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.
Even after qualifying the two McLarens were still the favourites to win the race, despite their relatively lowly grid positions of 5th and 7th, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were expected to use their better race pace to come through the field while the Mercedes were meant to sink without a trace.
In the end the McLarens did manage to make their way through the field, Jenson getting most of the job done by the first corner. The Mercedes though surprised everyone by not destroying their tyres and having a race pace that seems to come from nowhere based on where they had been in Australia and Malaysia: it seems the pace was always there and it was purely a setup issue with Ross Brawn admitting after the Chinese Grand Prix that they had been greedy going for maximum top speed in the first two races and getting the balance wrong.
What the Chinese Grand Prix means for the rest of the season is unclear but with China having been a dry race on a proper race track you can expect Mercedes to now be fast all year: though maybe not quite so strong as the long back straight probably gave them an advantage, even though Rosberg rarely needed to use his DRS.
Rosberg’s win and its margin are a credit to him though at the same time the margin could have been a lot less so McLaren shouldn’t lose faith just yet and it could be that it will be McLaren and Mercedes who will fight tooth and nail for the rest of the season now: with hints having been that McLaren might have dominated in 2012 neutral fans can only hope.
Schumacher dropped out of the race on only lap 12 and not due to any fault of his, his front right being left without a nut at his first pitstop. Perhaps this was just as well for Schumacher in some ways as Rosberg was already dominating him and getting more out of the tyres, if Schumacher had continued and not found some pace he could have been a long way behind Rosberg, instead people are speculating over whether Mercedes next win will be his.
Rosberg led away from the front and pulled out a few seconds quickly on Schumacher who did the same to Button who had gained two vital places at the start. As for Lewis Hamilton he gained places as well and found himself in 5th behind Raikkonen almost straight away. Kobayashi who had started third dropped to sixth.
The Red Bulls didn’t seem to have great pace early on in the race and Vettel dropped right back to the lower mid field where he had to defend against a Caterham. Vettel’s battle back through though to take fifth showed determination and good overtaking skills that some people doubted he had.
The race got really interesting as the second stops happened, Button had got the jump on Schumacher but Michael soon pulled off the circuit into retirement. Webber had been one of the first to pit pushing him onto a definite 3 stop strategy. The top ten had kept close together with Rosberg still only a few seconds ahead of Button who was keeping pace with him and catching at times.
Button was then put on to a three stop strategy though and ended up on new tyres chasing Rosberg on older tyres who had stopped once less. When Rosberg did take his second stop it looked like he may have been forced to go on to a three stop strategy but as it became clear that Mercedes intended for him to go to the end; as Button was due to pit a third time the question was over whether Button would be able to catch Rosberg on his fresher tyres and whether he would then be able to pass Rosberg, whose Tyres could become quite bare by the last few laps.
It looked like being a thrilling climax and predictions of Button reaching Rosberg with two or three laps to spare were being bandied around by teams and commentators but then we were deprived of that action when Button’s final pitstop was delayed as the left rear wouldn’t go on.
McLaren had called it perfectly to get Button out in fresh air in front of a train of Massa, Raikonnen, Veteel, Grosjean, Webber, Senna , Maldonado, Hamilton, Alonso and Kobayashi and Perez a little further behind. Instead though Button lost time and filtered out into this train behind Grosjean, Vettel and the slower Massa(slow but soon to pit) and Raikkonen: himself on a 2 stop strategy and trying to nurse his tyres, yet doing some fantastic defending too.
Button would lose too much time to chase down Rosberg and instead found himself having to pass Vettel and Raikkonen if he wanted to even take second. We may have been deprived of Button battling Rosberg but what we did get to enjoy for the last twenty laps was fantastic racing with both McLarens coming through but also side by side racing between the Red Bulls, Ferraris, Williams, Saubers and Toro Rossos all fighting for points places. Webber, Raikkonen and Alonso all made mistakes and lost places while Hamilton showed brilliant poise and patience to make his way through and take opportunities when they presented themselves; Hamilton’s performance to finish third in fact is probably his most impressive performance China last year.
At Red Bull Vettel was unlucky not to take fourth with his tyres not being able to keep up the pace to keep Webber behind, who himself had a solid race. The Red Bulls are consistently scoring points at the moment though and this means if they can get their car working, as Mercedes did, they could still be challenging for the championship.
