Notes from the Circuit of the Americas
General overview: Full marks to Ferrari for exploiting the five-place grid penalty for a “gearbox change” on Felipe Massa’s car. Felipe has been widely criticized all year for the lack of “support pace” he has displayed in the second Ferrari but in my view he is, and always has been, the perfect counterpoint to Fernando. He’s fast enough to be helpful but compliant enough, and low-key enough, not to be any sort of threat to Fernando – or even an “annoyance”. Jenson Button has not been that at McLaren (an “annoyance” factor, that is) but there’s no doubt that he has “taken” points from Lewis this year – and vice versa. Ditto the situation at Red Bull – Seb Vettel and Mark Webber. At no race has Massa ever compromised Alonso’s ability to reap the maximum available points of the day. You could argue, of course, that part of playing a team role is to take points from the opposition – and that is true. When you have a driver like Alonso, however – or Lewis Hamilton – you always have to assume that they will be your main championship contenders. To “take points” from the opposition in the case of Massa or Hamilton in reality means beating the Red Bulls. And that is a task best left to the Number Ones.
Never, though, have we seen a team move its number two driver back five places in order to maximize the chances of its number one. Of course, it should be remembered that this was only the second time in 2012 that Massa has actually out-qualified Alonso (and on this occasion Felipe’s pace was thanks mainly to the disappointing updates on Fernando’s car) – and that Ferrari are the only top team to operate a genuine “Number One-Number Two” driver pairing.
Nonetheless, Felipe played the perfect team game in Austin – and totally justified his position as Fernando’s wing man. By contrast, one can only imagine the dramas if Ferrari had been running, say, Sergio Perez, Paul di Resta or Nico Hulkenberg in the other car (drivers that the media in general have been touting all year as suitable Massa replacements). Their palpable irritation would have been leaked to their national media, even as they displayed a brave face in Austin. And so the distractions would have begun…
Ferrari received plenty of post-race criticism from the international press, all of which was based on the argument that racing should be “fair and equal”; that teams should respect “the spirit of the regulations”; and that no driver’s chances should be compromised by team orders. As I see it, there is no difference between Felipe slowing in the closing laps in order to give track position to Fernando – a difficult thing to orchestrate pre-race, because you never know where the opposition is going to be lying – or ceding five positions on the grid. Actually, the latter decision was definitely the right call for the simple reason that Fernando’s new grid position (a) moved him further from the potential mid-field first-corner skirmish and (b) swapped him to the clean side and to the outside. I joked with Fernando after qualifying that he was again going to have to execute one of his demon round-the-outside maneuvers at the first corner – he laughed back in agreement – and so it proved. He out-accelerated Nico Hulkenberg and Kimi Raikkonen via the intermediate gears and used the outside line to pass none other than Michael Schumacher on the exit of Turn One.
Fernando loves using the outside of the first corner in any race on which he doesn’t happen to be on the front row – but such a move can be dangerous, of course. Had Ferrari not exercised their “gearbox option” with Massa, Fernando would have had a difficult time moving from the inside file, for the wide entry to Turn One in Austin invited three-abreast – and in some cases four-abreast – approaches. And there was a skirmish: Kimi Raikkonen was tapped by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India in Turn Two and Pastor Maldonado ran to the outside run-off area in avoidance. Fernando, from P8, could have been in the middle of all that.
One question of intrigue, I think, will be whether we see more grid-shuffling of the type we saw in Austin. If Mark Webber qualifies on the pole in Brazil, for example, and Vettel is, say, fourth, would Red Bull take a gearbox five-penalty hit on Webber and move their title contender onto the clean side of the road and a little further to the front? That’s a difficult one, because Webber is quick enough, of course, to be able to beat Alonso…
Braking for Turn 1: The steep upwards incline of the track at this point enabled the quick guys to brake amazingly late into Turn 1. In general, I try to stand at the point of the latest braker for corners like this but in qualifying, as the hour progressed, I was obliged to move nearer the apex virtually by the minute (as the track picked up grip and the fast drivers switched to options Pirellis). By the end, Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado all seemed to be braking at about 75metres (from seventh gear down to second). Impressive stuff.
It was also interesting to listen to the downshift sequences of the different drivers. Grosjean and Bruno Senna, for example, flick down through the gears as quickly as possible – 6,5,4,3,2. There is barely a pause between each gear selection. The pause, when it comes, is between the selection of second and the first application of mid-corner power. Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, by comparison, consistently paused after selecting fourth – as in 6,5,4…pause…3,2. At first I thought I was imagining the difference but the sequences were repeated, lap after lap. I think this is because the latter group “save” the selection of third and then second for the moment when they are about to impart the first steering load into the car: the simultaneous downshift gives them more control of the rear when the need it most. From the outside, the pause also seems to add to the time available – a bit like the pause at the top of a golfer’s backswing gives the impression of there being all the time in the world in which to hit the ball.
So there is still an art in clutchless, paddle-downshifting, even if it doesn’t re-ignite the glorious days of heel-and-toeing! (I can only imagine the perfection of drivers like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Michele Alboreto, Carlos Reutemann and other artists on this section of road: the shame is that we no longer get to hear the foot-hand co-ordination of drivers like Seb Vettel, Fernando and Lewis.) It seems strange to me that Jenson Button’s downshift pattern resembles that of Romain Grosjean (albeit slightly less rushed) when Lewis, quite audibly, is doing something very different. I doubt that telemetry is accurate enough to be able to identify these “pauses” – we’re talking milliseconds here – but I may be wrong.
