For a major sporting event to be a success, it is reliant on a live crowd. No matter how many millions worldwide tuned in to watch qualifying for the United States Grand Prix, it needed well-populated grandstands to guarantee that big-event feel. Almost 80,000 turned up at Circuit of The Americas to watch Sebastian Vettel take a pole position that was expected to be a foregone conclusion but which, thanks to the challenge of Red Bull teammate Mark Webber was anything but. The important thing was that it was a spectacle worth turning up for. Last year’s winner Lewis Hamilton admitted he was surprised last year by how popular the race was, and was delighted when he saw plenty of grandstand seats filled today.
?We have a good crowd here,? said Hamilton, who will line up fifth for Sunday’s race. ?It was really surprising last year when we did the fan signing to see a lot of people there, as I was not expecting to see so many Americans who are into racing and F1. I always feel that they create the atmosphere and today it felt like the race.?
In which case, qualifying felt very much like a two-horse race. But agonizingly for those hoping for someone to make it interesting after seven consecutive victories for the unstoppable force that is Sebastian Vettel, Webber could not quite string together the lap he needed to do to bag pole. A glance at his best three sector times showed he could, should, have been a tenth or so up the road with his performance in the ultra-fast sweeps of sector one nothing short of extraordinary.
Sector 1 comes to an end between Turns 6 and 7, meaning it encompasses the spectacular left-right-left-right sequence that starts with Turn 3. This is a true test of both a car’s poise in high-speed direction changes, not to mention a driver’s ability to get the best out of the machinery in quick corners. It is also probably the best place on the schedule to watch a Formula 1 car transition from trajectory to trajectory. It is in such turns that Webber excels and he was a tenth-and-a-half faster than Vettel through this 26-second sector. It might not sound much, but it’s a reminder that the Australian, despite just two races remaining in his F1 career before joining the Porsche sports car program, is a formidable driver.
Sadly, whether he can put that pace to good use on race day depends on what happens at the start. This has not been a strong point for Webber in recent times. Two weeks ago, in Abu Dhabi, he started on pole position but lost the lead at the start. It’s hard to see him making the first corner first, especially starting on the dirty side of the grid. But it’s not impossible. After all, his launch in Abu Dhabi was fine, it was just that he pressed the KERS button just before reaching the regulated minimum speed for it to be used, meaning he did not have the extra 80bhp power boost on the run to Turn 1.
?That has been a frustrating part of it,? admitted Webber. ?In earlier years in F1, the start was always important but never crucial, but now it is even more with the Pirelli tires. If you are out of position, you get a double whammy. In Abu Dhabi the original start was actually quite good but I went on KERS too early, I pressed it on 99.5kph instead of 100 ” those are the fine margins we are dealing with. When we used to have refueling, going long, going short you could recover and do different things. Maybe I should have raced motorbikes where you can recover much easier!?
Realistically, the start is most likely to be the closest the rest will get to Vettel tomorrow. After all, the last time he did not win a grand prix was in Hungary on July 28! But the law of averages states that things can’t go perfectly indefinitely and while there’s no more reason for him to hit trouble at the Circuit of The Americas than in the previous seven races, his streak can’t carry on forever. But realistically, his rivals know that it’s going to take either a freak set of circumstances, or a car problem, to prevent him Vettel from standing on the top step of the podium tomorrow.
?I don’t know, nothing shy of a miracle,? said Hamilton when asked what it would take for him to beat Vettel. ?Vettel has won the last God-knows-how-many races by 30 seconds. He’s on pole, he’s going to win tomorrow by 30, 40, 50 seconds. You can put some money on it if you want!?
Then again, there is no such thing as a dead certainty in motorsport. That’s why well over 100,000 fans have good reason to hold out hopes for a great race tomorrow. After all, Vettel was the runaway favorite last year, only to be passed for the lead by a certain Mr. L. Hamilton in the closing stages.