U.S. Grand Prix diary
Formula 1 is on a charm offensive this weekend and Austin seems more than able to respond in kind.
By Mike Wise. Last Updated: 19/11/12 4:28am
One thing I'm struggling to learn about this gig is that there's no point wishing for a quiet race morning. Because when you do, something inevitably happens. There I was, sat on the bus first thing, thinking about easing myself into the day ahead. The plan was to get breakfast first before wandering into the paddock to see what was happening there. 'Nothing too much' was my hope; after all, the race was still over four hours away.
Within minutes, this natural law was imposing itself: brekkie had to be wolfed down at my desk and the walk to the paddock was rather brisk. That's what can happen when rumours start to swirl. They were swirling around Ferrari: would they sacrifice their number two to boost the chances of their title-chasing number one? Damn right they would, though it took a few more hours for them to finally admit it.
In the meantime, I found myself grappling with the logic and sense of Formula 1 rules. It was one of those imbroglios in which the sport specialises; the sort of situation I find both interesting and ridiculous. A gearbox change penalty but the gearbox isn't actually changed? The prospect of tit-for-tat gearbox changes? Really??
Well, no, in the case of the latter. I'm sure our hosts would have been furrowing their brows had engine drivetrains become a means of brinkmanship as well as transmission. And if they had gone to such lengths, then the locals would have been forgiven for wondering whether the lessons of Indianapolis in 2005 had been learnt at all. 'Hey here's an idea: why don't we all disappear up our own backsides once again?'
Thankfully, a sort of sanity prevailed and the fans, all 117,429 of them, got a decent race. And we still have a title battle on our hands. Vettel remains the favourite but already eyes are being cast towards Sao Paulo and its weather forecast. Then there's the Red Bull reliability question, which is being asked once more after Webber's retirement.
All in all, it's been a hugely successful first visit by F1 to Austin. A win for Hamilton, Alonso lives to fight another day while his team show just how desperate they are now. A quiet race morning at Interlagos? I very much doubt it.
Just as the track ramps up then so does the entire event. Almost 83,000 fans turned up today ("This is probably the biggest crowd I've seen for quals just about ever," Tweeted F1 doctor Gary Hartstein) to see Sebastian Vettel maintain his 100 per cent record for the weekend. If he is to complete a clean sweep of sessions tomorrow, then Fernando Alonso needs to finish fourth to keep the title battle alive. According to the man himself, though, fourth place is not enough for Alonso here. Actually, it might be - but only if Vettel finishes fifth or lower. Twice now the Ferrari driver has said that he can score more points than his rival in Austin; both times, though, it's been said with more than a hint of a smile on the Spaniard's face. Is Alonso relaxed? Or is he finally resigned?
If he's the former, then he could well have been on 6th Street earlier this evening. That seems to be a place - perhaps the place - to cut loose in this city. I'm sure there are other areas, but maybe not within walking distance of our hotel. Lined with bars (most of which seem to feature live music), 6th Street is cool - although, passing yet another tattoo parlour, you wonder whether they're trying just that little bit too hard. Looking for food and drink, I settled on Casino El Camino. It's not a place to lose money, rather a bar with great music, favourable lighting and hamburgers as thick as your wrist. The best thing about an early start is an early finish: it's not yet 11pm but it feels much later. Bed time for me, though I suspect others still have plenty of gas in the tank.
The feeling about this race has been good from the outset. Formula 1 is on a charm offensive this weekend and the locals are more than able to respond in kind. That much was obvious the moment we checked into our hotel on Wednesday evening - the honours being performed by a receptionist sporting a black-and-white chequered, sorry checkered, bow-tie. Next to this laptop sit the remnants of hastily-devoured milk chocolate racing car ("Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!" reads the gift tag) while outside streets have been cordoned off and stages built. It's party time in Austin - the atmosphere being very similar to that in Montreal at the start of the summer.
Everyone is friendly and curious about the race: waiters pick up on the accent, realise why we're here and ask questions; roadside motels flash signs "welcoming F1" whilst trailer parks advertise "your very own F1 hotel". This is the sort of thing we see on our way to the track, which is located about 15 miles from downtown, on fairly nondescript land in Travis County. The Circuit of The Americas displays signs of last-minute-itis (astroturf thrown down where the grass has yet to grow) but considering the fact that work was halted when the then promoter, Tavo Hellmund, ran into financial difficulties a year ago, what they've managed to achieve is spectacular.
Organisers got the best possible start earlier today when over 65,000 spectators turned up; did they know that Friday is just about practicing? Yes they did: as Mario Andretti told Sky Sports F1 earlier, the notion that Americans know nothing about F1 is hokum. Where the fans are concerned, there's rather more to it than simple curiosity.
I've been told that Aerosmith are playing somewhere near here around about now; no offence Mr Tyler and Mr Perry but there are some of us who aren't getting any younger. It's time to get the ear plugs out; we have a 6am start tomorrow morning.