The protagonists and professionals of Formula 1 do not hide their joy in returning to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, commonly known as COTA, a track that despite its recent construction has quickly entered the hearts of fans. The Texan circuit constitutes one of the best examples of how a modern facility can boast some of the strengths behind the popularity of old-fashioned tracks, such as the changes in slope, the variety in the geometry of the curves and a convincing design for drivers and cars. Although the hourly average on the flying lap is among the lowest in the World Championship, equal to 215 km / h, the data hides a much more complex and evocative context.
The COTA represents one of the most varied circuits on the calendar, where it is crucial to be competitive in every single aspect of performance. The presence of two long straights alternating with guided sections rewards the power of the power unit and even more the aerodynamic efficiency, i.e. the ability to generate a high aerodynamic load without paying excessive duty in terms of drag and extension. In the high-speed folds the aerodynamic load given off by the cars emerges, while in the slower corners the mechanical grip guaranteed by the suspension unit and traction qualities prevail. In the passage between high and low mileage curves there is also the classic problem of counteracting the change in the behavior of the car, due to the alternation between the prevalence of aerodynamic and mechanical balance at different speeds.
The importance of car balance is a rule at the base of any car competition and therefore valid for all the appointments on the calendar, but which in Austin takes on even greater importance. In fact, on returning from the summer break, Formula 1 raced in Spa, where medium-high speed curves clearly prevail over low-distance ones, then in Holland, on a track characterized by few stretches, then in Monza, where the distance in straight is the dominant aspect, and subsequently in Sochi, on a track with little variety between the curves present. Austin, on the other hand, offers a great balance both between the straight sections and the more guided ones as well as in terms of different geometries between the curves present, boasting a variety encountered in recent months only in Istanbul.
The numbers of COTA
In detail, at the Circuit of the Americas there are two extensions where the activation zones of the DRS are located and where the 300 km / h are exceeded. The 5513 meters of the track are also connected by 12 folds to the left and 8 to the right, for a total of 20 curves. Of these, 6 curves are faced with a minimum speed of less than 100 km / h (curves 1, 11, 12, 13, 15, 20), as many are characterized by medium-high distances (curves 5, 6, 7, 8 , 9, 19), while the remaining 8 folds are power limited, that is, they are addressed in full, so much so that the distance is limited by the power of the power unit.
The variety of colors featured on the circuit map gives an immediate impression of the completeness and beauty of the US track. From the data provided by Federico Albano and reported in the table below also show other details. In fact, there are three classified curves with a curve step of nine, while two folds have even been assigned a step 10, which represents the maximum possible evaluation and which is the same that marks the Loews hairpin in Munich. The previous five curves are also characterized by a minimum radius of curvature of less than 15 meters, which in two points even drops below 10 meters. Similar characteristics reward the traction qualities, the stability of the rear and the mechanical grip guaranteed by the suspension, qualities that Red Bull and Ferrari will be able to try to make use of in the relative clashes against Mercedes and McLaren.
The six medium-high speed curves are mainly concentrated in the first sector, renamed as “the snake” due to the presence of seven folds in rapid succession. The reference to the Silverstone section of Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel is immediate, but the American “snake” is longer, more varied and on average slower than its English counterpart. The COTA sequence is in fact faced in full up to curve 4, and then progressively goes to partialize and touch the brake in the second part. In the first sector of Austin it is therefore essential to be able to count on a high aerodynamic load and on a precise and reactive front end when changing direction, where a single error drags on, compromising the setting of all subsequent curves.
Austin embodies one of the most demanding circuits of the year for tires in terms of lateral energies. In fact, there are numerous folds faced between 250 and 270 km / h, while there are also several curves where the external tires are stressed for a long time. While there is no shortage of curves with angles of less than 90 °, on the other there are seven with large openings of over 100 °, an aspect that further enriches the variety of the circuit. Among these stand out curve 6, where for 3 seconds 4.5 g of lateral acceleration are achieved, and the triptych of curves 16-17-18, which can be interpreted as a single fold with three points of rope and with speeds in the order of 280 km / h. Precisely this section leads to the technical curve 19, characterized by an almost blind entrance and a counter-slope that leads the cars to slide towards the outside, where the limits of the track will be a decidedly treacherous aspect during the weekend.
