Formula 1 returned to USA after a 5 year sabbatical. A new track was built in Austin, Texas and it promised state-of-the-art facilities and varying gradients on a very challenging track.
The first turn itself was a steep climb towering at 41 m, a recipe for incidents at the start of the race. This track would test the true prowess of the drivers.
However this race was pivotal for 3 reasons. The outcome of this Grand Prix would influence future ventures for Formula 1 in North America.
Red Bull Racing were on the brink of winning their 3rd consecutive Constructor's Title while Sebastien Vettel was on the verge of becoming a Triple World Champion. Ferrari had nothing too lose and it was clear that they would channelise all their efforts in ensuring that Alonso still has a shot at the title at the final race of the season in Brazil.
Let us see how the drama unfolded!
FREE PRACTICE :
Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver in both FP1 and FP 2. He set a time 1.5 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton in FP1, and 2 seconds faster than title rival Fernando Alonso. The session was run without incident, though drivers reported that there was very little grip around the circuit. Ma Qinghua was the only reserve driver to take part in the session, replacing Narain Karthikeyan at HRT. He finished the session in twenty-fourth and last position, 10 seconds behind Vettel.
Vettel was again fastest in the FP2. Mark Webber and Alonso completed the top 3. Vettel's running was limited by a water leak that forced him to spend half the session in the pits, while Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen suffered a puncture when he made contact with Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Jean-Eric Vergne. Pastor Maldonado suffered an engine failure in his Williams late in the session.
Vettel topped the timesheets in FP3 too. Hamilton was 2nd Fastest. The hour-long session was marked by a collision between Sauber's Sergio Perez and the Marussia of Charles Pic that damaged the floor of Pic's car. Perez escaped without penalty. much to the annoyance of Marussia. Jean-Eric Vergne also ran into further trouble, breaking his front suspension when he hit a kerb and stopped on the circuit.
There was very litte grip on the circuit in Q1. Every team sent their drivers out for extended runs with the objective of laying down enough rubber on the circuit to improve their overall lap time, and trying to time their final flying runs to take full advantage of the circuit.
HRT were initially concerned that they would fail to qualify inside the 107% cut-off, however their decision to send Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan out on the softer option tyres, paid dividends as they made the cut. Karthikeyan's session ended early when he pulled over onto the tarmac run-off at Turn 2, the victim of a mechanical fault.
Caterham's Vitaly Petrov struggled early in the session with traffic, and spent most of the twenty minutes outside the 107% cut-off. His final flying lap saw him qualify 21st for the race, one place ahead of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen. Daniel Ricciardo was the seventh and final driver eliminated at the end of Q1.
Sebastian Vettel, who had recorded the fastest time in Q1, went on to beat his best time in Q2. The faster lap times now meant that the softer option compound was a necessity. Despite narrowly beating Ricciardo in Q1, Nico Rosberg was unable to improve his time in Q2, and qualified in 17th overall. The Saubers of Perez and Kobayashi filled out the 8th row of the grid. Jean-Eric Vergne overcame his free practice dramas to qualify 14th. Paul di Resta was disappointed to be eliminated in Q2 when team-mate Nico Hulkenberg comfortably progressed to Q3. Jenson Button had to settle for 12th overall when his McLaren MP4-27 lost all power late in the period, and he later admitted that he was afraid of getting caught up in what he called a "chaotic first lap". Bruno Senna was the last driver eliminated in Q2, qualifying in 11th place.
Sebastian Vettel took pole position with the fastest lap of the weekend. In spite of this, Lewis Hamilton was closer to Vettel than he had been all weekend, missing pole position by just one tenth of a second. Mark Webber qualified 3rd, ahead of Romain Grosjean, who was later demoted to 9th when he received a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change. Kimi Raikkonen , Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa, Nico Hulkenberg, Fernando Alonso, Pastor Maldonado completed the top ten.
Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber were summoned to the stewards' office after qualifying. Schumacher had been cited for blocking Alonso during Q2. Schumacher escaped without punishment, as he had been on a flying lap of his own at the time, and blocking Alonso had not prevented him from advancing to Q3.
Webber, on the other hand, was called to answer charges of missing the mandatory weight check at the end of qualifying. The stewards accepted that Red Bull Racing had made an error and saw that the car was immediately sent to scrutineering once it was realised. Webber escaped with a reprimand, thereby allowing him to keep his grid position for the race.
However Ferrari would produce the greatest story of the day. The Team broke the seal of the gearbox of Massa's car causing him to accept a 5 place grid - penalty which would demote him from 7th to 12th and promoted Alonso from 8th to 7th. This allowed the Spaniard to start from the cleaner side of the track and help keep his title hopes alive.
