth, having had a gearbox replaced and so receiving a five-place grid penalty. Then there were two little controversies: Ferrari intentionally broke a seal on one of Massa's gearboxes, automatically dropping him back five places. The strategic move was designed to help put Alonso on the clean side of the track with Massa behind him on the dirty side in slot 12. The bigger controversy at the start concerned all the drivers in the even grid slots that were off the racing line. Even after days of F1 practice sessions and other series' racing, traction was so bad on that side that it was said that it would cost drivers two places once the race started, Hamilton said he was going to ask the FIA to clean it up, and Massa said his starts from the dirty side were slower than in the wet.
Once the lights went out, the field took off for the massively wide Turn One, drivers full on the throttle deep into the 31-foot climb and into the blind apex. Vettel got a great start, Hamilton quickly lost a position to Webber, but stayed close behind. Alonso was the revelation, gaining three places on the first lap to move into fourth.
With just two retirements, the race then turned into groups of battles among the top ten. Hamilton stalked Vettel throughout after getting past Webber in the Drag Reduction System (DRS) zone on the back straight on Lap 4. Tenth by tenth, Hamilton took time out of Vettel until his tires dropped off, but he was still never more than three seconds behind. After both drivers pitted for the harder tire, Hamilton continued stalking, finally getting past Vettel on Lap 42 after Vettel got held up behind Narain Karthikeyan in the HRT through the first sector. Hamilton didn't streak away, but the cars were too closely matched for Vettel to make a run on him without doing something crazy, which Vettel had no reason to do.
Behind, Webber's race came to a quick end: his alternator went out and on Lap 17, he told his engineer, "KERS is dead." That put Alonso into third, a position he was able to hold onto even after a slow pit stop. But his Ferrari still isn't the car he needs it to be in order to beat the Red Bulls fair and square, and he took the last podium spot more almost 40 seconds in arrears of the two leaders.
Two more "Wow" drives came from Massa and Button. From eleventh on the grid, Massa was putting in the same lap times as Vettel and Hamilton throughout most of the race and got himself up to fourth place. Behind him, Button used the harder tire to excellent effect and a long stint, aided by a great pass on Räikkönen, to get from being twelfth on the grid to fifth at the finish.
Räikkönen dropped to places over the race to finish sixth, coming home in front of teammate Grosjean who gained two places. Hülkenberg took eigth, the Williams pair of Maldonado and Bruno Senna making the top ten.
Michael Schumacher proved how far the Mercedes car still has to go, going backwards once the race began, having to pit twice for tires and finishing in 16th. Sauber, still working to overhaul Mercedes, once again couldn't get either driver into the points – although they at least both finished this time.
Lewis Hamilton finally secured the victory everyone expected from him first in Singapore and then in Abu Dhabi. No matter what happens in Brazil he leaves having fought as hard for McLaren on his way out as he did when he arrived.
Sebastian Vettel gained another three points on Alonso and now has a 13-point lead in the Championship, at 273 to 260, but it wasn't the kind of grind-your-enemy-into-the-dirt performance he wanted. If Alonso wins Brazil, Vettel would need to come in worse than fourth for Alonso to take the title – if Vettel came in fourth, that would see the two tied on points, making Vettel the Champion because he's won more races this year.
We'll leave the statistics and permutations for the commentators to chew on all this week, but know this: Alonso has won two World Championships, both of them secured in Brazil. On top of that, the weather forecast for next week declares a 40-percent chance of rain on Sunday. After the success that was Austin, Brazil should – perhaps in more ways than one – bring its usual thunder.
Some of the race's notables and firsts:
- Webber's only two radio communications during the race were "Back three clicks" and "KERS is dead."
- On Lap 10, Schumacher became the first man in F1 to drive more than 80,000 kilometers (nearly 50,000 miles), going further than ex-teammate Rubens Barrichello.
- Kimi Raikkonen, his first year back, has scored points in every race since Bahrain, a stat no other driver has managed. He has not scored points in just one race all year – another stat no other driver has managed – in China, when tire troubles saw him finish in 14th.
- The first USGP in Texas was won by Lewis Hamilton, who won the last USGP in Indianapolis five years ago.
- The USGP is the first time World Champions Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso have shared a podium.
- Hamilton is behind just Prost and Senna on the list of most victories for a McLaren driver.
- Christian Horner, multi-championship-winning team principal, turned 39 on Saturday.
- Red Bull is the first constructor to win its first three Constructor's Championships consecutively (only three other teams have won three Constructor's Championships at all).
See you next week.