After a three-week break, the F1 paddock heads across the Atlantic to Austin for the 17th round of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship – a weekend which could prove critical in terms of the increasingly tense title fight between Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
It is Hamilton who arrives with the momentum: not only has he won the last four Grands Prix, he also has previous form in the United States, having won at Indianapolis in 2007 and the inaugural race in Austin in 2012.
“Crossing the line on Sunday in Sochi was a really amazing moment,” Hamilton says. “To win the very first F1 Russian Grand Prix and help the team achieve the first constructors’ championship for Mercedes-Benz with a one-two finish – it couldn’t have got much better. When I went to the factories in Brackley and Brixworth the week afterwards, the atmosphere was just awesome. Everybody has worked so hard to achieve this title and they all deserve to savour the moment.
“Of course, we still have three races left to decide the drivers’ championship – starting in Austin, which is one of the best weekends of the year. A lot of the American side of my family come to the race, plus I won the first-ever Grand Prix at the circuit back in 2012, so it’s a special one for me. I really enjoy going there and I’m looking forward to another great race – hopefully ending up with another Stetson hat on the top step of the podium!”
Rosberg, meanwhile, has had plenty of time to reflect on the costly opening-lap error which ruined his chances of beating Hamilton to victory in Russia – a mistake which also leaves him 17 points off the championship lead, his biggest deficit of the season.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this team along with all the great people within it,” Rosberg says after celebrating the constructors’ title success, “so it’s great to see them get such a reward for all their efforts. Now, of course, we target a big finish to the season in the final three races. It’s still all to play for in the battle for the drivers’ championship and I won’t be giving up the fight until the flag drops in Abu Dhabi.”
Williams are the team most likely to provide fireworks and carry the fight to the Silver Arrows, with the Grove-based squad having threatened a really big result all season. Valtteri Bottas, fresh from his fifth podium of the year in Russia, reflects the team’s confidence: “Austin is a really cool track, [and] I have good memories as I got my first points in F1 last season. We are definitely targeting to be on the podium again – everyone is feeling positive about Texas, so it should be fun.”
McLaren could also feature at the sharp end, having converted steady progress into a big step forward in Sochi, where Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen earned the team their highest points haul since the Australian season opener.
“Off the back of our improved pace in Russia, the whole team is looking forward to returning to Austin after a three-week break,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier says. “As we move closer to the end of the season we’re continuing the development of our car, working flat-out to extract the maximum performance from our package as each race goes by. We come to Austin with the firm intention of building on this recent form with a strong finish for the team.”
Ferrari and Red Bull can’t be discounted as podium contenders either. Sebastian Vettel will be looking for success with the latter as he approaches the end of his tenure with the Milton Keynes team. He won in Austin last year and was runner-up to Hamilton in 2012. However, this year the likelihood of a full power unit change on his RB10 means he may well find himself starting from the pit lane.
“The Circuit of The Americas is a track I like a lot,” the four-time world champion says. “It has 20 corners and we drive it anti-clockwise. A lot of the corner combinations remind me of other famous circuits on the race calendar. For example the fast combination during the first part of the track feels like Silverstone and Suzuka. The famous Maggotts and Becketts passages were used as a model for this part of the track and the drivers enjoy the extremely fast turns, when the car is balanced right.”
Away from the frontrunning teams, this will also be an important weekend for Force India’s Sergio Perez and Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez, as Texas always attracts a large contingent of passionate Mexican supporters.
While the prospect of the Mexican duo – and the rest of the grid – locking horns in Texas takes centre stage, there have also been developments away from the track. The grid could have a different look this weekend, with Marussia and Caterham set to miss Austin as they seek solutions to their financial issues. After Friday’s practice sessions, meanwhile, the FIA will experiment with a new method of slowing drivers down when yellow flags are deployed, as part of its ongoing response to Jules Bianchi’s accident in the Japanese Grand Prix.
Teams have generally favoured one-stop strategies over the past two Grands Prix in Austin, but this year Pirelli are offering a softer range of tyres – the Italian company have brought their white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft compounds, compared to the medium and hard in 2012 – which could produce a more varied range of strategies.
“America is of course a big market for Pirelli,” says their motorsport director Paul Hembery. “There are some fast corners and many rapid elevation changes as well: in that respect it’s a bit like Spa. When you have more energy going through the tyre, you have a bigger heat build-up – which is what increases wear and degradation. But with the track surface now more mature it should theoretically offer better grip than previous years. The medium and soft tyres should put us on target for two-stop races, although we’ll have to confirm our data after free practice.”
The circuit itself is also notoriously difficult in terms of fine tuning set-ups, with big swings in temperature, huge changes in gradient and a challenging blend of high-speed and technical sections making life hard for the teams and drivers. There are two DRS zones, the first on the start-finish straight with detection between Turns 18 and 19, and the second on the long back straight with detection between Turns 10 and 11.
Daylight savings mean the clocks go back an hour during the Austin weekend, so the local time will move from five to six hours behind GMT overnight on Saturday/Sunday. FP1 on Friday and FP3 on Saturday will commence at 1500 GMT (1000 local time), while Sunday’s race starts at 2000 GMT (1400 local time).
The weather is forecast to be settled, with ambient temperature highs of 25 degrees Celsius on Sunday – when it is also set to be cloudy. Friday and Saturday look likely to be slightly cooler, but with clear skies.
The race will run over 56 laps of the 5.513-kilometre (3.425 mile) circuit, or 308.405 kilometres (191.642 miles).