F1 Preview: 2016 United States Grand Prix

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Formula 1 makes its annual trip to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas this weekend for the United States Grand Prix.

Following last year’s torrential downpours and the threat of a cut in state funding, this race is one that, at a time, looked unlikely to happen.

Despite being one of the best-loved and best-attended new tracks in F1, COTA was listed as being ‘subject to agreement’ on the provisional 2016 calendar.

However, a herculean effort from the track officials ensured that F1 is here to stay in the United States – which, at a time when American interests in the sport are piquing, is essential.

On-track, the championship battle is slowly nearing its conclusion. Nico Rosberg’s ninth victory of the year in Japan two weeks ago saw his points lead extend to 33, meaning second-place finishes in the four remaining races will be enough to clinch him a maiden world title.

A lot has changed for Rosberg’s Mercedes teammate and title rival, Lewis Hamilton, in the 12 months since the last race in Austin. It was at COTA in 2015 where the Briton clinched a third world title, wrapping the championship up with three races to spare.

This time around, the title is out of his hands – meaning all he can do is win and hope that Rosberg hits trouble or slips up. A three-time victor at COTA and four-timer in the US, Hamilton will want to match Michael Schumacher’s record of five wins at this grand prix on Sunday.

Here is our United States Grand Prix preview.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Talking Points

Tactics or tenacity? Rosberg must choose

With the championship now in his hands, Nico Rosberg must surely be thinking about getting tactical in the title fight against Lewis Hamilton. While no driver likes finishing second, Rosberg may want to focus on following Hamilton home instead of over-doing things in a vain attempt to catch his teammate, should such a situation arise.

That said, the last five races have proven that Rosberg is more than capable of beating Hamilton in a straight fight. Mistakes – and, admittedly, misfortune – have been rife on Hamilton’s side of the garage, blighting his fading title hopes.

If Rosberg can win at a track Hamilton has made his own over the years this weekend, it would surely be the knock-out blow in this title battle.

Whether it be tactics or tenacity, Rosberg needs to get his head down and start to think about just how he wants to finish the job.

In his adopted home, Hamilton must impress

Lewis Hamilton currently finds himself in unchartered territory. Never before has he faced such a daunting task to win the F1 title – excluding 2010 and 2012, when he was always an outside bet – making this weekend a particularly important one.

Hamilton has made the USA his adopted home over the past few years, enjoying a profile in America that is unmatched by anyone else on the F1 grid – case in point being an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show just this week. As a result, victory at COTA is perhaps more meaningful than others are – it’s Hamilton’s chance to be ‘the man’ both on- and off-track in the USA.

Perhaps there will be something quite liberating about knowing the title is out of his hands. Or perhaps the pressure of knowing anything less than victory will deal a killer blow to his championship bid will cause Hamilton to crack again. Either way, this will be a defining weekend in his chase for the title.

Will it be a happy homecoming for Haas?

While Rosberg and Hamilton face important weekends at COTA, it will be all the more significant for Haas F1 Team as it makes its long-awaited debut on home soil.

Not since the unrelated Haas-Lola operation raced at Detroit in 1986 has an American team flown the flag on home soil in F1, but after Gene Haas’ vision came to fruition, much of the crowd at COTA will be decked out in the red, white and gray of his newest operation.

Haas’ debut season has been a bumpy one. While Mr. Haas himself has called it “super-successful”, a lack of points since the Austrian Grand Prix at the beginning of July has been concerning. Spates of pace have been evident – getting both cars into Q3 in Japan was impressive – but they’ve rarely been converted into a breakthrough result.

Points at home would be the sweetest success of all for Haas. Let’s see how the team gets on and is received at COTA this weekend.

With one Renault seat filled, silly season nears its conclusion

Nico Hulkenberg’s sudden move from Force India to Renault for 2017 may have injected some life into an otherwise-stale silly season, but the driver market for next year looks close to being finalized in the coming weeks.

Lance Stroll is poised to make his F1 debut with Williams next year alongside Valtteri Bottas, while Mercedes may look to parachute one of its juniors – either Pascal Wehrlein or Esteban Ocon – into the now-vacant seat at Force India while keeping the other at Manor.

Sauber may well continue with Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, leaving the big question mark at Renault regarding its second seat. Will Kevin Magnussen or Jolyon Palmer get another year at Enstone? Or will another driver be drafted in last-minute, much like Hulkenberg was, to help build a new era for the team?

What does the future hold for F1 in the USA?

Every time the United States Grand Prix comes around, the same questions about F1’s status in the USA come with it. The long-time ‘problem child’ of a market is told it needs more races. Whispers about Laguna Seca or Watkins Glen or a new track entirely are bounded about.

But in reality, there has never been a better time to be an American F1 fan. There are now four races on a ‘friendly’ timeone – Austin, Montreal, Mexico City and Interlagos – and an American team on the grid. While there is an absence of an American driver, Alexander Rossi’s recent F1-to-IndyCar move and subsequent success is received fondly.

The takeover of F1 by American company Liberty Media has also stoked hopes of a greater presence for the sport in the USA. Additional races would certainly be welcome, yet we must also respect and recognize the moment: let’s savor the COTA weekend and enjoy some world-class grand prix racing on American soil.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit of The Americas
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:39.347 (2012)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:56.824
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:40.666
DRS Zones: T2o to T1; T11 to T12

2016 United States Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBCSN 11am ET 10/21
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 3pm ET 10/21
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11am ET 10/22
Qualifying: NBCSN 12:30pm ET 10/22 (includes encore of FP3)
Race: NBC 2:30pm ET 10/23