The first race at the new Circuit of the Americas could have decided both the drivers' and the constructors' title, but in the end it only managed to seal the latter, with Sebastian Vettel denied a win in Austin by a determined and energised Lewis Hamilton.
The 2012 F1 United States Grand Prix got underway in front of a sell-out crowd under brilliant blue Texas skies and comfortably warm temperatures in the mid-70s (24C) which helped the drivers get their tyres up into operating temperature on the formation lap. After all the commotion about clean and dirty sides of the grid, which had compelled Ferrari into the controversial decision to purposefully incur a gearbox penalty for Felipe Massa in order to improve Fernando Alonso's chances in the race, the proof of the strategy was to be in the starting of it.
Sure enough, the dirty side of the grid took its toll as the lights went out and Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber both made it into turn 1 ahead of Lewis Hamilton, while Ferrari's gearbox gambit with Alonso duly paid off was rewarded with fourth place behind them. There were plenty of cars flying off into the run-off areas during the first racing lap on the unfamiliar track, but there were no serious collisions.
Michael Schumacher initially took up fifth place, but he was clearly not blessed with great race pace in Austin and was quickly passed first by Nico Hulkenberg and then by a brave lunge from Romain Grosjean; Grosjean outbraked himself and ran wide a few corners later, but gathered the Lotus back up in time to save the hard-won sixth place. The next driver lining up Schumacher was Grosjean's team mate Kimi Raikkonen, and that was enacted on lap 4.
Predictably Vettel was flying up in front, over a second a lap faster than fourth place Alonso. But the more intriguing battle was for second between Webber and Hamilton, the McLaren applying all the pressure and the Red Bull increasingly locking its brakes in response. After an initial failed bid at turn 11 on lap 4 with DRS that saw him run too wide, Hamilton finally took the position on the next lap and he quickly started pulling away as he set his sights on reeling in Vettel who was already three seconds up the road.
Meanwhile, Grosjean was still looking feisty and attempted a move on Hulkenberg for fifth place on lap 7; it didn't come off, and next time around the Frenchman became the first driver in the race to get caught out by the tricky turn 19 left hander that sent him spinning. Grosjean recovered and rejoined in a busy section of the track right in the path of a fight between old 'friends' Schumacher and Massa, but Grosjean's rhythm had clearly been thrown by his spin and his tyres doubtless flatspotted. The Lotus started to concede positions at an alarming rate of knots, leaving him tangling with Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo for 13th place as the race entered lap 10. Sure enough, Lotus conceded that this wasn't a viable state of affairs and they called Grosjean in for new tyres next time by.
At the front of the field, Vettel was still firmly in control - but it was Hamilton setting all the fastest sector times and gradually getting back in range of the Red Bull. By lap 12 Hamilton was achingly close to being within DRS range of the leader, and Red Bull now had to decide how much was a race win worth: should Vettel fight to stay in front, or accept that a second place was the way to go in order to safeguard his championship campaign.
While we waited for the Vettel/Hamilton showdown, we were treated to a wonderful sustained overtaking move by Kimi Raikkonen through the sweeping early corners in which the Lotus took fifth place ahead of Nico Hulkenberg in the Force India on lap 13.
Behind that battle at this stage of the race, the remainder of the top ten was filled out by Felipe Massa, Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez and Bruno Senna. The Mercedes of Michael Schumacher was having a dreadful afternoon and had now fallen out of the top ten altogether. He finally pitted from 14th place and came back out right in front of Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, who chanced his arm with an overtaking move. Vergne ended up running off the track, and while he was initially able to recover it appeared that the incident had left him with suspension damage, and he was soon forced to pull over onto the grass at turn 7 and park the car.