US GPR Recap: Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso podium in dramatic Austin race

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Lewis Hamilton won the first United States Grand Prix held at the Circuit of the Americas after hunting down pole sitter Sebastian Vettel throughout the race. Hamilton finally passed Vettel with barely more than ten laps remaining, after losing and regaining second to Mark Webber in the early laps of the race. Webber dropped out of the final podium position before pit stops began with what was described as alternator issues. His retirement put Fernando Alonso into that third position and continued the driver’s title fight to next weekend in Brazil. All drivers but Paul Di Resta and Michael Schumacher stopped only once, as Mercedes suffered terrible tyre wear, the direct opposite of the other teams. Mid-field fights over position made the race a nail-biter as teammates scrapped over position and Felipe Massa and Jenson Button made their way through much of the field to finish fourth and fifth.Even with Webber’s retirement, Vettel’s second place finish netted enough points to win Red Bull their third straight constructor’s championship.

Vettel (1:35.657) won pole after dominating every session on the weekend at the dusty and slippery new Circuit of the Americas. He led all three practices and only Hamilton, who started second, could come close as the field struggled with grip and setup issues even during Saturday’s qualifying. Webber qualified third and started there, though fourth place qualifier Grosjean slid down the order after a Saturday gearbox change before qualifying. That put teammate Raikkonen on the dirty side of the grid and moved Schumacher in to the fifth starting position. Former teammate and man whom he chopped in a practice session, Massa started on the even slipperier even side of the grid, with Hulkenberg and Alonso the fourth starting row. Grosjean dropped to start ninth next to Maldonado. In dramatic fashion just over an hour before the race, Ferrari accepted a gearbox penalty for Massa, dropping him down to start eleventh on the clean side of the grid. That moved Alonso up to start seventh, and also on the cleaner side of the grid.

Qualifying was an unhappy place for Button, who managed only twelfth after a throttle issue stuck him in the garage in the final moments of Q2. There were no major incidents and a few fewer spins than in the practice sessions. However, there were quite a few visits to the stewards through that point on the weekend. Webber escaped penalty after missing a weight check after Q1 as the team quickly got the car to the FIA, Schumacher escaped penalty after seemingly impeding Alonso early in Q2, and Perez escaped a third penalty (after an earlier reprimand for weaving/blocking in practice and a fine for speeding down pit lane) despite running into Pic’s Marussia.

The thousands of fans on hand for the inaugural sessions at COTA saw some dramatic spins and dives off the track as drivers struggled to come to terms with the fresh surface. Pirelli had chosen the tires for the event just as the asphalt was first lain down, resulting in the hard and medium compounds arriving and barely degrading, despite long runs. The Texas weather also seemed to refuse to cooperate, resulting in cooler, almost winter testing conditions instead of the heat expected despite the sun and clear skies.

Race Start:
Vettel led the way off the line as the lights went out, with Hamilton angled towards him. Webber managed to get alongside Hamilton and through for second into the first turn. Alonso swept through into fourth around Schumacher through the first turn, while drivers well back scattered through the runoff area after Raikkonen and Hulkenberg nearly made contact. No contact appeared to take out any driver, even as Kobayashi took sixteenth from Button, who dropped well down the order.

At the end of L1, Vettel led Webber, Hamilton, Alonso, Schumacher, Hulkenberg, Raikkonen, Grosjean, Di Resta, and Massa the top ten. Hulkenberg took fifth from the older German into Turn 1, as the latter had already began to stack drivers up behind him. Raikkonen soon followed Hulkenberg through on the back straight. Grosjean managed to take Schumacher even as Raikkonen lost position to the German, leaving the three to continued to scrap it out. At the front, Hamilton looked to regain his second position on Webber, taking his McLaren out of the track’s boundaries to make the pass, only to lose it to the Australian again.

Hamilton continued to worry the Australian, finally making the pass stick through the DRS zone even as they gained a gap back to Alonso in fourth. Well back, Button continued to scrap with Maldonado for thirteenth, with Vergne in fifteenth occasionally sticking his nose into the fray as the fifth lap came to an end. Grosjean, after an attempt to pass Hulkenberg fell short, lost his way at Turn 19, spinning off into the runoff area, dropping his rear wheels into the gravel, and dropping well down the order. Senna soon passed him through the DRS zone for eleventh, only to drop again as Button pushed his way through. The Frenchman continued to fall as Ricciardo also passed him through Turn 1 as L9 began. Meanwhile, Button harried Schumacher over eleventh after Senna had taking the final points paying position from the German. Grosjean pitted for his first stop on L10. Button pushed through in the first turn, even as Schumacher left him little room to dive and take the eleventh position.

End L10 of 56:
As the tenth lap ended, Hamilton had gained time on Vettel, dropping the gap from the leading German to Hamilton down to a second and a half. Webber was another four and half seconds back, with Alonso 3.4s behind, as ten seconds covered the top four. Hulkenberg was well behind in fifth, as Raikkonen, Di Resta, Massa, Perez, and Senna the top ten. Massa then moved up to seventh, passing Di Resta from well back through the DRS zone. Raikkonen also proved racy, pushing Hulkenberg hard for fifth. They dueled through the latter stages of the lap before Raikkonen went to the outside, then inside in Turn 1, then the outside  for Turn 2, then Raikkonen pulled away and into fifth through the esses.

Kobayashi pitted on L13, while at the front Hamilton continued to hunt down Vettel at the front. Schumacher also pitted on the next lap. Things began to really heat up at the front as Hamilton gained immense amounts of time and dropped within the DRS zone behind the leader. Meanwhile, Vergne fell afoul of both Mercedes drivers, first Schumacher, then Rosberg, finally pulling off the track and to the side, dropping into the gravel near Turn 7 and causing a local yellow with what appeared to be steering issues.

