Sunday, 7 December 2014

2012 United States Grand Prix - Circuit of the Americas

November 18, 2012

There’s no more iconic scene in American Western movies than the good old-fashioned gunfight, where the lawman and the outlaw meet at high noon, facing each other on a dusty road in the centre of town ….. hands at the ready to draw their pistols when the first one flinches. Tension is everywhere as humble townspeople cringe behind barrels and saloon doors, watching nervously as two famous names square off and only one will win. In actuality, this kind of thing very rarely occurred, but it is a scenario that Hollywood has relied on time and again to satisfy the public’s fascination with pitting the two very best against each other in a fair contest.

Five years after the previous United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis, even a Hollywood script could not have been better written to the true life drama displayed at the first Grand Prix to be held at Austin’s, Circuit of the Americas, the tenth track to be used to host a US Grand Prix.

The 2012 race was a straight fight between Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) and while during that season they were the established aces of the day, the previous USGP in 2007 offered a similar storyline, but at that time Vettel and Hamilton were very different protagonists …..

2007 USGP: Hamilton celebrates.
Just seven days after claiming a maiden Grand Prix win at Montreal in Canada, Hamilton delivered another assured drive at the famous Motor Speedway circuit. After taking a second straight pole position, the 21-year old was able to complete a grid-to-flag victory, coolly dealing with team-mate Fernando Alonso’s two attempts to pass him. The Spanish World Champion tried to hustle Hamilton off the grid but the rookie pulled away and used his now customary pace to stretch his lead. After making their first pit-stops just one lap apart, Alonso tried again to pass Hamilton, who had become embroiled with the backmarkers. Alonso gathered pace in Hamilton’s slipstream and the two McLarens went side-by-side down the main straight, only for Alonso to be thwarted by the Briton as they entered Turn One – after that tussle the McLarens did not race again. Hamilton’s win in Indianapolis saw him become only the fourth rookie to win at least two races in their debut season.

2007 USGP: Vettel's debut with BMW.

It was also an historic day in Indianapolis for Sebastian Vettel, who became the youngest driver to score a point in Grand Prix history. The 19-year old was making his Formula One debut for BMW Sauber as a replacement for Robert Kubica, who was still recovering from the effects of his high-speed crash in Montreal. Vettel drove smartly to an eighth place finish. Later that same season, BMW allowed Vettel to switch to the Scuderia Toro Rosso team where he took a regular driving position replacing the American, Scott Speed.

Fast forward five years and these two had both become World Driver's Champions. Hamilton in 2008 and Vettel taking the titles in 2010 and 2011. With the German well on his way to adding his third world title in 2012 as the F1 circus convened in Austin. 

Vettel duly claimed his sixth pole position of the season in what would be his 100th Grand Prix start. He had dominated every session of practice and qualifying at the impressive Circuit of the Americas and it looked as if only a reliability issue would stop him from taking his fifth victory in six starts. Hamilton had been a second behind Vettel's time in Q2, but put in a tremendously committed Q3 lap to qualify second, just over a tenth of a second behind the German, putting the championship leader under some pressure. 

Sunday, however, began with a classic bit of 11th hour F1 chicanery.

Ferrari, who was desperately trying to keep Fernando Alonso in the championship fight, decided to break the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox, thereby inducing a five-place grid penalty which lifted his team-mate Alonso up to seventh and on to the clean side of the grid, a huge advantage at the brand new circuit. While some in the paddock derided the decision as unsporting, Ferrari, a team with a clear history of favouring their lead driver, certainly were not losing any sleep over it. However on this day Ferrari and Alonso would be mere bit players in the drama. Instead it was Hamilton who posed the greatest threat to Vettel.

2012 USGP: Vettel maintains the gap to Hamilton. 
The World Champion made a perfect getaway when the lights went out. Hamilton too started well, but being on the dirty side of the track hampered him enough that Mark Webber (Red Bull) was able to get around the Englishman into Turn 1. It seemed like the Red Bulls were free and clear to walk this race, but Hamilton was not willing to give up without a fight. The McLaren retook second place from Webber on lap four by using his Drag Reduction System (DRS) on the long straight between Turn 11 and Turn 12. With Webber disposed of, Hamilton soon began reducing the gap to Vettel and an enthralling duel ensued.

Vettel and Hamilton were in a class of their own and the pair engaged in a thrilling race-long game of cat and mouse. Every time Hamilton closed to within a second or so of Vettel, threatening to get into the one-second DRS range, the German would respond. From lap 35 onwards, Hamilton was within range and stuck limpet-like to the back of the Red Bull for lap after lap.

Hamilton was always a threat, and quicker through sector 1, but Vettel seemed to have him covered and to be well in control ..... until they encountered Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) in sector one on lap 42. Through a superb section of the new circuit, from Turns 2 through 7, with no grip off-line, Karthikeyan stayed on the racing line until they exited Turn 7, which cost Vettel more than a second. It also put Lewis comfortably close enough for DRS detection down the back straight and Hamilton knew it was his chance. Vettel moved left but such was the McLaren's speed advantage that Lewis could have gone either side. He went right and had sufficient momentum to chop back across and protect the inside into Turn 12.

2012 USGP: Hamilton made the most of his chance.
Vettel's frustration was apparent from the ensuing radio transmission. Thereafter their roles were reversed with Vettel the hunter and Hamilton the hunted, fending off the German for lap after lap. However, as hard as the German had tried to hit back, on that day, Lewis and the McLaren were a match for Sebastian and the RB8. Crucially, Vettel was never quite able to get within DRS range. Hamilton, who was set to leave McLaren for Mercedes in 2013, was intent on delivering another win for the team before his departure and did so with elan as he seized his fourth win of the season and the twenty-first of his career.

"I'm massively proud and extremely happy. To overtake both Red Bulls in the race was the coolest thing for me. The backmarkers really came into play today - and, finally, they worked in my favour. I've often been caught out when I've been trying to get through traffic, but things finally went my way today. When Seb [Vettel] was delayed by a backmarker, I knew I had to grab my chance, so I turned the engine up to maximum revs and pushed like crazy. Along the back-straight I went to the to the outside, but Seb closed the door, so I moved to the inside, and he came back towards me. I was very lucky. It was very close."

Respect: Vettel congratulates Hamilton.
Vettel was extremely generous and noble during the post-race interview. It was evident that despite finishing second, he clearly enjoyed the battle with Hamilton :

"It was a very good race and we did everything we could, but unfortunately we ran into traffic at the wrong time and lost the gap to Lewis. He used his chance well, I tried to cover the inside but he had more speed down the straight. I respect the positions; Lewis beat us fair and square.

Vettel's disappointment was tempered by the fact that he was able to finish ahead of title rival Alonso and thus increase his championship lead with only one Grand Prix remaining in the season. He would in fact win that race and capture his third consecutive World Championship. 

It is always a rare and special thing when two of the best drivers of the era battle from start to finish in a Grand Prix.  Both drivers raced superbly that day and both were deserving of victory. Hamilton and Vettel grew up watching and admiring two titans of Formula One history, Senna and Schumacher. That day they proved that they themselves were worthy of the admiration of the next generation to come. The 1978 World Driver's Champion, Mario Andretti, summed it up best when he carried out the post-race podium interview: “We just witnessed an awesome, awesome race right to the end.” 

Champions all: Vettel and Hamilton on the podium with Andretti.

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