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F1: US Grand Prix - promised much, delivered more

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Before the US Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, there was much criticism of the track: overtaking would be difficult, the tyres chosen by Pirelli were wrong, the tight corners into long straights would lead to bunching and then a train down the straight, and so on. They were wrong.

There were several layers of interest in the inaugural (of the current age) US Grand Prix: first, the track was laid only two months ago and had seen no proper racing so it was, in racing terms "green." It has very low abrasion tarmac, leading to an expectation of low grip but also low tyre wear. It's in a dusty environment so that off-line it would be especially slippery. The temperatures would be low meaning less grip. One commentator, prior to the race, said he expected there to be little overtaking during racing and that places were more likely to be gained as a result of drivers making an error.

There was truth in the comments about a green track, the choice of tyres and the non-abrasive surface. In qualifying, instead of drivers fitting new tyres, doing one warm and one flying lap after which their tyres are wrecked, in Austin the fastest qualifying runs were, depending on the driver and his style, 5, 6 even 8 laps in. Drivers did find it dusty off-line (in the race, the inside after a hairpin showed a clear layer of dust) but it was not as bad as expected. And the combination of smooth tarmac and harder tyres meant that, for the first time this season, there was not a deep build-up of marbles - shredded and shed pieces of tyre - that have resulted in most corners having, by half-way through the race - a single line.

Far from preventing overtaking, then, these two factors increased the opportunities for overtaking: cars were able to choose from several different lines though a number of the corners, meaning that overtaking manoeuvres could be set up one or two corners before they were executed. It also meant that drivers could take a line of cutting in and drifting wide or entering wide and cutting in, leading to endless games of cat and mouse as defending drivers tried to work out which line the car behind them would take.

American fans - 80 odd thousand of them plus another 40,000 that had crossed the border from Mexico some 300 kilometres away - saw something they never see in their own versions of racing - and something that has become, unfortunately, rare in F1 - a flag to flag race with no safety cars interventions. Indeed, that is one of the features of the track we drew attention to when we looked at the track, as finished, in October (see story ).

Qualifying determined the race strategy: everyone except Michael Schumacher was on a one-stop run. The reason was simple: usually, new tyres mean an instant advantage. At COTA, they would mean a disadvantage of approaching ten seconds - and a huge handling disadvantage that would make newly-shod cars vulnerable to attack in addition to the time loss.

The cars that are lightest on their tyres had the most problems building up the necessary temperature: the Saubers, which have had good results this year based on their ability to run their tyres longer found that, with everyone in a similar position, their usual advantage was negated.

The circuit that was a mud-bath earlier this season, that very nearly never got built, that is far away from the main centres of population in the USA, that held the first F1 for five years on the day that NASCAR would hold its season decider only a few hours drive away, that was criticised in the minutes before the red lights went out as failing to provide did something that few circuits can do: it delivered side-by-side racing, slipstreaming overtaking, late-braking passes into corners and a series of cat-and-mouse battles from the leaders to the tail of the field. it took away much of the strategy that dogs races that, all too often, seem to be won from the pit wall.

In short, COTA promised a Grand Prix. It gave us a race.

And that, for all the spectacle, the fun of the cowboy hats instead of the ubiquitous baseball caps, the Texas hospitality, is the reason F1 exists.

Jenson Button, in his post-race interview, said of the "enthusiastic" American fans "I really hope the US will now embrace Formula One at last.”

They'd be mad not to.