Next up Bahrain so we hope you enjoyed the overtaking while it lasted, although we are of course yet to see whether DRS can fix the far from perfect Bahrain Sakhir circuit that will be run on the older configuration rather than that used in 2010.
It looked like a race McLaren would dominate based on form and qualifying, behind was where the most exciting racing was expected with the Mercedes, Lotus and Red Bulls fighting for the last podium place but the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix didn’t work out quite that way; it was in fact McLaren who took the final podium spot and the Ferrari and Sauber who despite being expected to be fighting for the minor points positions took the first and second steps of the podium respectively.
Things could have been very different had it not begun raining just before the race started, meaning a start on intermediates and even then it was the increasing intensity of the rain that really mixed things up with some cars getting the point to switch tyres just right, some leaving it a little too late, in the case of Jean Eric Vergne not changing from intermediates at all and in the case of Karthikeyan starting on wets meaning that when the race, already behind a safety car, was red flagged Vergne was 7th and Karthikeyan was 10th.
The start had gone well for the McLarens, both got away well with Button briefly challenging Hamilton into turn 1 but backing off at the right moment, fine judgement that would later seem lacking. Behind them Schumacher kept position and backed the Red Bulls up into following traffic giving the McLarens a little breathing space at turn 1 but Grosjean was already coming through and was soon in third with Schumacher dropping back, Webber passing Grosjean though then sent him back to the point where he caught Schumacher and both spun and lost a lot of places.
At the end of the first lap it was the McLarens from the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber ahead of Alonso, Perez had been 6th at the final corner but he went straight in for wet tyres despite only parts of the track being truly wet. As the next few laps passed more cars came in for wets, Grosjean didn’t and went off while his team waited in the pits for his arrival. The wet middle sector giving them an advantage and comparable times to those on intermediates over the course of a lap as the balance tipped though Button came in and instantly looked fast on the wets getting past Schumacher on intermediates. Hamilton came in the next lap and only just made it out in front of Button, the time lost by Button behind Schumacher probably making the difference; this was at the end of lap 5 and though things seemed to have worked well for the McLarens, waiting to pit, Perez seemed to have benefitted from pitting early getting up to third place once others had pitted.
The race was neutralised going into lap 7 when a safety car came out, though a red flag showed up as a race control message, perhaps due to a brief loss of power thanks to a lightning hit. On lap 9 the race was finally red flagged with cars aquaplaning even behind the safety car.
One thing you can say for Tilke is he is able to design a track that drains well and the track was ready to see a race restart behind the safety car while the rain had barely stopped and a total of around 40 minutes since the race was red flagged. For four laps the cars went round behind the safety car, helping clear a dry line and at the end of lap 13 things got under way again with Hamilton doing a good job of backing the pack up and bolting; already though it was clear that changes to inters might not be too far away and that picking your moment would be vital, especially for drivers driving toe to toe with their teammates.
Several cars, getting on for half the field, bolted for the pits straight away, around half the field in fact, Button and Rosberg were among those who pitted for intermediates straight away while Hamilton led followed by Perez, and then Webber and Alonso wheel to wheel with Alonso getting the better of Webber.
The field was now in two parts with Hamilton leading those yet to pit and Button the second group; next lap almost the whole of the rest of the field pitted but importantly not Perez or Karthikeyan. It was perhaps the better time to pit for Hamilton a lap after Button but Hamilton over shot his pit box and had a delayed stop, delayed further waiting for a slow moving Massa to pass in front to enter his pit box. This let not only Button come past in front of him but also saw Alonso leave the pits before Hamilton; had Ferrari planned that Massa would delay Hamilton to let Alonso get out first or was that luck?
While some of the cars out front had yet to pit the battle of the cars that would end up at the sharp end of the race once everything shook out looked to be Alonso followed by Button and Hamilton with it still being unclear where Perez and Vettel would slot in and whether they were now gaining or losing time by being on wets for a lap longer.
