RACER Editor David Malsher presents an overview of this weekend's inaugural United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin.
There's nothing to suggest that Red Bull Racing won't arrive in the U.S. as favorites to conquer the Circuit of The Americas, with seven wins and seven poles under its belt in the first 18 rounds of the season. An RB8 has started and finished first at tracks as diverse as Monaco and Suzuka, and there aren't many layouts where you'd say they struggled. Not since Melbourne, at least.
The fact is, if you have Sebastian Vettel in your No. 1 car, you have one of the prime compensators, the guy who can make up for deficiencies and exploit any strengths. In qualifying, he'll find the fastest way around, whatever a car's handling traits; on race day, he'll find the best route for going quick and nursing the tires. Some rivals and fans will be hoping the reigning double champion will back off a fraction and do just enough to beat championship rival Fernando Alonso, over whom he has a 10-point margin. But past experience has shown that Seb's method for staying out of trouble is to lead from green lights to checkered flag.
Mark Webber had something of a revival in the first two thirds of the season, and he has outqualified Vettel on eight occasions. But the car has become more like it was in 2011, with so much rear downforce from the exhaust effect that getting on the throttle kills its oversteer – almost like the Brabham BT46 fan car of 1978! That suits Vettel, but feels unnatural to Webber, whose poor race day fortunes also meant he rapidly fell out of title contention after his second win of the season, at Silverstone, had taken him within 13 points of championship leader Alonso. But Webber is a heck of a fighter, and still extremely quick. If he can capitalize on his qualifying positions by getting his starts right, he's a good bet for victory this weekend. And you can be sure he'll be as anxious not to have to help Vettel as Seb will be eager to not be perceived as relying on Mark's help.
It's been a very strange year for McLaren. For once, the Martin Whitmarsh-run team started off the season with the fastest car, but there have been a couple of weekends where the MP4-27s were only just scraping into the top 10 on race day and others where unreliability has proven their undoing. Lewis Hamilton had two wins – 50 points – go missing, following DNFs while leading in both Singapore and Abu Dhabi. And then bad luck at Hockenheim (puncture on debris) and Spa (hit by Romain Grosjean) cost him top fives, at least. These non-scores have been a gut punch to his championship aspirations. That being the case, the few days when he's been flat outperformed by teammate Jenson Button aren't a crucial reason why he's slipped down the points table.
Meanwhile, Button has been occasionally brilliant – his Melbourne and Spa victories were dominant, and his run to second in China was convincing, too – but there are still too many days when he goes missing, Webber-style, where he's not quite on his teammate's pace. Perhaps more worrying is that, while JB can explain the symptoms whenever he's been struggling with the MP4-27, there's yet to be a breakthrough in diagnosing the cause. And that's what's needed to get him back to the potential title-winning level that we saw from him in 2011.
McLaren, third in the Constructors Championship – 22 points behind Ferrari, 30 points ahead of Lotus – probably aren't in the go-for-broke mentality just yet. But Button (sixth in the drivers' championship) and Hamilton (fifth, and leaving McLaren to join Mercedes next year) probably are, so it will be interesting to see if the MP4-27's pace – and use of tires – enable the drivers to exploit this apparent freedom. If so, the championship contenders should beware of silver-chrome bullets.
Fernando Alonso is considered by many to be the most complete driver in Formula 1, and his fingernail grip on the championship lead was only recently torn away by Vettel virtuosity – and by his own collision with Kimi Raikkonen at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix. He and the fans can argue the whys and wherefores of who was to blame for that collision – and Raikkonen, rather than Alonso, has gotten the sympathy vote from the majority of objective F1 watchers – but it's already looking extremely expensive in terms of points. Between that and the Turn 1 fracas in Belgium, in which Alonso was 100 percent innocent, things haven't looked too bright for the 2005 and '06 champion. He's scored three wins this year and eight other podium finishes, but his Ferrari F2012 is no match for the RB8 other than in being able to “turn on” its tires to get them up to working temperature in the event of cool or damp conditions. Still, the scarlet cars have come a long way. They started the season mid-grid, yet the Italian team made between-race progress in the manner of McLaren in previous seasons.
While the Alonso/Ferrari combination is sure to be among the front-runners at Austin, it's unlikely that – barring rain, which isn't looking likely – it will be sitting on the front row, nor will it be the outright fastest on race day. But Alonso, and superior team tactics, can always flatter an under-performing car. Plus, he has little left to lose – those who expect him to beat Vettel to his third crown are definitely in the minority, so it's time to take (controlled) chances.
Felipe Massa's tepid performances through the first half of the season and variable form in recent races makes him a huge question mark. At his best, he can get on the podium, but it's hard to imagine he can be much use to Alonso by, for example, keeping Vettel behind him.