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.
Another retirement wasn't far behind, and it was a car with a similar but not identical livery: Mark Webber was told that his KERS had failed, but almost before he could digest this news there was a far more terminal issue with the alternator of the Red Bull that forced him to park his car, this time at turn 14. That put Alonso up into a third position, and suddenly his boasts about being able to outpoint Vettel in Austin didn't seem like such wild flights of fancy after all.
For Alonso to really make in-roads into Vettel in the championship, he urgently needed Hamilton to take the lead from the German. But Hamilton wasn't able to make that long-awaited move on Vettel for the lead, his tyres looking past their best after all their hard work catching back up to the Red Bull in the early laps, and on lap 21 Hamilton was in to change to the harder prime tyres for the second half of the race. Alonso was in at the same time, and Vettel needed to react next time by: McLaren and Red Bull both put in astoundingly fast pit stops, but Alonso's was noticeably slower.
Vettel resumed in the lead ahead of Raikkonen who had yet to stop, which was frustrating for Hamilton who was running immediately behind the Lotus for a couple of laps before being able to pass for position. Massa was in fourth place pending his own visit to the pit lane, while behind him Alonso's slow pit stop had left him exposed to attack from Jenson Button for fifth place, which the Briton accomplished on lap 24 despite his far older set of tyres. It was proving to be a fine recovery run from Button, who was having to work hard in the first half of the race after dropping to 16th place on the first lap following his poor grid position following technical problems in qualifying on Saturday.
Raikkonen pitted on lap 25, but a slow stop because of a clutch issue meant that any hopes he had of coming back out in front of Fernando Alonso were long gone. Instead, the Finn had his hands full trying - and failing - to hold off the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo for fifth place.
As the race reached the halfway point, backmarkers had cost Hamilton some time and he was now once again over two seconds off the back of race leader Vettel. Button was maintaining third place ahead of Alonso and Ricciardo, who finally pitted on lap 32 and fell to 13th as a result, while Massa had earlier pitted on lap 27 and was left wrestling with Raikkonen over what had become fifth place.
Raikkonen won that lengthy duel and fifth place become fourth when Button finally came in for his long-deferred pit stop on lap 36, and a welcome switch to the grippier but less durable option tyres, the reverse strategy to the majority of the cars in Texas. Disappointingly, Button failed to make it back out ahead of Felipe Massa as planned despite the Ferrari having been held up in traffic and he had to make do with seventh behind Romain Grosjean; even so, the McLaren pit wall were reassuring Button that he was much faster that anyone else around him at this point of the race, and he proved it with a relatively easy slice past the Lotus on lap 39. Sensing the danger from behind, Massa responded by taking advantage of Raikkonen running wide in turn 10 at lap 40 to pass for position - although the two came perilously close to a collision as Raikkonen sought to recover back onto the track.
All the while, Vettel continued to lead the race: but Hamilton was creeping closer and closer, and finally on lap 41 Hamilton had his first serious look down the inside of turn 11 to state his intentions. Vettel fended him off and tried to pull away again, but the McLaren had enough to stay with him and next lap through the DRS advantage was simply too overwhelming. Despite trying to move over to thwart Hamilton, there was nothing Vettel could do as the McLaren sailed past. Furious, he was quickly on the Red Bull team radio to vent about HRT's Narain Karthikeyan, whose sluggish presence up the road had limited Vettel's ability to defend.
In the meantime, Hamilton tried pulling away out of the DRS activation distance as fast as he could, thwarting any ideas Vettel might have had about counterattacking. That was good news in terms of the championship for Alonso, who was still calmly lapping in third place.
Hamilton's team mate Jenson Button was also enjoying himself now, finally winning a hard-fought, no quarter given duel with Kimi Raikkonen for fifth place to put him on course to chase down Felipe Massa up the road in fourth. After an initial surge, a KERS issue forced Button to ease off and settle for the positions he'd already gained. The rest of the top ten with half a dozen laps remaining to the chequered flag was comprised of Grosjean, Hulkenberg and the two Williams cars of Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado, which were once again demonstrating mighty straight line speed in race trim.
Less happy with how things were going were the Saubers of Sergio Perez (11th) and Kamui Kobayashi (14th) and the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg (13th) and Michael Schumacher (16th), after the multiple former world champion had needed to abandon his one-stop strategy for a second costly tyre change on lap 40. Toro Rosso would also have surely been disappointed with Daniel Ricciardo running out of the points in 12th place after that fine first half performance from 18th on the grid.
It seemed that second would have to be enough for Vettel this week, although Hamilton's initial move to run and hide at the front lost its momentum and allowed Vettel to stay in touch, the Red Bull flirting with being back within DRS activation range. But ultimately it became clear that Hamilton was simply teasing Vettel while playing safe with fuel mileage and hardware reliability: when the finish finally came, the McLaren was still comfortably in the lead as the chequered flag flew.
"Awesome job," the McLaren pit wall broadcast over the team radio.
"We definitely deserved that one, guys. We definitely did," responded Hamilton, having finally clinched a win after two painful incidences of being denied by reliability issues at Singapore and Abu Dhabi.
Wearing a brand new Pirelli-branded stetson, Hamilton duly took the top step on the podium at the brand new Circuit of the Americas. The last man to win a US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2007 had become the first driver to win a US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. This time there was no question of a subdued demeanour that's been the case at times in the past, Hamilton beaming broadly as he celebrated in style with Vettel, Alonso and McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh on the champagne-soaked podium.
Hamilton had got his wish to claim at least one more win for McLaren before moving in to Mercedes in 2013; Alonso got his wish to force the world championship to the season finale next week in Brazil, even if he hadn't quite been able to make good his boast of outscoring Vettel in the race.
As for Vettel himself: maybe in seven days time he'll be celebrating his third world championship. For today, he'd just have to make do with having safely delivered the constructors title to Red Bull for the third consecutive season. Not a bad day at the office, all things considered.Full race results
availableFull championship standings