To the Euro-centric Formula 1 paddock, the overwhelming feeling in the build-up to the United States Grand Prix was just how American the whole thing felt.
With the growing homogeneity of Formula 1 races, it takes real effort to generate that kind of atmosphere. From the cheerleaders and brass band on the grid in the build up to the race, to the classic Detroit metal that acted as transport in the driver parade to the singing of the Star Spangled Banner from the top of the observation tower in the middle of the track 15 minutes before the race got underway, there could be no doubts as to where this race was being held.
The crowd was slightly down on last year, but the difference was less than 5000 and 113,162 souls gathered to watch Sebastian Vettel’s charge to an eighth consecutive victory. But it would be wrong to claim that the race they witnessed was a classic. The winner was utterly predictable and went about his business with his usual clinical, flawless virtuosity, although Lotus driver Romain Grosjean prevented the likely Red Bull 1-2 with an incredibly classy performance showing once again that his fundamental speed has now been paired with a calm racing brain. His car performance dictated he should finish third, but thanks to getting ahead of Webber at the start and then responding brilliantly to the Australian’s late-race change, he was second. It was a wonderful performance and while unspectacular, confirmed the arrival of a major new force in grand prix racing.
What was surprising was the relative lack of overtaking at a track that had produced a dramatic race last year. There were some moves, notably some spectacular late-braking moves at Turn 1, but even with the benefit of the DRS, things were relatively processional in comparison to the 50-plus position changes last year. Fernando Alonso, who finished a very fine fifth and was very briefly passed by Nico Hulkenberg at the first corner on the final lap before cutting back under him and reclaiming the position, blamed a combination of the tires and wind for this.
?It was a difficult [to pass] this year. The tire degradation was very low and all the cars were able to push in high-speed corners especially,? he said after the race. ?Last year, I also remember that we had a lot of head wind on the long straight that made the overtaking very easy with the slipstream. This year it was a bit more difficult, but the tires were a little bit too hard, it was a one-stop race like Abu Dhabi and that’s the direction they [Pirelli] chose in this part of the championship.?
Not that any of this made a great deal of difference to Vettel. The only overtaking he had to do was of backmarkers and he only very briefly lost the lead to Grosjean after his pit stop. His progress to an eighth straight victory was serene, but does beg an important question. Is it a new record?
The answer is, ?sort of.? It extends the record for consecutive victories in a season, of that there is no doubt, as it beats Michael Schumacher’s seven in 2004. As Vettel said after the race, ?it’s one of those records that you never expect to be beaten?. But while Alberto Ascari’s supposedly record run of seven consecutive wins from the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix through to the season-opening Argentinean Grand Prix the following season (shared with Schumacher and, as of two weeks ago, Vettel) has been eclipsed, the record by rights should stand at nine. Why? Well, it’s because of the Indianapolis 500.
One of the strangest anomalies in the history of the world championship is that from 1950-1960, the Indianapolis 500 was a points-paying round. So in the inaugural season in 1950, sixth place in the World Championship went to Indy winner Johnnie Parsons! Six years later, Pat Flaherty went one better and finished fifth overall thanks to this bizarre rule, while the great Bill Vukovich has two world championship race victories to his name.
Ascari’s run of seven wins was followed by the 1953 Indianapolis 500, technically a points race but which in reality had nothing to do with grand prix racing, and was followed by further triumphs in the Netherlands and Belgium. Treat the Indy 500 as outside of the World Championship though, and Ascari has a nine-win record run. That’s a number Vettel can match in Brazil next week, but only eclipse if he wins the first race of the new 1.6-liter V6 turbo era next March.
This strange business of the Indy 500 in the F1 World Championship is a superb illustration of the uncomfortable relationship between America and F1. In that first world championship, it was included as a sop to justify the ?world’ tag, given that all of the other races were spread over a relatively short distance in Europe. Today, F1 still yearns to be embraced on this side of the Pond.
After all, on a day when all eyes were supposed to be on the United States Grand Prix, a certain Jimmie Johnson was racking up an astonishing sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup crown in Homestead in what was the real big American racing event of the day. It’s a reminder that F1 has a very, very long way to go to establish itself firmly on the map in this country.
But while the Circuit of The Americas did not produce a classic race, it certainly did put on a classic event. Again. So hats off (or should that be Stetsons off?) to Austin for putting together a race that everyone in the F1 world looks forward to.