Formula 1 personnel are all too familiar with these sorts of conditions. Pit stop practice in the dark thanks to the earlier than usual start to proceedings at 9 a.m., fog shrouding the circuit?it’s winter testing, surely? This wasn’t Spain and it certainly wasn’t February, but it was the reality of the situation on the opening morning of the United States Grand Prix meeting. It was a cold, damp, uninspiring start.
Arriving at the circuit Friday morning, the only hint that there was even a track nearby was the gray outline of the timing tower and the odd glimpse of a grandstand almost invisible from only a few paces away. It was far from a promising way for the Circuit of The America’s second grand prix weekend to start and to nobody’s great surprise, the morning session was delayed by 40 minutes because the mandatory medical helicopter could not get in the air.
All credit to the ever-patient fans who sat in the grandstands waiting for something to happen. This made it all the more disappointing when, after just 14 minutes of running during which all but a handful of drivers did nothing more than installation laps, the red flags flew again for the strangest of reasons. The medical helicopter was missing?
Well, that was how the initial story went, but the reality was a little more mundane. The original helicopter had suffered a problem with its antenna, meaning it could not communicate properly with the control tower and a replacement chopper had to be sent for. Medical helicopters not being an easily-found common commodity, this took a while. But to everyone’s credit, the red flag only lasted for 34 minutes and, finally, the session got going in earnest two minutes before it was originally scheduled to finish.
At least during the reduced one-hour (down from 90 minutes) session, the home fans did have the chance to cheer Alexander Rossi on for 21 laps. The American did a fine job too, lapping 0.655sec faster than teammate Charles Pic on only his third day in the car this year. While the times were irrelevant in this case, it at least gave the crowd something to talk about.
After a difficult start, things started to look up very quickly. In the early afternoon, temperatures climbed up toward the 80 degree mark, helicopters flew and grandstands could even be seen from a distance. The impressive crowd of 58,276 (a little down on last year’s figure of around 65,000 but still better than the majority of F1 venues manage on Fridays) finally had 90 minutes of uninterrupted running to enjoy.
To nobody’s great surprise, Red Bull ended the day first and second with Sebastian Vettel ahead of Mark Webber. They were separated only by a tenth or so, but the Australian suggested his teammate’s advantage should have been larger than that, a claim that holds water given the point in the run where he did it, when the tires would not have been at their peak. The feel-good story of the day was a little further down the timing screens in fifth place. Lotus stand-in Heikki Kovalainen is a far better talker than the man he has replaced, Kimi Raikkonen, and was reveling in being back in action. Certainly, he proved he will be in the mix to end his record run of consecutive race starts without a point that currently stands at 61 grands prix. He broke the previous record, set by unfortunate Italian Piercarlo Ghinzani, at the COTA last year and his performance was, in the circumstances, accomplished. But he explained very eloquently that his mindset is every bit as sensible as the team expects it to be.
?I’m very relaxed this weekend and I’m not stressed about things too much,? says Kovalainen, whose prospects of being on the grid in 2014 are best described as dicey despite being a contender for a race drive with Caterham. ?I tried to do the maximum and prepare as well as I can to get the car where I want with the engineers and mechanics. But I’m not thinking about the future at all, I’m thinking about the next day or the next session! I’m not trying to achieve some specific result to put myself in the shop window. It’s too early to think about the future. I’ve been here long enough to know that anything can happen in the paddock. I probably stress about it less than I did a few years ago.?
As always on Fridays, where varying programs and fuel loads distort the picture, his performance was not quite as earth-shattering as it might superficially seem. When he set his lap, he was carrying around four-tenths of a second worth of fuel more than teammate Romain Grosjean, who was a couple of tenths slower and had his own problems to deal with. Do don’t go expecting him to outqualify the very rapid former part-time banker on the other side of the Lotus garage. In this situation, if he can get somewhere within touching distance of him on Saturday, he will have done a wonderful job.
But Fridays mean very little on a grand prix weekend. While key for preparations for qualifying and the race, they offer only hints as to what might happen. Most encouragingly, the tires seem to be holding up well on the long stints, raising the possibility of drivers pushing harder, for longer, come race day. That can only be good news for the anticipated 100,000-plus race day crowd.
A day that started with the circuit almost invisible has set the scene very nicely for the serious stuff that starts today.