The unknowns of the asphalt
During the recent release of the MotoGP in Texas, it emerged as in the stretch from curve 1 to curve 10 the road surface was dotted with bumps and other irregularities. The asphalt was then milled and smoothed in the days leading up to the arrival of Formula 1, with the problem that should have been alleviated but, probably, not completely resolved. For cars, the depressions in the asphalt are not as critical as they are for motorbikes, but they also induce some problems in the behavior of the tires and in the “jolts” that the cars undergo. The irregularities also destabilize the entire car and with it the aerodynamic platform including the bottom and wings, compromising the load generation. Should the asphalt problem not prove to be perfectly resolved, the teams would be forced to compromise in terms of suspension stiffness and ground clearance.
Another variable on the eve of the American race is represented by resurfacing of 40% of the track, carried out after the last visit to the Circus in 2019. Due to the restrictions dictated by the pandemic, Pirelli was unable to personally measure the grip level of the new asphalt, which therefore remains unknown. In Istanbul it was seen how the higher grip than expected compromised the balance of the cars, making the factory-prepared set-ups inadequate. However, if a similar situation arises in Austin, it would have drastically less influence. The resurfacing has in fact mainly affected the two straights, while the only driven section to have been resurfaced is the sequence of curves from 15 to 19.
For the trip to America Pirelli confirmed the intermediate compounds of its range, the C2, C3 and C4, the same used on the occasion of the last visit to COTA and in the recent Turkish Grand Prix. Of particular interest will be the strategic aspect in the race, given the high commitment of the tires. In 2019 Bottas won with a two-stop strategy, but Lewis Hamilton finished second demonstrating how it was possible to finish the race even with a single stop.
The pitfalls of braking
The Texan track boasts several points of interest even in braking. Turn 15, for example, is preceded by a slight bend to the left, an element that forces the drivers to trail braking, i.e. braking in conjunction with the turned steering, making it extremely easy to lock the left front wheel. Brembo estimates a speed drop of “just” 150 km / h at this point, but it is surprising how the braking duration is the longest on the track, equal to 2.6 seconds, demonstrating the importance of brake pedal modulation.
Distinctive point of the COTA is the detachment of curve 1 placed uphill, a factor that causes the chord point to be blind, where the cars reach a deceleration of more than 5 g, like braking at turns 11 and 12. The latter in particular is the most violent braking of the track, with a reduction speed close to 240 km / h and with a peak deceleration of 5.6 g.
Overall in Austin the brakes are used in nine of the twenty corners present and for about 17 seconds, a good 20 seconds less than in MotoGP. Brembo also classified the track with a severity of 3 out of 5 for the braking system.
Mercedes and the need to win
As part of the world championship fight, the favorite in Austin appears to be Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton has already shown in the past that he knows how to best interpret the track, while the W12 has feared a good balance in the high-speed corners as well as a good precision of the front, key aspects in the first sector. The Silver Arrows also showed a slight supremacy on the straight compared to their rivals and in this context in Texas they could also benefit from the new more efficient front wings tested in Istanbul. On the other hand, in the recent past Red Bull has feared some difficulties in the search for balance, a particularly critical aspect on a varied track such as COTA. As always, however, a close fight is expected, with Mercedes that will have to capitalize on the underdogs, given the delay in the standings of Lewis Hamilton and since after Austin two tracks more in keeping with the qualities of Red Bull are planned.
With the Istanbul race the fight for third place between Ferrari and McLaren has rekindled, both in terms of score and performance balance. The Reds benefited from the new hybrid specification of the power unit and in Austin they will be able to take advantage of their effectiveness at low speeds in the third sector technician. McLaren, on the other hand, will be able to count on an extremely fast car in the two straights, but equally performing in the fast corners of the first sector. It therefore promises to be a balanced challenge, as well as a weekend that promises entertainment in its entirety.
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