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USGP Polesitter Vettel Charges Toward Championship

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 18 2012

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Formula One superstar Sebastian Vettel, whose meteoric career was launched in the United States five years ago, is poised to move closer to an historic third consecutive World Driving Championship at America’s latest/greatest motorsports venue.

Vettel will start Sunday’s inaugural United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on-pole and 10 points (255-245) ahead of two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso. The penultimate round of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship is set for 1:30 p.m. (EST). Vettel, 25, is aiming to become the third and youngest driver to win three consecutive championships, a short list during the sport’s 62-year history featuring Juan Manuel Fangio (1954-56) of Argentina and Michael Schumacher (2000-02), Vettel’s German countryman.

Vettel, whose Red Bull Racing/Renault has been at the top of the time sheet since Friday morning’s opening practice, qualified on-pole by touring COTA’s 3.4-mile/20-turn circuit in 1 minute, 35.657-seconds. Former World Champion Lewis Hamilton, in his second-to-last race for McLaren/Mercedes, will start second after a hot lap of 1:35.766. Mark Webber, Vettel’s teammate, was third at 1:36.174.

“I’m very, very pleased with the result, obviously,” said Vettel, who claimed his 36th career pole despite losing 55 minutes of practice time during Friday’s second session while his crew repaired a water leak. “The first practice was very good for us. It was extremely slippery to be honest to start with. Obviously, the circuit is brand new, the asphalt is brand new and it takes a while for the track to come in. But it’s also quite a lot fun to slide around a couple of corners and it just got better throughout. I think you can see the lap times just got quicker.

“Through qualifying I think we were very happy. In the last section I would have loved to go a little bit quicker. I think I lost a little bit in the first and the last sector. It was a little bit closer than I wanted with Lewis. But overall, fantastic. Obviously, it’s very important here to start from the front. We start on the clean side, both of us (he and Webber), so yeah, should be a good race.”

COTA’s $400-million circuit features a long front straight that goes uphill and leads into a hard-left-hander at Turn 1 – arguably the track’s signature corner.

“I’m not really concerned about the first corner. I’m more concerned about the dirty side of the grid,” said Hamilton, who earned his 10th front row start of the season. “I did a launch from it earlier on and it was quite slippery. Hopefully (Sunday) is just about getting a good start. It’s so wide in Turn 1, I don’t think really much can go wrong there generally…I might be wrong. But obviously I don’t want to get in the way of Sebastian’s race. However, I do want to win, so I’ll try my best to get through cleanly.”

The stars seem to be aligning for Vettel in F1’s return to the USA for the first time since racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007. Vettel, then 19, made his F1 debut in what proved to be the sport’s swan song on IMS’ “roval” layout. Sunday’s race will be the 100th start for Vettel, who has posted 26 career victories and 45 podium finishes. Despite his strong showing throughout the weekend, Vettel warned the race is filled with a list of unknowns led by Pirelli tire compound choice and degradation.

“It’s always difficult because we haven’t been here before,” said Vettel, who has won four of the last five races to overtake Alonso and his Ferrari in the points chase. “If you remember, we went to Abu Dhabi and we thought it was going to be quite easy the first time and it proved wrong. Obviously, the last couple of years it has got more exciting, more overtaking. I think it’s possible here. Probably the best place is where the DRS (Drag Reduction System) zone is, down to Turn 12. But there’s a couple of other places as well.”

Vettel clinched his first championship in 2010 with a victory from pole during the season-ender at Abu Dhabi, becoming the youngest world champion in F1 history. Vettel repeated in 2011 via an 11-win season and runaway 122-point margin.

“Obviously we have to look after ourselves, and as I said I’m very happy,” said Vettel, dismissing a question about Alonso. “We had a smooth session, no issues. (Friday) afternoon was not ideal, we lost a little bit of time. These things can happen and they might happen again. So you never know and therefore it’s the best strategy to keep your head down and try to get the best, which I think was the target in qualifying.

“I’m very happy with the result but so far nobody has scored any points. I think we have seen at the last race how quickly things can change and even starting at the back does give you opportunities, so we need to wait-and-see. But for us we focus on our race and (Sunday) we have the chance to seal the Constructors’ Championship for the team, so that’s what Mark and I will probably be looking out for.”

A fueling penalty handed down by the FIA after qualifying at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago forced Vettel to start from last on the grid. Vettel drove from the back _twice _ to a remarkable third-place finish in a race won by former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen of Finland for Lotus/Renault, with Alonso second.

Alonso qualified ninth Saturday but will move up one spot in the 24-car lineup after fourth-place Romain Grosjean’s Lotus/Renault team was penalized for changing the car’s gearbox following the third practice, incurring a five-spot grid penalty from the FIA.

“It’s still possible,” said Alonso , whose qualifying time was 1.643-seconds slower than Vettel’s before a crowd estimated at 82,710, up from 65,360 on Friday. “(Sunday) I will try to do better and recover some places. We will push to the limit, as I have done since the start of every year and every race weekend.”

A Vettel victory would force Alonso, of Spain, to finish no worse than fourth to force the championship onto the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix at Sao Paolo next weekend. “On Sunday, we are still sure that we can score more points than Vettel. I don’t know how, but I have this feeling,” Alonso said. “Sundays are normally our best part of the weekend.”

