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United States Grand Prix Preview

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Track: Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, USA.
Scheduled number of laps: 56
Circuit length: 5.516 km (3.427 mi)
Race distance: 308.405 km (191.634 mi)
Race start time: 20:00 BST, 14:00 Local Time
Lap record: 1:39.347 (Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing, 2012)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG Petronas, 1:36.067
2014 Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG Petronas
Tyre Compounds: Medium, Soft, Intermediate, Wet
Most Wins: Michael Schumacher (5)
Most Wins (Teams): Ferrari (9)

After the surprisingly dramatic Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, Formula 1 crosses the Atlantic for two back-to-back races in North America starting with this weekend’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. This year marks the 37th running of the United States Grand Prix but only the fourth time it will be hosted by the Circuit of the Americas in the Lone Star State. 

Mercedes AMG Petronas’ Lewis Hamilton has already got one hand on this year’s driver’s title, with the other one reaching for it. With a 66-point lead over second-placed Sebastian Vettel and a whopping 73 points ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton needs to outscore the former by 9 points and the latter by just 2 points to become a triple Formula 1 world champion. If there’s one place among the late season’s race venues were the Briton would enjoy clinching the title the most, it’s surely America, where he usually spends a consierable amount of his spare time. As Hamilton himself put it: “It’s never done until it’s done in this sport”, but the opportunity is there for the taking and, given his recent run of 4 wins in the last 5 races, few would bet against the British driver this weekend.

On the other hand, it’s all but over for Nico Rosberg’s title hopes, given his unfortunate DNF in Russia caused by a rare issue with the throttle pedal in his Mercedes W06 Hybrid. The German subsequently conceded the runner-up spot in the championship to fellow countryman Sebastian Vettel. For him the have the slightest chance at the title, it would take winning the last remaining races while hoping that Hamilton wouldn’t score points at all in at least three of the last four races. Sounds like an impossible feat but giving up is not an option for Nico Rosberg, who seems to be back in his 2014 qualifying groove at the moment, having achieved pole position in Japan and Russia.

Ferrari decided against running updated engines in Austin, as the team re-evaluates their approach for next year. After the announcement that teams will be given 32 engine tokens for next year, which is seven more that previously planned, Ferrari opted to postpone the upgrade for now and develepo further their McLaren-inspired narrower engine block in a bid to improve the aerodynamic performance of the car.

According to the latest weather forecasts, drivers should brace for a rain-hit United States Grand Prix, with thunderstorms being expected on Friday and Saturday. Sunday could also see showers in the area of the circuit, although not as intense as on the days before. This could potentially see the repeat of the Suzuka and Sochi scenario, where teams had limited practice running because of rain. If it happens again at COTA, it would interestingly mark the third race weekend in a row where drivers had to cope with wet conditions. The races themselves all took place in the dry but one could argue that the reason Sochi produced a relatively exciting race two weeks ago was the lack of Friday running which meant that teams were forced to take gambles in regards to car setups, throwing in a bit of unpredictability into the mix as a result.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen could surely benefit from the strategic possibilities opened up by variable track conditions. Ferrari have already gained the upper hand on Mercedes on strategy alone once this year at the Malaysian Grand Prix, meainging that could have quite a captivating and unpredicatble race weekend on our hands with the potential of a good battle up front.

Renault used 11 engine tokens ahead of the US Grand Prix, but Red Bull and Toro Rosso are yet undecided whether to make use of the new engines or not because of the grid penalties that come with changes of engine parts. The issue is set to be discussed by members of both Red Bull’s and Renault’s sides. New engine or not, both Red Bull and Toro Rosso have had strong pace the past few races and should not be counted out ahead of this weekend’s race.

It has been a while since an American driver raced at home in Formula 1 but Manor Marussia’s Alexander Rossi will do exactly that this Sunday. Obviously, Rossi will not be fighting for top spots or even points, but his home crowd’s support will surely give him the much needed inspiration to perform well against his teammate Will Stevens, which the American so drastically needs to improve his chances of securing a seat at Manor-Mercedes in 2016.

For Force India’s Checo Perez, it’s probably going to be the most important two weeks of this season. The Mexican regards the US GP as a second home Grand Prix and in anticipation of his own country’s first race since 1992 that is just one week away, Perez will be buoyed by local support as well and highly motivated to continue his impressive string of good performances.

