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.
Roll up and see the penultimate Formula 1 race of a seven-time World Champion's career. Right now, there's not a lot of hope that he can win it, but you can be sure he'll be trying. It's just that the game has moved on since his days of greatness.
Since his return to the sport in 2010, Michael Schumacher has not been the driver of old, the man who bruised or cruised his way to 91 grand prix wins; but his efforts to get back on the pedestal he made for himself have been unstinting and, at the age of 43 and with tens of millions of reasons to not care, that's an awesome effort. In half the races this year, he's started ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg, who is by no means a pushover, and Michael even qualified fastest at Monaco.
However, there are many races and qualifying sessions in which he's outperformed by drivers who are 91 wins shy of his victory total, and while that's often been due to the recalcitrance of the W03, sometimes it's been down to the driver. Which is why, very sensibly, he's quitting the sport for a second time.
Rosberg took one of the most dominant wins (and poles) of the year in China but, since then, it's been rare to see him mix it with the Red Bull/McLaren/Alonso battles. Again it's worth pointing the finger of blame less at the driver than the car. The jury's still out on whether Rosberg has the talent to transcend his car's abilities, but it must be said that he's done a better job of that over the last three years than his more illustrious teammate. A top-five finish at Circuit of The Americas would be reasonable; a podium finish would be startling.
Here's a team that's in the F1 news every race, sometimes for the right reasons – a podium finish or, most recently, a victory – and sometimes because one of the drivers has been involved in a high-profile accident. Whichever it is, Lotus is getting noticed again and after a near-anonymous 2011, in which Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov scored just two podium finishes between them, you'd have to say the Eric Boullier-led team has therefore given a good return to its investors.
Kimi Raikkonen's return stole the headlines initially and while the quarter-second edge of pace that made him so formidable at McLaren and Ferrari has apparently disappeared during his two seasons in rallying (either that or teammate Romain Grosjean is the next Rene Arnoux), the 2007 World Champion's race pace remains as intact as his tires at the end of a race. He also makes very few errors and has blown the rust off his wheel-to-wheel combat abilities while also remaining scrupulously fair. Just twice this year has Kimi finished outside the top eight and six times he was on the podium before winning the last race in Abu Dhabi. He's a relatively comfortable third in the championship, and thoroughly deserving of it.
Grosjean, who has outqualified Raikkonen eight times, has had a torrid season, as his ninth place in the points table reveals. Six times he's retired and one race he missed because he was banned for triggering the accident at La Source on the opening lap of the Belgian GP. Yes, there have been times when Grosjean has shown poor judgment while around other cars, but there are also days when it seems any other drivers' stupid maneuvers were going to happen in front of – or involve – the No. 10 Lotus. For there to have been any question mark over his place in F1 was simply ridiculous: the man has great talent, and he's likely to show it again this weekend in Texas.
Back in the March 2012 issue of RACER, one of our F1 writers, Mark Hughes, wrote this about the Force India driver lineup of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta: “The problem both sophomores may have in forcing themselves into [the] rarefied part of the driver market is the performance of the other. The career momentum of an aspiring ‘mega-talent' hinges on the perception that he destroys his teammates. It just might be that di Resta and Hulkenberg are too good for one to dominate the other….”
A particularly astute observation. The German edges the Scot slightly in both qualifying (10-8) and points (49-46) but each has a best result of fourth and it has been nip and tuck on any given weekend who will prevail. They have deeply contrasting styles, much like McLaren's drivers. Di Resta, Dario Franchitti's cousin, has a smooth, early, high-momentum corner entry, whereas Hulkenberg has a Hamilton-like preference for quick directional changes. It's actually a real pity, not least for the team, that this pair is getting split by Nico's switch to Sauber for 2013 (presumably on the fast-track to replace Massa at Ferrari in 2014), because this intra-team battle has been one of the best this year, and should again be close this weekend. A top-eight finish for either or both is probably as much as we should expect, though.
The Saubers have been startlingly good at times this year, belying the fact that they have a middle-ranking budget and two relatively inexperienced drivers. Both Sergio Perez, who will be moving to McLaren next year, and Kamui Kobayashi, whose F1 future at time of writing is looking uncertain, are clearly good, but have not yet had a chance to prove themselves alongside one of the established F1 aces. Presumably, should Perez prove the equal of – or better than – Button at McLaren, people are going to be kicking themselves over not grabbing Kobayashi….
But that's for the future. Perez – who COTA hopes will draw a number of fans to its race from across the border in his native Mexico – proved to be one of the kindest drivers on Pirelli's softer compounds last year, frequently saving a bunch of time by needing one fewer pit stop than his rivals. This year, with more drivers learning the techniques required to coax the best time/longevity equation from the Italian rubber, there has been less latitude for strategy variations, and Perez has consequently turned on the pace and style a little more, resulting in three podium finishes. Having said that, he's started making one or two crucial errors – coincidentally (or not) after being declared a McLaren driver for 2013.
Kobayashi actually has a slight edge over Perez in qualifying record. Special KK's third place at Suzuka – ahead of the McLarens – was well deserved and the podium scene afterward as he acknowledged the jubilant Japanese fans is one of the great memories of the F1 season. But the composure he displayed that day, under severe pressure from Button, is something he'll have to show more of in order to oil the cogs of contract negotiations for next year. We wouldn't expect to see another podium for a Sauber driver, but the pair of them should be ahead of the Force India cars, contending for a top-10 grid slot and a top-eight race finish.