Meanwhile, even as Alonso gained a tenth here and a tenth there on him, Red Bull informed Webber that his KERS had failed. He soon pulled to the side of the track and retired, later indicating that there were alternator problems. Hulkenberg pitted on L18, beginning to enter the one-stop pit window. Back at the front, Hamilton had dropped away from Vettel, losing a second and a half to the German. A bit further back, Massa had moved up to fifth and sat just five seconds behind Raikkonen, who was eight seconds behind Alonso. The Spaniard soon had a moment at Turn 19, dropping a second and a half back.

Halfway (End L28 of 56):
At halfway, Vettel had a 2.4s gap back to Hamilton, who sat safely twenty-three seconds ahead of teammate Button. Alonso was another second and a half back, with Ricciardo more than six seconds back to round out the top five. Raikkonen, Massa, Rosberg, Grosjean, and Hulkenberg completed the top ten. Neither Button, Ricciardo, nor Rosberg had yet stopped out of the entire field running. Senna, Si Resta, Maldonado, Perez, Schumacher, Kobayashi, Petrov, Kovalainen, Glock, Pic, de la Rosa and Karthikeyan completed the twenty-two drivers still racing.

Button looked unlikely to stop at any time soon, asking the team about his position relative to Massa and suggesting that they make use of the clear air. Meanwhile, Hamilton also received a good review on the tyres just off his McLaren. Ricciardo pitted as L31 began, as did Di Resta, the latter doing so for the second time. Vettel and Hamilton soon hit traffic in the form of Glock, who held both of them up nearly equally, but Hamilton still gained eight tenths on Vettel. He soon had the gap back down to 1.2s, with twenty-three laps remaining.

Hamilton was within the DRS zone on L34, closing well up to push Vettel even harder. Hamilton continued to use the DRS to gain on Vettel on the back straight, but was unable to be close enough to actually pass the German. Button finally made his first stop on L36, rejoining just behind Grosjean, the lap after Rosberg made his while Hamilton continued to remain close to Vettel. Hamilton was just over a seconds behind Vettel as they crossed the line to begin the last twenty laps. Alonso had moved up to third, thirty seconds behind the leaders, with Raikkonen ten seconds behind him. Massa sat fifth, with Grosjean, Button, Hulkenberg, Senna, and Maldonado rounding out the top ten.

McLaren had already encouraged Hamilton to save up his KERs for a lap to attack harder later. Back in seventh, Button slid through on Grosjean for sixth, setting off after Massa. Vettel and Hamilton continued to lap in tandem, with neither Vettel making any mistakes nor Hamilton pushing excessively. Massa was the next driver to make a move, coming from a long way back to take Raikkonen from the inside and move into fourth, twelve seconds behind his teammate. Meanwhile, Mercedes suffered tyre wear issues, forcing Schumacher to stop for a second time from fourteenth.

The gap between Vettel and Hamilton remained under a second with fifteen laps to go. They hit traffic ahead, as Di Resta pulled to the side for the both of them. Through the DRS zone, Hamilton got a tow to take the lead from Vettel on L42, entering the next turn a bit wide to force Vettel to stay behind. Vettel soon radioed back to Red Bull regarding a run in with Karthikeyan a few turns earlier that “it was a stupid overtake” and “unbelievable.” The Briton soon had more than a second gap back to Vettel.

10 Laps Remaining:
His teammate was the next to push through the DRS zone and following turns, taking fifth from Raikkonen in very close fighting. He went around the outside to come back on the inside, as both drivers trusted the other. Button next had nearly eight seconds to catch Massa in ten laps, on “very good tyres,” as McLaren told the flying driver. Back at the front, Hamilton quickly lost four tenths to Vettel in a single lap, only to gain it again. They continued to play cat and mouse just outside of the DRS requirement at the front while Button continued to push to get closer to Massa.

Further back, Senna was very close to Hulkenberg, with Maldonado pushing his teammate from behind. Grosjean was also on the teammate hunt, just five tenths behind Raikkonen, looking for a way to get into sixth. After asking permission from the team, Maldonado shoved his way under Senna, coming close to contact but both held it together and Maldonado moved into ninth. Button seemed unable to catch Massa in the final laps, with a radio message indicating a possible KERS issue for the McLaren driver. Hamilton kicked off the final two laps with a race fast lap and a gain of two tenths on Vettel. Hamilton gained another two tenths on the start of the final lap. In the end, Hamilton won, Vettel came second, Alonso completed the podium, and the championship continues.

Final Positions, 2012 United States Grand Prix:

 DriverTeamGapStop
1. Lewis HamiltonMcLaren1
2. Sebastian VettelRed Bull0.61
3. Fernando AlonsoFerrari39.21
4. Felipe MassaFerrari46.01
5. Jenson ButtonMcLaren56.41
6. Kimi RaikkonenLotus64.41
7. Romain GrosjeanLotus70.31
8. Nico HulkenbergForce India73.71
9. Pastor MaldonadoWilliams74.51
10. Bruno SennaWilliams75.11
11. Sergio PerezSauber84.31
12. Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso84.81
13. Nico RosbergMercedes85.51
14. Kamui KobayashiSauber1 Lap1
15. Paul Di RestaForce India1 Lap2
16. Michael SchumacherMercedes1 Lap2
17. Vitaly PetrovCaterham1 Lap1
18. Heikki KovalainenCaterham1 Lap1
19. Timo GlockMarussia1 Lap1
20. Charles PicMarussia2 Laps1
21.Pedro de la RosaHRT2 Laps1
22.Narain KarthikeyanHRT2 Laps1
 Mark WebberRed Bull40 Laps
 Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso42 Laps
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