Circuit of the Americas Turn 1 for the first time

Circuit of the Americas Turn 1 for the first time photo by Patrick Breen

So, after years of planning and speculation, not just over what the circuit would be like but also whether it would ever be finished or raced upon, we finally got our chance to see what kind of a race the Circuit of The Americas provided. Bernie Ecclestone said the circuit exceeded even his expectations and drivers and team principals such as Christian Horner have also heaped praise on the circuit since the race.

The 2012 US Grand Prix was one of the best of the season, that can’t be denied but whether that is down to the track or not is something that may need further examination before we declare the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) a complete triumph.

So let’s look first at what isn’t down to the circuit that made the race one that is at least bordering on the designation ‘a classic’.

Well Button’s race was one of the most exciting individual performances and this came from a qualifying throttle failure, at least in part, meaning he started twelfth on the grid. From twelfth on the grid Button slipped back at the start due partly to a less grippy starting position than 11th and 13th but it was also due to some bad luck getting blocked going round turn 1; or was it simply that turn 1 has been designed to provide chances for the brave?

The dirty grid positions are not part of the circuits design and won’t be as bad in 2013, as the asphalt will be a year older and less greasy with less residual dust from building work around. However COTA is in the dessert and so like in Bahrain some dust is inevitable.

These factors so far though wouldn’t have been enough alone to create a great race so is it the circuit? Well the biggest influencer has to be between the circuit and the tyres.

Cooler than expected conditions in the Texas dessert meant that the medium tyres couldn’t be switched on fast and the hard tyres seemed to take an eternity. This for a start made qualifying entertaining with cars out on track lap after lap as their tyres got warmer and their times got faster. Some got it just right before the sessions ended, some got it all wrong and this includes Rosberg who was forced to come in and head out on fresh, cold, tyres leaving him perilously close to dropping out in Q1. The Mercedes struggled all weekend though, Ferrari struggled in qualifying but they were better in the race once their tyres reached operating temperature and Massa showed one area where he can outperform Alonso is in getting his tyres up to temperature, which saw him qualify above Alonso and set some blistering times late on in the race with the hard tyres.

In the race of course we were given cars getting up to speed on tyres that were hard to heat with the hard tyres making those that changed on to them early sitting ducks at first and most drivers sitting ducks to Button once he did get his Hard tyres working at the start after a poor first few laps.

Ok so to get such an exciting race then maybe next year we need the ‘wrong’ tyre allocation again, Pirelli have put the show ahead of performance in the past so this isn’t out of the question. Take all of these factors away though and what does the circuit offer?

Well first of all, and this shouldn’t be under-valued, it doesn’t seem to fan out cars like some circuits, this means cars can follow in long trails within a second of one another as was happening during the race; including a train behind Di Resta early on of maybe 8 or 9 cars. This led to some good mid-pack action and meant that cars could leap on opportunities.

At one point in the UK Sky coverage the commentators mentioned the DRS might have been too easy, we would disagree though and suggest the number of DRS overtakes was due to cars being close enough together that the following car could take advantage when the car in front slipped up, which on the dusty circuit they did numerous times, and also when cars were going different speeds, which with people going on to and warming up tyres at different times was happening a lot as well.  The fact that many DRS attempts did fail showed that the DRS zone was about right and with Hamilton and Vettel on a similar pace it took a delay, arguably a mistake, for Vettel passing Karthikeyan for Hamilton to be given an opportunity.

The snake section though was an issue for cars passing traffic, some would argue that an experienced driver would have been careful to plan where they approached a car, Vettel would disagree but he also seemed to have unreasonable demands on Karthikeyan to make himself disappear in this section. Is this factor a good or a bad thing? It creates excitement though some fans would rather see the best man win rather than see these unexpected events thrown into the mix, but with bullet proof reliability there is already perhaps less unpredictability in F1 than ever before.

Another point worth making is that the cars looked beautiful through the snake/ Ss section, the change of direction at speed showing what marvels they are. This is even more important when you consider this is a showcase for F1 to the American public who may be more familiar with racing on oval tracks.

In other sections of the track however the width is there to pass safely, if not easily, and up and down the field we saw some great close racing with only a few moves that could have been given penalties and none that did, a rarity for a race in 2012.

250,000 spectators visited COTA over the 3 days, maybe not capacity but not bad considering the worries some potential attendees had over lack of accommodation in the area and the race potentially being cancelled if the circuit wasn’t finished, which may have seen some people stay away.

So what will Americans think themselves? There was some great racing but maybe not the crashes that are more common in many American motor sports series; the first corner seemed to be made for a pileup and despite the space cars inevitably went for the racing line as they turned in and many had to dive off the track, it looked like a matter of moments before someone spun and a pileup occurred. Surely next year the start can’t go off without any incident?

Then again maybe the fans who come to motor racing events see crashes and smashes will never be converted to F1 where retaining walls are a couple of hundred metres back from the track and have a ultra modern tec-pro barrier or thick row of tyres, rather than a solid wall and catch fencing. Maybe it is motorsport fans in America who love close racing and super human ability to overtake around a tricky track without crashing who will be converted to F1, and these do exist in the US as well, in which case the Circuit of the Americas is an ideal circuit.