|© AP Photo/David J. Phillip
The Formula 1 season comes down to this: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel leads Ferrari's Fernando Alonso by ten points with two races left, the first at a track neither has driven on before.
The first United States Grand Prix since 2007 will be run Sunday on the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas, built a few miles outside of Austin. With so few points separating Vettel and Alonso from winning a third world title for either driver, learning every nuance in elevation, the straights and the 20 turns in practice and qualifying could make the difference.
"If you do everything perfectly, you will have a chance," Alonso said Thursday. "If you make a mistake, you will lose the chance."
If the title chase isn't decided Sunday, it will head to the season finale next week in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Vettel and Alonso have spent hours practicing in course simulators. Alonso did two laps on a bicycle on Wednesday and Vettel planned to walk the course Thursday afternoon.
"By the looks of it, it looks quite interesting, but it's always the feel you get inside the car that's most important," Vettel said.
Alonso said he first studied the course on a simulator after the Singapore Grand Prix in September.
"The track seems spectacular," Alonso said. "Very, very nice. It will be challenging for us drivers and for the engineers as well. I think it will be a good show for everybody and hopefully some good overtakings as well."
The Circuit of the Americas is the first track in the U.S. built expressly for Formula 1. From 1961-1980, the U.S. Grand Prix was held in Watkins Glen, New York before starting a run of street courses in cities such as Long Beach, California, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix. The race moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway where it was run on a road course built inside the oval track from 2000 to 2007.
The Circuit of the Americas was designed by German firm Tilke GmbH, which has built tracks in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Shanghai. The designers tried to mimic several notable characteristics of other courses, such as the quick succession of turns 3-6, similar to Silverstone in England.
"We've taken good bits from all the different circuits and put them together," Formula 1 president and CEO Bernie Ecclestone said. "It should make good racing."
The course is also notable for a 133-foot elevation heading into first turn, which means the cars will be immediately descend from that height into the second turn. And because it's a new track, the surface is expected to be slippery.
Racing on a new track would seem to cancel out any advantage Vettel and Alonso might have enjoyed on a course where they had won in the past.
"Maximum concentration, maximum effort from everyone on the team" will make the difference, Alonso said. "Do a lot of laps, to learn the racing lines, the possibilities and some of the notable characteristics of other tracks in Formula 1... maybe tricks ... that the circuit can have."
Vettel said the drivers have faced similar challenges on new courses that have opened in recent years.
"You try to prepare as much as you can. It's not the first time we've raced on a completely new circuit." Vettel said. "The most important thing is to get into a rhythm (Friday) and have a good start."
Sunday's race will be the 100th of Vettel's career. His first was at the U.S. Grand Prix in 2007 and he recalled how difficult that race was when he finished eighth to earn his first point.
"Sitting here 100 races later is quite crazy in a way. I think if the number gives you anything, it's just that you don't realize how quickly time goes by," the 25-year-old Vettel said.
Alonso, 31, has nearly 200 Formula 1 starts and he said he can't even remember his 100th race.
"I don't even know where it was," Alonso said.
With the points chase so close between Vettel and Alonso, other drivers could factor into the championship if they steal points from those two. Kimi Raikkonen sits a distant third in the championship but won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Nov. 4.
"We try to do the best that we can as a team in the race and wherever we end up, if we take points out of either of them, that's racing, that's life," Raikkonen said. "We just try to win, if not, score as much as we can."