November 19th, 2012 (F1plus / Graham Keilloh).- Before the race many (outside the Red Bull team anyway) feared the worst. No one would be able to pass. Sebastian Vettel would run away, he'd been fastest in every session after all, usually by a distance. The world championship would be decided a race early, which in mesmerising 2012 would seem a lot like an anti-climax.
But we ended up with something very different. Perhaps in an appropriate place, we had a mano-a-mano standoff, Seb and Lewis Hamilton staring at each other and waiting for the other to flinch, for the whole race distance it seemed. No one else ever got near to them. And even though Seb led from the front as usual he didn't disappear in the way we've got used to. Lewis was able to reel him in, and in the end sneaked ahead after 42 laps (helped in part by Seb being baulked for a tiny moment by Narain Karthikeyan). He stayed there until the end, though with Seb never giving him a moment's peace. I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but never let anyone tell you that F1 is predictable.
All in, F1's overdue and much-vaunted return to the US couldn't have gone much better. The Circuit of the Americas is a fantastic facility with a challenging and undulating layout, popular with drivers and fans. And today some 120,000 were in attendance to watch all of the action. You feel that if F1 doesn't get it right in America with this starting point then it will never get it right.
And it was very much a good old-fashioned motor race in Austin today, no safety cars, freak rain showers or anything similar played a role. Simply it was two fast, committed drivers facing off with almost nothing to choose between them, driving at the outer edge and yet making no mistake that I saw. You'd imagine the Austinites, and everyone else in attendance, must have been much impressed.
And for Lewis it is all a continuation of a season that has witnessed him very much back to his mighty best after a trying 2011. Without unreliability, team logistical errors and other doses of bad luck, Lewis could well be heading the drivers' table rather than being a distant fourth. Let's just hope that next year's Mercedes does him some justice.
And completing the podium was one Fernando Alonso, who not for the first time this year conjured up a podium finish out of thin air it seemed. Of course, he was given a massive helping hand by Ferrari breaking the seal of Felipe Massa's gearbox, so Felipe would get a five-place grid drop and, crucially, putting Alonso on the grippier racing line for the start. And we were shown exactly why it did this within seconds of the red light going out, with Alonso up to P4 at the second turn after starting seventh, which set him up for his good day.
It was tough on Felipe of course, but F1's a tough business and I'd be surprised if there's a single team principal in the paddock who wouldn't have done the same thing in the same circumstances (or at least been tempted to). Indeed, one probably wouldn't have to dig too deep to find similar done by each of them. That may go some way to explaining why the reaction to Ferrari's move was in the main grudging acceptance rather than outrage. Mark Webber's alternator failed today, which put Alonso third, where he stayed. If Nando second and Seb third in Abu Dhabi represented a major save by Seb, then surely the reverse result in Austin is also a save for Nando.
Williams drrivers: Maldonado and Senna going wheel to wheel. (LAT Photo)
And for all we speak of Alonso having a trying second part of the season, since the summer break, aside from the two races where he was taken out in first corner incidents Alonso has finished on the podium everywhere. And if you need a reminder of just what Alonso has achieved this year, ask yourself if there has ever been a time before that an F1 driver has still been in title contention heading into the final race in a car that wasn't the quickest in any round? I really can't think of one.
Thus Seb and Nando head to Interlagos next week 13 points apart, where everything will be decided. On the face of it, Seb holds all the aces, only requiring fourth place to guarantee the title for himself, which you think the RB8 in its current spec is well capable of. Then again, Interlagos is the sort of place where things happen (one can think of ample examples), and moreover rain is forecast for all three days (not only providing an unwelcome variable but also providing Alonso with a leg up). And alternators are providing a worry to the Bulls, having caused unreliability earlier in the season 2011 alternators had been used recently, but apparently they have now run out so this year's model with all of the associated concern over it had to be brought back here, and indeed ended Webber's race early. Adrian Newey afterwards today described the alternators as a 'ticking time bomb'. Even though Red Bull claimed the constructors' title today, its third in a row, most in the team looked rather flat post-race.
So, not an ideal situation for the Bulls heading into Interlagos, but sight should not be lost of the fact that Vettel remains firm favourite to claim title honours. Barring freak occurrences it's hard to imagine how he can not finish at least fourth in Brazil, even if it does rain. But there seems something appropriate that the amazing F1 year of 2012 goes down to the last race, and the major prize will be decided in the intense Interlagos melting point. Do make sure you're near a television next Sunday.