- Karun Chandhok's ESPNF1 column
A great return to AmericaKarun Chandhok November 22, 2012
- United States Grand Prix
The US Grand Prix was a great return to America for Formula One. The Circuit of the Americas is a very deserving home for the race with a layout that is unique, innovative and proved to be great for overtaking. The top 3 drivers on the podium are the top 3 in most people's list of current drivers which was a nice touch for the new fans to see F1's finest doing what they do best.
This was a very important race for F1. I always believed that F1 needs America more than America needs F1. There is plenty of other sporting action for the Americans to follow on a weekend, be it NASCAR, NFL, Indycar, Major League Baseball, NBA so really, having F1 there is great but not really something that was essential. On the flip side, America is still the biggest market in the world for people like Ferrari and Mercedes and despite the emergence of countries like China, India and Brazil it remains a hugely important market for pretty much every sponsor on every car on the grid.
Choosing Austin as a venue raised a few eyebrows (including mine, despite my grandparents living down the road in San Antonio!). Clearly the local government were the ones who decided to open their cheque books and build an awesome facility as well as of course pay the rights fees to FOM. Judging by the sold out crowds, you'd have to say so far so good, but having a sold out crowd doesn't mean you're going to make a profit. In reality, it will probably cover 30-35% of their cost of the event. Where I think the organisers here may be on to something is that one-third of their ticket sales were reportedly to Mexican fans. The Mexicans and the Hispanic community love their F1 and with no race in Mexico City anymore, this is as close to one as they can get at the moment. COTA has already got MotoGP, The World Endurance Championship and the Aussie V8 Supercar series lined up for 2013 and hopefully with all of these events and the income brought to the city and surrounding areas by the visitors, the race will be able to sustain a long term future.
The race itself was one of my favourites of the year. A lot of people talked about Abu Dhabi being the best race of the year but while it was chaotic and exciting, it wasn't the purest form of result. In reality, while Kimi drove a great race, the win should've been Lewis' and while Seb also had a super race, he benefitted from the safety car and incidents that helped him get up the order quicker than he would've done.
In America, there was none of that. Lewis and Sebastian were in a class of their own and the race was an enthralling contest between two drivers both in the form of their lives. Lewis' qualifying run was particularly impressive I thought. All weekend the Red Bull looked like being in a complete class of its own so for him to be able to qualify so close to Sebastian was a real surprise. In the race, the McLaren was a match for the Red Bull, an indication perhaps that once again, the RBR cars are able to get their tyres up to temperature quicker than anyone else and are therefore able to deliver a laptime quickly in practice or qualifying on the shorter runs. Being able to work the tyres on lap 1 is generally a sign of a car with more downforce, which sort of adds up. On the longer runs in the race however, once the McLarens got temperature in their tyres, both cars were flying.
When any track has a new surface, it takes a while for it to bed in and for all the oil and chemicals to come out to the surface. I remember back when I was doing F3, they re-surfaced Donington Park completely and the first time we went there to test, it was a complete nightmare. The grip levels were so low and whole paddock was just confused - in the end I think everyone went for pretty much a full wet set up to try and get some grip! Watching the Friday sessions in Austin reminded me of that. You could see and hear from the drivers just how slippery it was. There's no doubt that it will be better for next year and in subsequent years, but you have to say that the low grip combined with the lower than average temperatures as well as Pirelli's conservative tyre choice made for some very entertaining watching.
All of these factors also changed the race in terms of strategy as we saw drivers coming out of the pits and losing a chunk of time in the opening couple laps on their fresh tyres till they came up to temperature. Much like in my GP2 days without tyre warmers, the ideal strategy to jump ahead of someone became to pit 2 laps after them. For most of this year, we've seen drivers pit and immediately set best sector times even on their out laps but in Austin, they were scrambling for grip. People like Jenson and Felipe made good use of this to run longer than the others on their first set and gain track position.
So, on to Brazil and the championship finale. After 19 races around the planet 13 key championship points separate Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. The former is the firm favourite - with a points and car advantage it's his championship to lose. Yet another alternator failure on Mark Webber's car will be a worry for the team as many people do rightly believe that the championship is now a straight fight between Fernando and Red Bull's reliability. We've had some extraordinary races in Brazil with plenty of rain so whatever happens, make sure you find a television or are following on ESPNF1.com on Sunday!