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The Circuit of the Americas

The newly-build Circuit of the Americas was opened three years ago, in 2012, and was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from drivers. Indeed, COTA is one of the most exciting tracks on the calendar because of the variety of challenges it offeres. From the start-finish line and into turn 1, the circuit elevates considerably into the highest point of the ciruuit, making drivers go almost blind into the left-hander. What follows is a series of challenging and fast left and right handers going into the Turn 11 hairpin. The drivers then go onto the 1km long back straight where most of the overtaking happens. Finally, the last sector features a series of long left and right turns modelled after Hockenheimring’s stadium section and a downhill section where the last two turns are. In short, COTA succesfully borrows elements from some of the best tracks in the world and moulds them into a fast, sweeping and downright exciting rollercoaster circuit.

Interestingly, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are the only current drivers to have won a race in Austin. Hamilton triumphed in the inaugural race in 2012 as well as last year, while Vettel finished first here in 2013. The Merrcedes driver also lies in 2nd place on the list of total wins of American soil, having achieved 3 wins (two less than 1st places Michael Schumacher who has 5).

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Teammate battles (when both drivers finished the race)

Mercedes AMG Petronas:
Qualifying: Hamilton 12 – 3 Rosberg
Race: Hamilton 9 – 3 Rosberg

Scuderia Ferrari:
Qualifying: Vettel 12 – 3 Raikkonen
Race: Vettel 9 – 3 Raikkonen

Red Bull Racing:
Qualifying: Ricciardo 10– 5 Kvyat
Race: Ricciardo 6 – 6 Kvyat

Qualifying: Massa 7 – 8 Bottas
Race: Massa 6 – 6 Bottas

Force India:
Qualifying: Hulkenberg 10 – 5 Perez
Race: Hulkenberg 5 – 7 Perez

Qualifying: Grosjean 14 – 1 Maldonado
Race: Grosjean 10 – 3 Maldonado

Toro Rosso:
Qualifying: Sainz 6 – 5 Verstappen
Race: Sainz 6 – 6 Verstappen

Qualifying: Alonso 6 – 6 Button
Race: Alonso 5 – 6 Button

Qualifying: Nasr 7 – 6 Ericsson
Race: Nasr 8 – 4 Ericsson

Qualifying: Stevens 1- 0 Rossi
Race: Stevens 0- 1 Rossi

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What our Formula One writers say:  

Dan Culyer (Formula One Lead Writer and Sports Editor): “We head into this race weekend with some of the excitement having been sucked out of it, after Mercedes retained their grip on the Constructor’s Championship.  The driver’s title is all but sewn-up too, and I expect Hamilton to clinch the title here with his tenth win of the season, with Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg close behind in second. Vettel to round out the podium – as has been the norm this season. Further down the field, and Red Bull will likely continue their scrap with Force India, Lotus and Toro Rosso for the smaller points, with or without their updated engine. McLaren have already stated that there will be little improvement from them in 2015, and Ron Dennis an co. will have already turned their attention to 2016, and on building a car capable of delivering the title to their drivers.  It should be a great race, and it would be great if Hamilton could indeed clinch the title in Austin, a place where he has always been historically quick, in front of his adoring fans.”

Alex Brașovan (Formula One writer): “It’s difficult to come up with a prediction because of the all-but-certain heavy rain that going to hit the circuit on Friday, Saturday and possibly on race day as well. It will be interestingly to see what will the teams do in terms of set-up in order to adapt to the changing conditions. This could very well give teams such as Ferrari or Red Bull a good chance to get closer to the dominant Mercedes. On the other hand, rain could spoil Williams’ party, who qualified 3rd and 4th in Austin last year. As this season has shown, Williams have trouble adapting to wet surfaces with intermediate and wet tyres not suiting the FW37 very well. Still, Mercedes AMG Petronas isn’t a team that struggles to adapt to circumstances. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are still very much the favourites for the race, as was the case all season long. If Red Bull decide to use the updated engine it will most likely throw them out of contention for a podium finish but it will be compare Ricciardo’s and Kvyat’s pace, new the engine installed, with the rest of the front runners. COTA is one of the best tracks on the calendar for overtaking, and if teams will be forced to play the guessing game with the car setups, we should see a lot of exciting track action. 

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