AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel drove his first laps around the new Circuit of the Americas at the U.S. Grand Prix on Friday and, judging by the times he posted, he rather enjoyed it.
Next comes qualifying and then a chance Sunday to win his third consecutive world championship
Vettel, who leads Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by 10 points with two races left, posted the fastest times in Friday’s morning and afternoon practice sessions. His lap of 1 minute, 37.718 seconds in the afternoon session was the fastest of the day.
“It’s a fun track,” Vettel said, adding the drivers had to get used to a slippery surface in the early session. “This morning was pretty difficult to start, kind of like driving on ice. It wasn’t easy but we got into a rhythm pretty quickly.”
Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber, had the second-fastest lap of the day at 1:38.475 in the afternoon.
Alonso, who was third in both sessions, said he’s used to the Friday-Saturday domination by the Red Bull team this season but is confident he can close the gap on race day. Alonso is also chasing his third world championship to go with titles he won in 2005-2006.
“First and second every practice session, the last four or five races, they do first and second in qualifying,” Alonso said. “We put more pressure on them on Sundays. We will fight every lap in the race.”
Drivers generally gave high marks for the new $400 million track hosting the first U.S. Grand Prix since 2007.
“It’s a great track to drive,” said Lewis Hamilton of McLaren, who won the world championship in 2008. “Generally, the track is cool all around. The turn one is pretty unique going uphill. It’s definitely not easy. I think a lot of people are going to have some troubles this weekend.”
The first turn comes at the top of a 133-foot elevation. Drivers are forced to start braking before they hit the top and plunge all the way back down.
“It’s quite blind at the apex,” Webber said. “It’s a new challenge for us that can be demanding.”
Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner said the course was very close to what the drivers practiced on their simulators and didn’t think it produced any surprises. The only problem was the dust left from a nearly two-year construction project.
“It was a positive start for us. The circuit was very dirty this morning, which is what you would expect from a new track. Times were getting quicker and quicker with every lap,” said Horner, who also noted the effects of the morning’s cool temperatures on the tires.
Temperatures have hovered in the 60s in the morning this week with a forecast in low 70s for the race.
“It’s probably a lot cooler than all of us thought. It’s taking a few laps for the tires to build up the temperature, but as the rubber goes down and the drivers push harder, that lap time will come much sooner,” Horner said.
Vettel had to start dead last in Abu Dhabi last week after being penalized when his car stopped at the end of qualifying. Race stewards ruled he had insufficient fuel to be tested, as required by the FIA. Even with that setback, the 25-year-old German made a stunning run through the field to finish third and lose only three points to Alonso, who finished second.
Horner said the team has reviewed the problem and it shouldn’t happen again.
“We need to have learned from it,” Horner said. “It just demonstrates that when you are working on the edge, the margins are very fine.”
Hamilton, who snatched the pole position in Abu Dhabi, said it will be difficult to knock the Red Bull cars out of the top two qualifying positions.
“It’s going to be tough, but I don’t think it’s going to be impossible,” Hamilton said.
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