Qualifying for the penultimate round of the Formula One world championship went about as well as Sebastian Vettel could have realistically hoped for. The first qualifying session at the all-new Circuit of the Americas produced a grid which might not lead to a gripping race, but could help Vettel deliver his third consecutive championship position.
For the sixth time this year he lines up on the coveted pole position. But more significantly, championship rival Fernando Alonso had an off-colour session and was beaten by his team mate. He ended up in ninth place – a lowly starting position even for the underwhelming Ferrari F2012.
With that, the odds shortened on Vettel claiming the title in Sunday’s race, ahead of next week’s finale in Brazil. The possibility of a failure affecting his car seems a greater threat to his title hopes than Alonso does.
Alonso up against it
Yesterday this column tipped Romain Grosjean as being a good value tip for a podium finish. He went a long way to coming good on that by qualifying in fourth place. Unfortunately for Grosjean his team have had to change his gearbox, which means a five-place grid penalty, demoting him to ninth.
It’s a tough break for him, and a mixed blessing at best for Alonso. He moves up from ninth to eighth on the grid, but also switches the side he will start the race from the right to the left of the track.
This could have a crucial bearing on his start. It’s a common problem at new tracks that the grip off-line is poor, and that is precisely what drivers like Alonso are concerned about. Lewis Hamilton, who starts three rows in front of Alonso on the same side of the grid, said: “My side of the grid will be a bit dirty, because it’s off-line, so I hope the authorities will clean the circuit on that side of the track so that the drivers on the inside will have a chance to at least keep their positions at the start.”
For Alonso, starting eighth may prove to be no better than starting ninth. And he also knows that starting from the midfield leaves him susceptible to first-lap collisions – he’s already lost two race finishes to those in Belgium and Japan.
Challenging COTA may not get race it deserves
The drivers have been fulsome in praise for the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), the new home of the American Grand Prix. The track is challenging and features the kind of high-speed bends drivers love to get stuck in to.
Unfortunately there are signs the first race on the track may not be an instant classic. Tyre suppliers Pirelli have brought a conservative choice of rubber to guard against any surprises on the new track and in the hope of not unduly influencing the outcome of the championship.
With drivers expected to make just one pit stop and the new circuit proving slippery and difficult to pass on, we might have to wait until next year for COTA to get the entertaining United States Grand Prix it deserves.
Alonso has been on the podium in every race he’s finished since the summer break in August. But starting down in eighth the odds on him doing so again this weekend have crept up and are worth a look.
He certainly won’t have to worry about overtaking his team-mate, who’ll be on strict orders to make way for him as soon as possible.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.