Sebastian Vettel (1:35.657) won pole for the inaugural United States Grand Prix held at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, holding off a late charging Lewis Hamilton who qualified second. Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean, and Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top five qualifiers. However, Grosjean will drop five places from his qualifying position after a gearbox change between the issues during the final practice and before beginning the qualifying sessions. Fernando Alonso managed only to qualify ninth, with teammate Felipe Massa out-qualifying him in seventh for the second time this season.
Daniel Ricciardo joined Marussia, Caterham, and HRT in the knockout zone in Q1, as Narain Karthikeyan caused a local yellow for the final two minutes of Q1. Button was the big loser in Q2, pitting in the final minutes of the session, having lost power in his McLaren after a throttle issue. He qualified only twelfth, while Alonso and Raikkonen barely squeaked through to fight for pole. For perhaps the first time all season, most drivers went out and stayed out for the length of the qualifying segments in an attempt to warm the tyres and gain any grip possible on the slippery, green track.
Vettel took to the Circuit of the Americas like a duck to water, which might just be the best metaphor for the dusty and incredibly slippery green track. The championship leader led both Friday practices, though he saw only full session running in the morning. During the first practice Vettel (1:38.125) led Hamilton, Alonso, Button, and Webber and was the only man to post a lap time in the 1:38s. Hamilton’s best lap was nearly a second and a half slower than Vettel’s, with Alonso another eight tenths slower. The track evolved quickly, with the fastest time of that session sixteen seconds faster than Kobayashi’s first flying lap near the beginning of the session. Hamilton and Alonso traded the mastery of the session for the latter half until Vettel pushed clear. Most drivers lost control at one time or another on the new surface, especially at Turn 19.
Vettel (1:37.718) continued to make time in the second session, despite missing nearly two thirds of the running time due to a water leak. Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, and Button only switched around the top five running order from the first session, but only the members of that little group. They remained well behind Vettel, though Webber was seven tenths slower than his teammate instead of the 1.4s Hamilton lagged behind in the first session, but closed up some of the gaps between the slower drivers. Alonso especially did so, posting a final time just 0.008s slower than the Australian. Drivers continued to slide around as the grip levels increased only slightly. Only Kovalainen and Vergne came together in an incident, leaving the former with a puncture and the latter with front wing damage. HRT continued to drop pace, barely leaving the session and worrying about making the 107% qualifying rule.
Vettel (1:36.490) also ruled Saturday’s chilly morning practice, though the rest of the field seemed to have tightened up in the final minutes of the hour long session. Maldonado, Hamilton, Alonso, and Rosberg completed the fastest five. As the track cooled during the session, conditions remained slippery and Turn 19 a hazard. Perez and Pic came together after the Mexican drivers turned in on the Frenchman. Though neither car appeared to suffer major damage, Perez pushed Pic into a spin and spun himself as well. Both visited the stewards after the session, with Perez already having received two reprimands and a fine to that point on the weekend. However, the stewards took no further action.
Both Vettel and Vergne hit kerbs rather too hard, though Vergne suffered a suspension failure for his trouble, bringing out an extended yellow flag sector that nearly brought the Ferraris grief. The team had waited until the latter stages of the session to test their long runs, leaving little time for either Massa or Alonso to learn tyre degradation while lifting. Massa and race engineer Rob Smedley were a bit testy on the radio. In the end, Massa held second fastest momentarily, and Alonso ended up third fastest overall. Meanwhile, Grosjean ended the session in the garage with suspected gearbox problems.
COTA warmed up a bit from the morning practice as the twenty minutes of Q1 began under a clear and sunny sky. De la Rosa led his teammate out onto the track as the light went green, hoping to post something approaching a time within the 107%. Glock followed them onto the track, then so did Perez and others. The HRTs set their first times nearly four minutes into the session, and they were easily surpassed by Glock by two seconds, then Raikkonen started things off with a 1:41 flat, still five seconds off Vettel’s pace from the final practice. Early times came in slowly as most drivers settled in, as the tyres seemed to take about four laps to heat up.
Most of the drivers had moved out onto the circuit eight minutes into the session. Only Kobayashi and Schumacher were in the garage at that point, with the latter joining soon thereafter. Grosjean soon joined his teammate at the top, only to have Massa and Alonso slide into second and third respectively.
Most pit boards indicated long runs for all drivers at halfway. Grosjean (1:37.865) led Perez, Vettel, Massa, Vergne, Alonso, Raikkonen, Glock, di Resta, and Ricciardo as the top ten just after that point. Alonso soon moved back up to second fastest, only to have Massa then Webber take that position. Times came more and more quickly as drivers continued to lap and the track gain grip bit by bit. Senna soon supplanted Grosjean at the top, only to lose it again to Grosjean, then Massa and Webber moved back up as well. Times at the top remained chaotic while Petrov, Rosberg, Schumacher, and Kobayashi all remained out of the 107%, along with Kovalainen, de la Rosa, and Karthikeyan in the knockout zone with six minutes left.
At that point, Vettel (1:37.165) led Grosjean, Massa, Hulkenberg, Webber, Senna, Alonso, Raikkonen Di Resta, and Hamilton as the top ten. Some drivers were on the hard compound and others on the medium, the two compounds Pirelli sent when deciding on the compounds months ago. Maldonado soon slotted into third fastest, only to drop a position as Webber moved up to join his teammate, less than a tenth slower than Vettel.