Hamilton, who qualified on-pole at Abu Dhabi, said he was OK with his lap during the 10-minute Q3. “I saw in Q2 that they (Vettel and Webber) were obviously massively quick, I think it was a second or something like that, nine-tenths,” said Hamilton, the Brit who will replace seven-time World Champion Schumacher at Mercedes AMG next season. “I didn’t know where I was going to find that, so I thought that the Red Bulls would be in the lead.

“But I just went into Q3 and pushed as hard as I could, went in really hard and just gave absolutely everything. I seemed to find a little bit more time at the last sector, on the actual lap that I did, it was two laps consecutive. Surprisingly, the second lap was even quicker, even though I’d already just done a fast lap. And on that lap, just way on the limit everywhere. A couple of oversteer moments; I think I lost about a tenth at the last corner. The thing is I gained it on the way in and lost it on the exit. That’s how racing is.”

Webber said he was satisfied with his podium effort in qualifying given the generally slick conditions of the new surface. “It’s a very tricky venue in terms of tires, circuit conditions, all those type of things together Seb touched on,” the Australian said. “It’s easy to be out of the window here and not be super-competitive if you don’t get everything together. I was pretty happy with the last part of Q3. We had to manage a little problem in the car, which in the end I don’t think would have cost us a position because the guys obviously were pretty quick and both did very strong lap times.

“It’s certainly up there towards the front and we can have a very, very strong grand prix from there. So, it’s a great job from the team. I think Constructors-wise, we’ve got our eye firmly on that, to try and put that to bed and that’ll be a huge result for everyone at Milton Keynes (England) and at Renault.”

Hamilton also sounded the alarm on Pirelli tire-wear after completing “a couple of laps on the longer run” during practice. “Looking after tires is going to be quite difficult,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, it’s quite a demanding circuit for tires with the overheating of the surface of the tires, so I don’t know. I hope I can get away well. I hope… going to ask (race steward) Charlie Whiting to clean that side of the grid so the people on that side get an equal start and hope that I can fight Sebastian down to Turn 1. After that it’s a difficult circuit to follow, I think, because it’s so fast. Position will be everything.”

Vettel, meanwhile, admittedly is still coming to terms with Turn 19 – a sharp left-hander exiting a three-turn carousel . Vettel went off-track there Friday and poked fun at himself for doing so.

“Obviously I tried to stay on the track – it’s faster,” Vettel joked. “But it’s extremely difficult because obviously you want to carry as much speed as possible into the corner and ideally be as early and aggressive on power as you can. The difficultly, first of all, is that the apex is quite difficult to see, so it’s rather easy to overshoot. And then if you are not on the perfect line, there’s less grip, you lose the car or if you’re a little bit too keen, a little bit too quick on the way in, you tend to lose the rear quite aggressively and then you have to catch the car in order not to spin.

“But staying on the track there is quite difficult. I think there are a couple of corners like that on the track. I think for all of us it was quite a surprise (Friday) to start on this track, and it was very, very slippery. It was like driving on ice – and I think the first run would have been quicker on intermediate tires, so obviously the asphalt was pretty fresh for all of us. It took a while to come in but I think you see the lap times now just getting quicker and quicker, so the circuit is ramping-up massively.”

Starting grid for the FIA Formula 1 United States Grand Prix, with car number in parentheses, driver, country, chassis/engine and time around the 3.4-mile/20-turn Circuit of The Americas:

1. (1) Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Red Bull Racing/Renault, 1 minute, 35.657-seconds

2. (4) Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, 1:35.766

3. (2) Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull Racing/Renault, 1:36.174

4. (10) Romain Grosjean, France, Lotus/Renault, 1:36.587

5. (9) Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Lotus/Renault, 1:36.708

6. (7) Michael Schumacher, Germany, Mercedes AMG, 1:36.794

7. (6) Felipe Massa, Brazil, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, 1:36.937

8. (12) Nico Hulkenberg, Germany, Force India/Mercedes, 1:37.141

9. (5) Fernando Alonso, Spain, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, 1:37.300

10. (18) Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela, Williams/Renault, 1:37.842

11. (19) Bruno Senna, Brazil, Williams/Renault, 1:37.604

12. (3) Jenson Button, Great Britain, Vodafone McLaren/Mercedes, 1:37.616

13. (11) Paul di Resta, Great Britain, Force India/Mercedes, 1:37.665

14. (17) Jean-Eric Vergne, France, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, 1:37.879

15. (15) Sergio Perez, Mexico, Sauber/Ferrari, 1:38.206

16. (14) Kamui Kobayashi, Japan, Sauber/Ferrari, 1:38.437

17. (8) Nico Rosberg, Germany, Mercedes AMG, 1:38.501

18. (16) Daniel Ricciardo, Australia, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Ferrari, 1:39.114

19. (24) Timo Glock, Germany, Marussia/Cosworth, 1:40.056

20. (25) Charles Pic, France, Marussia/Cosworth, 1:40.664

21. (21) Vitaly Petrov, Russia, Caterham/Renault, 1:40.809

22. (20) Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, Caterham/Renault, 1:41.166

23. (22) Pedro de la Rosa, Spain, HRT/Cosworth, 1:42.011

24. (23) Narain Karthikeyan, India, HRT/Cosworth, 1:42.740

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 18 2012
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