Kathikeyan was in 7th having not had a single pitstop before or after the red flag, Button was chasing Alonso and keen not to lose time this led to a collision that would be to all intents and purposes the end of Button’s race: watching him struggle from the back for the rest of the afternoon you almost wished he had been put out of the race and put out of his misery. It took an age to change Button’s front wing and this as well as putting him to the back the wait may have been what led to the cooling of his tyres that he then struggled to heat up again or it may have been getting stuck on his charge through the field behind Maldonado.
Perez had been leading prior to stopping for intermediates and he managed one of those rare things for someone used to running in the midfield a pitstop that only loses you one place: that place was to Alonso and he now sat in second ahead of Hamilton.
The race continued with cars on intermediates while the track dried with several messages about rain showers on the way, Senna and Kobayshi seemed to be on the move and Vettel passed Rosberg who started slipping back soon to be behind Raikonnen and Webber as well. Massa was another driver to fade and slip back from the bottom of the points having chosen to pit for new intermediates, he would later cause Button trouble getting past as Massa nearly drove Button off the track.
With the excitement of the first two sets of tyre stops the change to slicks was expected to be a major point in the race that could change everything again, but it didn’t, at least not for the top three. By lap 33 it was looking high time to change to slicks and with cars looking for moisture to cool their tyres it seemed odd someone didn’t try earlier but the weather forecasts predicted showers that never came, except a few drops in the last couple of laps. Ricciardo was the first to blink, struggling anyway he was watched carefully when he changed on to mediums on lap 38; Massa was used as a Guinea Pig by Ferrari a lap later and after that it became clear that the slicks were the tyres to be on and most changed by lap 41, though the choice of hards or mediums was mixed. Alonso pitted on lap 40 with Perez close behind him on track having closed him down over the last dozen laps, Perez left it a lap later and lost probably around five seconds.
The rest of the afternoon for the top three saw Perez drawing Alonso back in, getting within a second by lap 49 with potentially 8 chances before the race ended to use DRS, he only had tried once though when he made a mistake went wide and lost five seconds; still well ahead of Hamilton he started closing in on Alonso again before holding position to the end for a fantastic first podium and first second place for the Sauber team who, excluding their time as BMW, had only managed third places or lower before, despite having managed third place no less than 6 times.
Hamilton could have been unhappy with only third but it put him second in the championship, behind Alonso who had finished fifth in Australia. The top two going into the Malaysian Grand Prix Button and Vettel were unable to score points. Vettel had looked good for fourth place before following Button in colliding with Karthikeyan. Vettel it is good to see is human and does make mistakes still; he didn’t leave Karthikeyan enough room to stay on the dry part of the track, moving across a few feet too early.
While Button after the race seemed forthright and accepted his mistake causing a collision, Vettel seemed to verge on abusive when giving his thoughts on the HRT driver: perhaps showing the strain being in a less competitive car is putting on Sebastian while Button seems to have continued his strong yet easy going mindset from 2011: although his collision was a rare error, that had conditions not been difficult people might have seen as desperation.
Drivers well worth a mention for their Sunday afternoon performances, other than Alonso and Perez, include Senna who did a great job and looked very racey, at last showing why he got himself noticed in GP2 what seems like a long time ago now, and for those that missed it it wasn’t just his name. Mark Webber had a reasonable afternoon as well looking the equal to Sebastian Vettel most of the afternoon and avoiding any mistakes. Then there is Kobayshi, often worthy of a mention, having started the race 17th and worked his way up to 10th before retiring due to brake problems.
Raikonnen and Di Resta also looked solid in the middle of the points positions keeping consistent pace to pick up a few places. Jean-Eric Vergne managed his first points in F1, having narrowly missed out the week before in Australia; the strategy presumably handed to him helped but he made it work including staying out on Intemediates while experienced drivers such as Vettel went off track on full wets. Later in the race Vergne kept a good pace while surrounded by what should have been faster cars to finish 8th.
This 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix has made the championship more interesting than it could have been if McLaren had got a one two, which they were probably fast enough to do had everything gone to plan. In China McLaren may dominate again and start to pull away as many have expected them too but it could be they have missed a chance and that several teams will have updates for China and their advantage will be gone.