Red Bull too could have countered this move in a similar fashion using Webber and send Alonso back to the dirtier side. However they chose otherwise. Sportsmanship lacking again in this decision by Ferrari.
The Grip on the grid varied drastically between the Cleaner side and the Dirtier side of the Track.
The Five Lights went out and a lot happened going into the First Turn. The Prediction was right, starters on the Dirty Side suffered lack of Traction and lost places rapidly. Sebastian Vettel pulled cleanly away from P1. Mark Webber attacked Lewis Hamilton around the outside in the battle for 2nd. However it was a sensational start for Fernando Alonso who climbed from 7th to 4th in his Ferrari ! Lewis Hamilton lost out to Mark Webber for second, but managed to hold off Alonso.
Michael Schumacher, who started 5th had a terrible lap. First he lost out to Nico Hulkenberg and then to Kimi Raikkonen only to fight back and reclaim his place but in doing so, left the door open to Romain Grosjean who passed both in one move ( Lap 2 )
Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber were squabbling for 2nd place while Vettel pulled away from the pair. Hamilton's efforts finally paid dividends on Lap 4 as he passed Webber for 2nd.
Romain Grosjean spun at Turn 19 ( Lap 7 ) and dropped from 6th to 10th. Meanwhile, Felipe Massa finally muscled his way past Michael Schumacher into 8th.
Michael Schumacher was now going backwards and fell into Button's Clutches and the latter had to be brave to get past the German who left very little racing space.
Kimi Raikkonen, justified his return to F1 when he pulled alongside Nico Hulkenberg around the outside in the run down to Turn Two. They were side-by-side through Turn Two, but Raikkonen kept his foot on the gas and Hulkenberg had no choice but to yield. ( Lap 13 )
Lewis Hamilton was quickly closing in on Sebastien Vettel. Both Cars were matching each other for pace all weekend and their race pace too seemed similar.
Jean-Eric Vergne was the first retirement as his Toro Rosso suffered suspension damage. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher, who had been struggling for pace all race, dived into the pits from 14th.
Lap 17 saw Mark Webber lose KERS and then his subsequent retirement a lap later. Red Bull had enough reason to worry now with Vettel's car. Felipe Massa was now closing in on Kimi Raikkonen.
Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso pitted on Lap 19 & Lap 20 respectively. The Latter had a very slow stop as the right rear got stuck. Vettel had the perfect stop a lap later and retained his lead.
Jenson Button was hustling Fernando Alonso ( Lap 23 ) who was struggling on the hard tyres. This was bad news for the championship contender. The McLaren driver used the DRS down the long straight to catapult past the Ferrari driver who did little to defend. Kimi Raikkonen had not yet pitted and was losing his tyres. He fell into the clutches of Lewis Hamilton who had got his hard tyres up to temperature and wasted little in time in slotting down the inside of the Lotus at Turn 12. Raikkonen finally pitted on Lap 25 but he too encountered a problem on the right rear tyre and was unable to jump Alonso into 5th. Kimi Raikkonen then lost a place to the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo on Lap 26. Massa's quickfire pitstop ensured that he jumped both Raikkonen and Ricciardo ( Lap 27 ). Kimi Raikkonen, who had his tyres up to temperature, then put a fantastic pass on Felipe Massa into the blind apex of Turn One a lap later.
Laps 32 - 35 saw Vettel lose all his advantage to Hamilton as he started getting caught up in traffic. However the German held on to the lead. Button on the other hand was moving up the field with his switch to the softer compound tyres. Felipe Massa passed Raikkonen to take 4th place on Lap 39.
Lap 42 witnessed a change in leadership, a change that would still leave the Driver's Championship in the balance. Lewis Hamilton got mighty close to Sebastian Vettel after the German got blocked by traffic. As they entered the long straight, Hamilton tucked in behind Vettel and used his DRS to close. Vettel went defensive, taking the inside line but Hamilton just swept to the outside line to make the move stick.
Lap 46 saw Jenson Button take 5th place from Raikkonen after a lot of jostling and wheel-to-wheel racing. The gap between the leaders hovered around a second but Lap 53 saw some rough racing and contact as Maldonado made his way past his team-mate Senna.
Lewis Hamilton went on to win the Inaugural United States Grand Prix. Sebastien Vettel and Fernando Alonso were the other podium finishers.
Felipe Massa, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna completed the top 10.
The Podium Finishers :
Mario Andretti was present for the podium interviews :
The Result allowed Red Bull Racing to clinch their 3rd consecutive Constructors' Championship!!
However the Drivers' Championship had all to play for. Vettel led Alonso by only 13 points. Alonso has never given up.
So it ain't over until its over!! So we head to the Brazilian GP to see who will reign supreme in 2012!!