“Becketts”: Turns Four, Five and Six – all the turns were marked by vertical marker posts – resemble Becketts at Silverstone. Most drivers to whom I spoke said Becketts is in reality a tad slower, although the greater run-off area in Austin – the moonscape – gave a different impression from the outside. Felipe Massa was absolutely brilliant through this section in qualifying, taking the first left-hander, and the next left, flat in seventh and then downshifting to sixth precisely as he clipped the apex kerb there with his left front. The thought: “Can the Ferrari take the load on the right-front??” flashed through your mind as he flicked the car one way and then the other and then it was down another gear for the tighter right-hander. Maldonado and Grosjean downshifted twice where Felipe was going from seventh only to sixth – which may explain why Romain was a bit non-plussed when I talked to him about this piece of road after qualifying: “Yes, it’s quite fun,” he said, but the next section is much more demanding…” I was a bit confused, at first, because “the next section” on my circuit map was actually a nice piece of undulating road killed by some pretty slow corners. Sure, the entries are blind, but we’re not talking 185 mph here… Nonetheless, it was to this that Romain was referring: “It’s really difficult. Blind entries, difficult approaches. You have to get it just right…”
Lewis was on a different plane, I think. When I chatted to him on Saturday afternoon about Turns Four, Five and Six his eyes just lit up and almost did the talking for him: “What a section of road! Really quick! Awesome!”
The Pirelli compounds: In general, it looked as though the drivers who “energize” the tyres fared much better in qualifying than the drivers who “nurse” them. Jenson is never going to be more than a few degrees out of line, regardless of the circumstances – and nor is Nico Rosberg. Lewis and Michael, by contrast, thrive on “bending the sidewalls”. No-one can blame Pirelli for bringing such conservative compounds to a new race – and the proof of their quality came with Lewis Hamilton’s race pace on Sunday. If ever a car has been sensitive to tyre temperature windows this year it has been the McLaren; and yet on both the medium and the hard it was a gem of a car – a Red Bull match with greater top speed. That’s the sort of pace that Lewis has shown at circuits like Singapore and Abu Dhabi and so it was only just that he was finally able to win again.
Overtaking, etc: I was astonished by the number of drivers who predicted on Saturday afternoon that “overtaking” was going to be difficult in the race. I guess such predictions have become “security blankets” for drivers who fear the worst but you didn’t have to be an F1 mastermind to see that the Circuit of the Americas was going to present no problems at all. The wider entries to such corners as Turns One and Eleven did exactly what they were designed to do – ie, promote overtaking – even if they did look a bit odd when you walked the track on a Thursday. Circuit designers used to pride themselves on having exactly the same track width for the entire lap, regardless of the topography: COTA has changed all that – although I think that the entry to Turn Eleven (the hairpin at the back) is very similar to that at Magny Cours (in reverse). The shame is that the three-apex corner near the end of the COTA lap had such a slow entry speed. Such a design works in Turkey because of its entry speed; in Austin it was more of an accelerative, TV corner than it was a dramatic one. Having said that, qualifying brought a new slant: who could hit the DRS switch sooner at this point of the lap? My post-qualifying poll was not sufficiently all-embracing to be definitive but said Grosjean, and the two RBR drivers, did seem to be flattening the rear wing about mid-corner. (This sort of bravery will not be possible in 2013, when DRS useage on Fridays and Saturdays will be limited only to the DRS Sunday zone.)
The garages: There was not as much room as normal in the Austin garages – which to some extend is a surprise, given that the detail design and architecture was carried out by Hermann Tilke. The problem was the available flat land between the last corner and the incline on the straight: add the US-spec fire evacuation steps not required on the other circuits and you have a problem. As Hermann tells it, Pirelli were originally not going to be operating from pit lane garages. When that was changed, each team had to switch from three garages to two-and-a-half. “In reality,” he said, the garages are about 15cm narrower than normal, given all of that.” What I didn’t understand was why the garages were not built to a larger depth. There was plenty of room in front of the garages for a few metres of additional garage space, and a covered walkway at the back of the garages could in reality have been the back wall of the garages, offering two or three metres more space. (Judging by the number of times we’d see a Jenson or a Felipe sprinting from luxury portaloos, there also seemed to be fewer bathrooms than normal in the new complex.)
The beauty of imperfection: I’m sure some of the F1 establishment will be complaining even as I write but, for me, one of the great things about Austin was its imperfection. It’s a bit like India in that respect. Dodgy power supplies and drainage issues are part of the scenery, the atmosphere, in India: and if you’re going to create a US GP around a brand new facility why not capture some of the charm, say, of Watkins Glen, and have the F1 high-rollers grouping in temporary buildings behind the garage area? The Austin circuit was built for the bargain-basement price of $300m (compared with the $1.2bn spent on Abu Dhabi) and that meant fewer luxuries and more essentials – an ethos perfectly in tune with these economic times. And still they didn’t skimp on the real necessities – by which I mean the design of typeface for the building titles; the use of local limestone on some of the paddock structures; decent, free, wifi; and the track itself, of course.