The Australian Grand Prix 2012 is proving one of the toughest races to pick out a star from, Button of course and also Perez and Alonso had great races and for many other drivers including Vettel, Di Resta, both Toro Rossos and Kobayashi there were lots of positives to take. There were also positives for Williams with the car looking fast in the hands of Maldonado, Maldonado was sadly also still accident prone and failed to bring the car home; Pastor Maldonado crashed out on the final lap though he was lucky to survive in the race when he took Grosjean out early on.
Mclaren will probably be the happiest team following the race having shown they have pace both in qualifying and the race, Mercedes and Red Bull seem to have better qualifying and race pace respectively.
More on those drivers who can be considered to have had great races though and first Button. Button has been described as dominating the race and this is probably fair, he certainly didn’t make a single mistake right through and even with the safety car and restart looked untroubled and had the speed to break the DRS gap before DRS was turned on again: as he had crcucially done at the start. The fact that he was so much faster and consistently faster than Lewis Hamilton, who had no real problems we know of, really shows how well he was going on Sunday. Button briefly seemed to struggle with his tyres during his seconds stint on mediums but that didn’t hold him back for long and he seemed to drive around a problem that in previous years would have ruined his race.
Lewis Hamilton of course got a bad start which helped Button, it might have been a different story otherwise, and Hamilton was disadvantaged at both pit stops, the second though being purely down to bad luck as the Mclaren team strived to give him a pitstop on the same lap as Button which should have helped, except then the safety car came out at the perfect time for SebastianVettel.
Vettel had a good race considering where he started and he got a chance to show he can race, and without the kind of incidents that we saw in 2010 when he was last in positions fighting from a more lowly position.
Fernando Alonso’s drive was perhaps most impressive though and he totally dominated teammate Felipe Massa all weekend. You could visibly see on TV just how difficult the Ferrari was to drive and Alonso undoubtably out performed it. Massa by contrast at times seemed to not care and perhaps actually underperformed the Ferrari: this shows the different mental states of the two drivers. At this point one has to ask whether Massa wants to be at Ferrari anymore or in F1 at all anymore and if Ferrari want him? He has a contract until the end of the year but both parties could agree to end it early: Fissichella would seem a better option in the seat to see out the year.
Sauber have two potential future Ferrari drivers; Sauber putting Perez on to a 1 stop strategy would have been a very easy choice given his performance on the same strategy in 2011 and that he was starting from the back of the grid: making it work would have been harder and Perez’s performance was much more impressive even than in 2011 as he kept pace very well and got up to 8th at the end of the race from the back of the grid. Kamui Kobayashi also had a good race showing us again just how well he can place his car on the track whether he is defending or attacking, a strong looking Sauber of course put him in the position to be fighting for points places but he certainly made the most of it and was the most exciting driver to watch almost race long.
Mercedes may be disappointed with the Australian Grand Prix their pace seemed to drop off having been poor compared to where many of us thought they would be beforehand. With Schumacher dropping out early on we had to base their performance on Nico Rosberg who seemed to race well but simply not have the pace, they may find themselves battling againist Lotus, Ferrari and perhaps Sauber and Williams more often this season than the Red bulls and Mclarens, we will get a better idea after Malaysia perhaps though.
There is indeed a lot that we don’t yet know and that includes how fast the Lotus cars really are when driving from the higher positions we have seen they can qualify in. Grosjean was unlucky but Raikonnen looked good coming through from the back for some reasonable points.
Force India will be disappointed that their pace doesn’t seem to be where many thought it was from testing, though maybe they already knew; Di Resta was arguably lucky to jump up several places on the last lap to get a point. The Toro Rossos looked solid and the drivers well matched and they will probably be fighting with Force India for the minor points all season, though both teams may fail to score in races with less retirements.
Caterham are a team who will need a good few retirements to get points, it isn’t obvious but they have, I feel, made a big step forwards and Marussia have too. Caterham are where Williams were last season I’d say, unfortunately everyone else has moved up and closer to the top teams. Expect Caterham to finish on the lead lap often though and be in positions to jump drivers who have problems that slow them down or force extra stops as well as those that retire.
Marussia maybe are where Caterham were last year and look reliable. HRT haven’t moved anywhere yet, except maybe backwards, though at China we are being promised that their problems will be overcome, it could be they have a reasonable car that is yet to shine and with working KERS could even trouble the Marussia who are the only car without KERS in 2012.