With three minutes remaining, only Petrov lacked a time within the 107%, leaving HRT breathing a sigh of relief. Ricciardo, Glock, Pic, Kovalainen, de la Rosa, and Karthikeyan joined him in the knockout zone then. Karthikeyan brought out a yellow sector, stopping his HRT at Turn 2 and ending his session. Hamilton had popped up to fastest, only to lose the position again to Vettel with just over a minute left.
Many drivers in the top ten pitted on their final lap of the session, though Rosberg managed to cross the line for a final lap even as he saved himself in seventeenth. He backed off as the team realized that Ricciardo would be unable to drop the German into the knockout zone. Vettel (1:36.558) led Hamilton, Webber, Grosjean, Senna, Maldonado, Button, Massa, Hulkenberg, and Schumacher as the top ten at the end of Q1. Alonso sat eleventh, nearly a second and a half slower than Vettel’s fast time.
Knocked Out in Q1:
23. de la Rosa
Maldonado began the fifteen minutes of Q2 a few seconds into the session, as Raikkonen followed him onto the track. Rosberg soon joined them, and more of the field followed. Four minutes into the session, only Maldonado, Vettel, Webber, Kobayashi, and Perez remained in the garage. Raikkonen took the early lead in the times, with Rosberg’s first timed lap nine seconds off the Finn’s pace. Senna and Grosjean soon slotted between Raikkonen and Rosberg as all drivers but Perez joined the fray.
At halfway, Raikkonen, led a top ten of Senna, Grosjean, Button, Vergne, Rosberg, Alonso, Di Resta, Hamilton, and Massa. Schumacher was the only driver in the knockout zone at that time who had set a time. Meanwhile, Alonso had run into traffic, with a slower Schumacher ahead of him. Button quickly jumped up to second fastest, only to drop to third as his teammate set the overall fastest time to that point of Q2. Webber then moved into second fastest.
Perez finally joined the party with just over five minutes to go, while Alonso dropped into the knockout zone. He led Rosberg, Vettel, Kobayashi, Di Resta, Schumacher, and Perez. Vettel (1:35.971) quickly moved to fastest, by eight tenths over Hamilton’s time as Alonso continued to fall down the order. Around that time, Button radioed the team to tell them that he lost power. He continued to move around the track, getting out of the way of drivers still speeding along, but heading for the garage. Meanwhile, Button moved up to fourth fastest as the Briton looked sure to drop out, just five hundredths fastest than Di Resta, who sat eleventh.
Vettel led Webber, Hamilton, Alonso, and Hulkenberg as the fastest five, while Di Resta, Senna, Vergne, Kobayashi, Rosberg, and Perez all sat in thte knockout zone as Schumacher dropped Button out with a minute to go. Di Resta also gave up, pitting in the final minute of the session. Hamilton also pitted before the session ended. No one looked to be on a super flying lap to get out of the knockout zone after the flag waved, though Massa jumped up to second fastest. Rosberg pitted, dropping to seventeenth, as Senna attempted to heave himself into Q3, but could only manage eleventh. In the end, Vettel (1:35.796) led Webber, Massa, Hamilton, Grosjean, Maldonado, Hulkenberg, Schumacher, Alonso, and Raikkonen into the ten minutes of Q3.
Knocked Out in Q2:
13. Di Resta
Schumacher got the ten minutes of Q3 started, with Alonso and Massa soon following him onto the track. Grosjean and Maldonado quickly joined them. Hamilton did so nearly two minutes into the session. All drivers were out three minutes into the session. Schmacher’s first time was a remarkably slow 1:51, as Alonso and Massa were also slow in the 1:42 and 1:43 range, respectively. Grosjean set the first somewhat competitive time with a 1:37.227. Hamilton soon slotted in behind him, five seconds off that pace halfway through the session.
Webber took over the top position with four minutes to go, nearly a full second slower than Vettel’s Q2 time. Hamilton quickly surpassed him by six tenths as each driver’s tyres began to warm up properly. Hamilton led Webber, Grosjean, Schumacher, Alonso, Massa, Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Maldonado, and Vettel with three minutes left, only for Vettel to go fastest. Alonso sat seventh, seven tenths off Vettel’s time. The Spaniard lost his penultimate lap, even as Hamilton set the fastest first sector of the session. He still could not best Vettel’s time, just before the flag flew.
Hamilton would start his final lap, the last across the line. Alonso’s last lap left him seventh as Vettel and Hamilton traded fastest sector time. Vettel crossed the line first, improving his own time, and Hamilton was unable to make up the time in the final sector, missing pole by a tenth of a second. Webber remained third, with Grosjean qualifying fourth but dropping down the order with his gearbox penalty. Raikkonen completed the top five, while Alonso dropped down to ninth in qualifying.
Final Qualifying Times for the 2012 United States Grand Prix:
Driver Team Time Laps 1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:35.657 20 2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1:35.766 20 3. Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.174 20 4. Romain Grosjean* Lotus 1:36.587 28 5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:36.708 26 6. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:36.794 22 7. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:36.937 24 8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:37.141 20 9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:37.300 24 10. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:37.842 26 11. Bruno Senna Williams 1:37.604 20 12. Jenson Button McLaren 1:37.616 12 13. Paul Di Resta Force India 1:37.665 15 14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:37.879 17 15. Sergio Perez Sauber 1:38.206 16 16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1:38.437 15 17. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.501 16 18. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:39.114 9 19. Timo Glock Marussia 1:40.056 12 20. Charles Pic Marussia 1:40.664 11 21. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1:40.809 7 22. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1:41.166 7 23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1:42.011 12 24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1:42.740 10
*five-place grid penalty for gearbox change