Toro Rosso's reputation of grooming potential aces for Red Bull Racing had taken a knock in recent years, with only Sebastian Vettel looking like the real deal. But though the Ferrari-powered STR7 is some way off the pace of the Adrian Newey-designed, Renault-powered RB8, it has at least proven a solid platform for Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, the 2010 and '09 British Formula 3 champions, respectively. There was much criticism of “the Red Bull system” in the last off-season, when Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were let go after three seasons at Toro Rosso. Now, however, many have come to feel that the right move was made.
Ricciardo has been the driver that Toro Rosso has looked to for outright speed, outpacing his teammate 15-3 in qualifying, but they have been more evenly matched in the races and the Frenchman is currently 12-10 ahead in championship points. Having said that, Ricciardo's 10th place in Abu Dhabi gave him his fifth helping of points in the past seven races.
The Toro Rosso pair sandwiched the Mercedes of Schumacher there, and there have been similar performances in races throughout the season. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, that means playing on the fringes of the points-scoring positions. If both STRs make it into the top 10 this weekend, as they have in two other races this year, that will be like a victory to them.
If Grosjean had a rival for the “Wildman Crash-Magnet” award this year, it was Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan got himself quite a reputation for rubbing other drivers the wrong way by nudging them off the circuit, taking excessive chances and making some unforced errors. But as usual, not everything he was blamed for was his fault and, like Grosjean, he was always likely to be forgiven because his pace is so strong. That won't work forever, of course, but for a sophomore with his first chance in a sporadically fast car, his incident tally stopped just short of being excessive.
And in the middle of a season in which his pace has often promised more than his race craft could deliver, Maldonado drove to an excellent victory in Spain, scoring the first win for Sir Frank Williams' team since the 2004 season finale. It was no fluke, either; a fantastic qualifying run saw him start from pole and a well-judged tire-nursing race pace kept him out of reach of local hero Alonso. Going by Mario Andretti's old adage that “you can tidy up speed but you can't speed up tidiness,” the 2010 GP2 champion should have a bright future and it has started already.
Maldonado's rise to prominence has totally shaded Bruno Senna, and the last hopes of Ayrton's nephew becoming a grand prix star must surely now have flickered out. Just twice this year has the Brazilian outqualified his teammate and sometimes the gap between them has been a chasm by F1 standards. Senna has finished races ahead of Maldonado a few times this year, but it's usually been achieved by staying out of trouble rather than through superior speed. With hugely talented test driver Valtteri Bottas waiting in the wings, Williams has a clear choice for 2013.
Williams itself has blown hot and cold all year (which is a vast improvement over the years in which it varied between cold and freezing). Should Austin suit the FW34, Maldonado could be on the podium.
Like Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine in the 1990s, and Giancarlo Fisichella and Nick Heidfeld in this century, Heikki Kovalainen is one of those drivers who has gained far more kudos for pushing a mediocre car into prominent positions than he achieved while driving for a top team. There are reasons for this, of course, and the harsh might say it's because all of them lacked the steely edge necessary at the top of F1. Others might point out that, in Kovalainen's case, he just needed the role of team leader thrust upon him to give of his best.
Whatever the truth, the Finn has done a great job for Caterham – he outperformed the mercurial Jarno Trulli over the previous two seasons, and this year he has outclassed Vitaly Petrov. The sad thing is that few truly appreciate it, as Caterham seems stuck in the middle of nowhere – not on the level of Toro Rosso, but usually ahead of Marussia and HRT. Force India could do a lot worse than hire Kovalainen to replace Hulkenberg.
Petrov appears to have reached his natural plateau and his spectacular style is great to watch, less great against the stopwatch in qualifying, although his race pace is often close to his teammate's. Nonetheless, it's a pity we won't get to see America's Alexander Rossi at least perform on the Friday morning in Austin.
A Formula 1 team that was sold even before it made its debut in 2010, HRT has been stuck at the back of the F1 grid ever since. Slowly, it has inched up on F1's other relative newcomers, Marussia and Caterham, and this probably has much to do with employing native son Pedro de la Rosa. The Spanish veteran was respected as one of the finest test drivers in F1 over the past decade, and he also still has a decent turn of speed – enough to keep him ahead of talented Indian teammate Narain Karthikeyan, who never got the right breaks when he was in his prime. Still, it is Karthikeyan who has scored the team's best finish, a 15th place at Monaco. Anything better than that this weekend, from either driver, is highly unlikely.
In Timo Glock and Charles Pic, Marussia has a very respectable driver lineup. Glock's aggressive style and pace in low-speed corners has long served him well, while Pic has outqualified the German on six occasions this year – very respectable for a rookie. Given that it's his first year, it should be no surprise that he's also been less consistent than his teammate.
Like Caterham and HRT, Marussia have not scored points this year and these three teams are locked in a battle for 10th in the constructors' championship; whoever prevails gets its travel paid for by Formula 1 in 2013, and on a 20-race calendar that spans the globe, that's a bonus well worth fighting for! Right now, Marussia holds the coveted 10th spot, courtesy of Glock's 12th-place finish in Singapore. Should a Caterham finish 12th this weekend, or an HRT 11th, that would hand the initiative to them. So expect to see some vigorous driving among the backmarkers both here and in the season finale in Brazil next week.
• CLICK HERE: F1 teams and drivers offer their thought on the Circuit of The Americas.