Issue 37: United States Grand Prix Preview

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30 October 2014

How the West was Formula 1

‘Don’t miss the US GP showdown’ runs the promotion for this weekend’s race in Austin, Texas. And what a showdown it promises to be! In fact, it will be showdown number 17 between the tussling Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. The US Grand Prix at the new Circuit of the Americas (COTA) marks the start of the final run-in to the finale of the 2014 World Drivers’ Championship.

Of the new tracks on the F1 calendar, COTA is probably my favourite. The circuit offers an interesting mix of fast sweeping corners, tight hairpins, long straights that precede heavy braking zones and marked elevation change. Crucially, straights and heavy braking zones means overtaking opportunities. The first of these is down – or should that be up – into Turn 1, a tight left-hander taken at 60mph. The apex of the corner is unsighted but the preceding straight – with DRS available will enable faster cars to attack under braking on the inside line. The second opportunity to pass round COTA comes under braking for Turn 12, another tight left-hander at the end of the 0.6 mile straight. To aid the overtake, pursuers within a second of their quarry ahead can activate DRS after Turn 11. There’s likely to be plenty of action here during the race.

Sector 1 is characterised by a series of fast left-right, left-right corners from Turns 3-6. Cars that produce high levels of aerodynamic downforce and have good high-speed balance are likely to perform best through here. Sector 2 begins with the slow and twisty Turns 7, 8 and 9, but in reality this middle sector is all about power and traction. Power to take full advantage of the long straight between Turns 11 and 12 and traction to launch off Turn 11 and attack slower cars in front. Some low-speed grip doesn’t go amiss either for the slower corners in this sector; drivers will want a strong front end to minimise understeer and get the nose of the car into the apex. The final sector of the lap – from Turns 13-20 – is mostly composed of slow-speed corners that again reward cars with low-speed grip and traction. Turns 16-18 is the fastest corner in this sector. This triple-apex complex is reminiscent of Istanbul Park’s fantastic Turn 8.

Power, brakes and grip

Power units and brakes get a full workout round COTA. The start/finish straight and the straight between Turns 11 and 12 will push the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and turbo hard. The drag up the 133-foot incline to the first corner will, as Renault’s Remi Taffin explained, require the turbo to spin faster in order to maintain maximum power output at the crest of the hill. Brake wear is high too given the four big stops around COTA, two of which occur in Sector 2.

Pirelli is bringing its Soft and Medium compound tyres to the US Grand Prix, which will no doubt offer the teams better mechanical grip than last year when the Italian manufacturer brought its Hard compound tyre instead of Soft. Mechanical grip is at a premium in order to help launch the car off the slow-speed corners and hairpins. Pirelli’s bolder choice of tyre makes the call on strategy less clear-cut. While Pirelli anticipates a two-stop race, cars that are kinder on their tyres, such as Force India, are likely to have the option of making only one stop. Either way, realistic contrarian race strategies add a performance variable to Sunday’s race.

The might of Mercedes

The 2014 US Grand Prix has domination by Mercedes-powered cars written all over it. I expect the new World Champions to battle Williams for the quickest times in Sector 1. A Mercedes ICE and turbo is clearly what’s needed to best cope with the step entry to Turn 1 at the end of the start/finish straight. The Williams FW36 has proven strong high-speed balance to add to its Mercedes powertrain, so expect Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa to be on it through Turns 3-6 too. Red Bull might even be able to keep pace through Sector 1’s Esses at least given the RB10’s strong aerodynamic platform. However, the former world champions will fall away in Sector 2 given their deficiencies in top-line speed. Again, Williams have a very efficient chassis so will be well-placed to set quick times down the long straight in Sector 2. However, I anticipate that the works Mercedes will hold a clear advantage over Williams in the slow-speed Sector 3. The FW36 has performed less than favourably around tracks with slow corners such as Hungary and Singapore, in spite of a good performance in Sochi three weeks’ ago. The superior aerodynamic and mechanical grip of the W05 Hybrid will probably be enough to win out in Sector 3.

Only the early practice sessions will give us clues as to which Mercedes driver has the edge of pace. Hamilton holds the momentum and I think that if he qualifies on pole and/or gets ahead early in the race, he will be difficult to stop. Rosberg will have to do something special to beat him on track. That might require a contrarian strategy or some luck when they come up to pass backmarkers.

Reports that Sebastian Vettel may not even participate in qualifying are disappointing. However, whether he starts from the pit lane or incurs a 10-place grid penalty for having to use a sixth powertrain this season, it opens the door even further to Williams in particular to beat Red Bull to the podium again.

Exit Caterham and Marussia

The biggest disappointment, however, is the absence of Caterham and Marussia from the US Grand Prix. That two teams will fail to line-up on the grid mid-season is a sad indictment of the state of F1’s business model for all parties concerned except the commercial rights’ holders who are doing just fine thank you very much. F1 needs the little guys. The tryers at the back who give their all and are occasionally rewarded with points. Their absence also deprives young drivers of scarce opportunities to gain precious F1 experience. Think Fernando Alonso at Minardi in 2001 or Daniel Ricciardo at Hispania Racing in 2011. The financial barrier to entry must be lowered in order for enterprising racers like Frank Williams to still compete.

F1 should be arriving in the US on a high; its new hybrid powertrains are a technological success story, albeit an expensive one, and the on track racing in 2014 has been driven by a fantastic and intense intra-Mercedes battle for supremacy. So much better than 2013. However, a tragic accident and collapsing finances for nearly half of the grid means F1 will instead race under a cloud.

@TheWheelspinner

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