US Grand Prix Preview

Ahead of the US Grand Prix, Sudha Sundararaj takes a look at the venue for the 17th race of the 2017 Formula 1 Season.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.

This weekend  Formula 1 returns to North America with the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. The 17th round of the 2017 season will be held at this race track which is by far the most interesting track among all the new venues on the F1 calendar. This is the sixth running of the race at COTA after F1 returned to the USA in 2012 after a prolonged gap. With Mexico also returning to the calendar in 2015, we now have the three races held in close proximity in the USA, Mexico and Brazil as F1 swings through the Americas, before culminating in the final race in Abu Dhabi.

US Grand Prix Preview

The History

Austin is the tenth venue for an F1 race in the USA after Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Long Beach, Phoenix, Riverside, Sebring and Watkins Glen. The US Grand Prix races have been mostly held at oval tracks or street circuits. Watkins Glen in New York was the most popular home of the Unites States GP. It was a purpose-built track that hosted a round of the world championship for almost twenty years.

Despite the long history of the sport in the US, F1 races could not penetrate the American market and stand up to the competition of the indigenous high profile racing series like NASCAR and IndyCar. The lucrative American market had proved difficult for F1 to capture. The race at COTA in Austin, a university-city and capital of Texas, has attracted large crowds. This brand new attempt by F1 to set roots in the United States appears to have finally succeeded.

The Austin GP was first promoted by the Austin native Carl Tavo Hellmund. He is a former American racing driver who drove in the lower formulas in Britain. After financial problems and many disputes, Hellmund exited the project. The initial track design was conceived by him and was later developed under the supervision of Hermann Tilke. The US Grand Prix returned to the calendar in 2012, after it was last held at Indianapolis in 2007.

The Teams and Drivers

The Ferrari team sits atop the leader board with nine wins at this Grand Prix. Arch-rival McLaren has eight wins, along with the great Lotus team of yesteryear. Mercedes has won all three races in the hybrid era (2014-2016).

Michael Schumacher has the most wins at the US GP with five victories.  Lewis Hamilton joined him with five wins with his win last year (2007, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016). The inaugural race at COTA was won by Lewis Hamilton who incidentally won the last Grand Prix before that at Indianapolis in 2007. Jim Clark and Graham Hill have three wins each. Sebastian Vettel is the only other driver on the current grid to have won this GP (2013).

The Circuit

The race will be held over 56 laps with a total distance of 308.405 kilometers. The track appears to feature elements similar to the Becketts complex of Silverstone, Istanbul Park in Turkey and the Yeongam circuit in Korea. The anti-clockwise 5.513 kilometer COTA track has 20 turns (11 left-handers, 9 right-handers) and an elevation change of 41 meters. The circuit is a highly technical one and has an average speed of 197 km/h. The circuit has tight high to slow speed corners which demands a medium to high downforce setup. The cars are on full throttle 58% of the time and the fuel consumption is medium. The brake-wear is low, with medium loads placed on engines.

Sectors, Corners, and DRS Zones

Sector 1 (Turn 1 to Turn 6) has a series of high speed corners like the Maggots-Becketts sequence at Silverstone. Turn 1 is being talked about as a potentially iconic corner like the Eau Rouge corner at Spa. The track rises sharply, climbing nearly 41 meters between the start/finish line and Turn 1 before a blind apex. The Esses that follow between Turn 3 to Turn 5 offer overtaking opportunities at Turn 6.

Sector 2 (Turn 7 to Turn 12) features a long straight between Turn 11 and Turn 12 with hairpins at either end.

Sector 3 (Turn 13 to Turn 20) has a triple apex stretch between turns 16-18, which is similar to Istanbul Park’s famous turn 8.

There are two DRS zones this year.  The first DRS detection point will be after Turn 10, with the first DRS activation point after Turn 11. The second DRS detection point will be after Turn 18, with the second DRS activation point after Turn 20, just before the start/finish line. This track offers many overtaking opportunities for adventurous drivers.

Tyre Strategies

Pirelli tyre choices are the yellow-striped soft tyres, red-striped supersoft tyres and purple-striped ultrasoft tyres. The ultrsoft tyres will be pink striped this weekend instead of the normal purple stripe as COTA is turning pink to promote breast cancer awareness. The softest tyre is the tyre of choice of the drivers with some of the drivers choosing nine sets of the ultrasoft tyre of the allocated 13 sets for each driver. A two pitstop race is predicted. Overcast skies and a chance of rain could cause mixed weather conditions during the weekend.

Current Form

Mercedes (540 pts) has further extended its lead by 145 points over Ferrari (395 pts) now. Red Bull Racing (303 pts) has closed the gap to second-place as the Italian team has floundered in the last three races. Force India (147 pts) is in control of fourth place, followed by Williams (66 pts). Sauber bring up the rear of the field with five points.

Mercedes regained their mojo at the last race in Japan and returned to the front of the pack. At the high downforce circuits at Singapore and Malaysia, the team was only third fastest and struggled for pace. But as their main rival Ferrari shot themselves in the foot, the Silver Arrows were able to tighten their grip on the constructors’ title. Red Bull has shown much improved performance recently and could seriously challenge the top teams for wins in the last four races of this season.

Lewis Hamilton (306 pts) has extended his lead to 59 points in the drivers’ title race. Sebastian Vettel (247 pts) has a lot of ground to make up now. Valtteri Bottas (234 pts) is in third place and has closed the gap to Vettel. Daniel Ricciardo (192 pts) and Kimi Raikkonen (148 pts) complete the top five in the Drivers’ Championship.

Brendon Hartley of New Zealand will be the first Kiwi to drive in F1 in 33 years as he makes his debut in F1 with Toro Rosso this weekend. He replaces Pierre Gasly who will try to clinch the Japanese Super Formula title at the final race there. Carlos Sainz Jr will start his first race for Renault as he has been loaned to them by Toro Rosso for 2018. Daniil Kvyat returns to the Faenza-based team to replace the Spaniard.

Hamilton has dominated the races at COTA with four victories out of the five races there. The Asian-leg of the season with tracks that favoured Ferrari and Vettel has actually proved very productive for the Briton. As the Ferrari challenge was hampered by serious reliability problems, Hamilton managed to extend his lead. He is in an almost unassailable position to clinch his fourth drivers’ title now.

If Vettel and his team perform to their potential they can mount a rearguard action, but it is going to be very difficult to close such a large gap. The Red Bull duo of Ricciardo and Verstappen will be in the mix as well and might still play a big role in who becomes WDC (World Drivers’ Champion) this season. Another close and gripping race between the title contenders is on the cards at COTA this weekend.
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