The fog wasn't as heavy Saturday morning at Circuit of the Americas for the third and final F1 practice of the United States Grand Prix. The weather was warmer - for awhile - 70F/23C for the track, and 68F/20C for ambient. But as the afternoon wore on, the cloud cover enveloped, the temperatures fluctuated and the wind came up. By mid-afternoon it was hot and muggy outside, with high humidity.

The weather may or may not have affected the times, but the drivers were faster in FP3. Sebastian VetteL/Red Bull Racing ended up on top with a 1:36.733. The top four drivers were faster than Vettel's Friday afternoon time. Second fastest driver, Mark Webber/Red Bull Racing was the only other one to dip into the 36s. Third through fifth were Lewis Hamilton/Mercedes, Nico Hulkenberg/Sauber, and Roman Grosjean/Lotus. His new teammate for the remainder of 2013, Heikki Kovalainen was lucky thirteenth.

Mika Salo, these days working as a sports announcer for MTV, is reported to have been the one who touted his Finnish friend, Kovalainen to replace Finnish Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus. He smiled and said it was not true: "But, he's the best one for the position."

After FP3, the teams all seemed to be in detailing mode. The rear of the garages - which is an esplanade after the F1 sessions, was crowded with teams hosing down, scrubbing an polishing wheels. One had to dodge the water spray and puddles everywhere. But, hey - it's all about presentation. And it didn't stop all the visitors in the walkways and open-air hospitality porches.

Bernie Ecclestone paid an unscheduled visit to the Media Center, where he was pursued by some foreign media wanting autographs and others just snapping away with their cameras. Elsewhere, the Vintage Formula group finished its eight-lap race out on the track and the winner was 18-year old Tim de Silva, aka The Little Prince. Second and third were veteran racers Tim Gaffney and Art Hebert.

Once that was done, it was time for the main event on Saturday: qualifying for the Grand Prix.

Same-O, Same-O Seb

Red Bull Racing owns the front row for the USGP at Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas, with Sebastian Vettel taking his eighth pole of the season, and teammate Mark Webber alongside. It had looked like Webber was finally going to get his due with the pole position when his teammate pipped him literally at the last minute. There was a spontaneous, involuntary, collective groan heard in the Media Center when Vettel jumped to the top.

The qualifying gap was 0.103 seconds between the teammates. Vettel's lap was 1:36.338s (128.000 mph/206.012 kph). He had the pole last year, with a faster time of 1:35.657s in a race that won by Lewis Hamilton. Vettel hopes to put that right in 2013: eight is Vettel's lucky number this weekend, and with eight poles in the bag it will be his eighth consecutive victory this year if he manages to win on Sunday.

The body language between the Red Bull pair was evident after qualifying. Webber was low-key, unsmiling and almost taciturn during the post-qualifying conference while Vettel was his usual ebullient self. The cuckoo in the Red Bull next, Lotus' Romain Grosjean in third place, seemed happy enough.

Fourth and fifth were Nico Hulkenberg/Sauber and Hamilton. Grosjean's new teammate, Heikki Kovalainen qualified eighth. It's a good thing Kovalainen is secure and confident in his situation - the team never managed to put his name above his garage.

Jenson Button/McLaren was thirteenth fastest but will serve a three-position grid penalty for overtaking during a Red Flag situation on Friday. Charles Pic/Caterham qualified twenty-first in a field of 22 drivers, but will start from the back of the pack due to a five-grid position penalty for gearbox change before its allotted time. Two drivers will have new (allowed) engines for the race - Pic's teammate, Giedo van der Garde and Marussia's Max Chilton.

After qualifying the teams went to work putting their cars to bed for the night. There didn't appear to be much last-minute thrashing. In the Sahara Force India garage, a gaggle of the mechanics were seen glued to their binoculars scoping out the grandstand.

Warm reception for F1 in Texas

Despite the at-times chilly weather, the reception from the local American race fans for F1's second appearance at the Circuit of the Americas has been wonderfully warm and enthusiastic. The crowd was up Saturday from Friday's attendance, with 78,886 fans spread out all over the grandstands and grassy knolls in the warmth - for the most part, once the early morning mists dispelled.

TV coverage for the USGP is also cranked up: NBCUniversal has promised hours of airtime spread out across its various platforms and will air the race itself live on Sunday on NBC at 1pm ET/noon local time. The broadcast crew will all be on site, which isn't the case for the other Grands Prix. Included in the broadcast team are Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett in the booth, and Will Buxton in the pits.

Part of the Pre-Race Show will be a sit-down interview between Diffey and Vettel. The race introduction voice-over will be by Ron Howard, director of the recent F1 movie, Rush.

by Lynne Huntting

 

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