FP2: View from the ground in Austin

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Rather than doing your traditional “Sebastian Vettel was fastest” post-session report – my colleague Luke Smith has that covered – I spent most of the 90-minute second free practice session roaming the grounds here at Circuit of the Americas to get a gauge on the atmosphere and the sensory overload of Formula One here at the circuit. A few thoughts to follow:

SPEED AND BRAKING

Although I’ve followed Formula One since the mid-1990s, I’ve only been to one prior Grand Prix on site, and that was eight years ago. So of all the things that you witness on the ground, the speed and transition to braking has to be the most surreal.

Standing at the end of the longest straight on the circuit, where Lewis Hamilton made his race-winning, albeit DRS-assisted pass on Sebastian Vettel last year, your jaw just drops as the cars decelerate from, according to Brembo, north of 190 mph down to 55 in 125 meters. The stopping power on an F1 chassis is just incredible – especially compared to an IndyCar, even though it also has carbon brakes.

The speed drop looks less severe as the cars head up the hill into Turn 1, aided by the huge elevation change that helps to slow the cars down. More intriguing there is the launch out of Turn 1 into Turn 2, as the steep downhill drop is an underrated part of this course.

DIRECTION CHANGE

I was here for the FIA World Endurance Championship and American Le Mans Series sports car doubleheader weekend in September as just a fan, and through the esses, the Audi, Toyota and HPD prototypes inhaling the GT cars were also surreal to watch. They looked like sharks chasing goldfish if I’m honest, to give you an idea of the speed differential.

Yet watching an F1 car go through the same section two months later, the prototypes look the smaller fish from an optics standpoint. An F1 car hits its turn-in points with laser precision, and it doesn’t even look real how fast the car changes directions. The fans obviously noticed too – I’d reckon there were more in the Turns 2 to 7 section just today than there were in total on Friday in September.

ELEVATION

I touched on this briefly in the first bit but yes, the climb up Turn 1 and the fall back down Turn 2 is more severe in person than it appears on television. Other areas of the track – the tail end of the esses, the dip through the back straight and the dive down from Turns 19 to 20 are also sizeable, but not as much as the first two corners. The elevation poses a true challenge for engineers on the pit wall and drivers alike as they negotiate the 3.4-mile circuit.

FAN FERVOR

There’s a diverse mix of fans on the ground, as you’d expect. Track president Jason Dial told me yesterday to expect fans from all 50 states and 40-plus countries on hand for the race. There’s a multicolored festival of team hats, humorous anti-other-championships shirts (the “BORING” signage over the NASCAR logo colors is a classic) and a genuine buzz in the air.

If there were ticket issues for fans, it didn’t appear as such from the turnout on the ground today. You’d have to think there was an easy 60,000 or so judging by the grandstands in Turns 1, 4, 11, and 15 plus all the ones on the ground.

CELEBRITY PRESENCE

It wouldn’t be America without some level of celebrity. NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton – whose “Buxton’s Big Time Bash” last night was a rousing success to raise money for Meals on Wheels – spoke with former Friends star Matt LeBlanc in the paddock today. There’s likely going to be more of these vignettes to come.

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.