Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, location of the United States Grand Prix this weekend, is the classic trip into the unknown, which in terms of how tight the battle for the championship is, spices things up nicely.
Indeed, so far the only person to have driven the finished track in anything approaching a 2012-spec F1 car is Lotus's Jérôme D'Ambrosio, who took a 2010 Renault R30 around the track a month or so ago. And the Belgian's verdict? Not a whole lot different than the rough models have suggested.
From the start/finish straight the track climbs 134 feet to a blind left-hander before heading downhill to turn two in a section reminiscent of Interlagos' Senna S.
Then there’s an ‘Esses’ section modelled on the Maggots/Becketts/Chapel complex at Silverstone in England, which according to the Lotus driver gets progressively slower, downshifting until the final one is taken in third gear.
That's followed by a hairpin designed to promote overtaking, a long, triple apex right hand cluster of turns patterned after Istanbul’s turn eight, a fiddly Hockenheim-esque stadium section and a run to the start/finish straight.
What does that all add up to in terms of set-up? Who knows, but it appears to be a hybrid track similar to Korea's Yeongam Circuit, with high-speed, medium-pace and slow-speed sections, and that makes set-up a compromise. In year one, conservatism will be the watch word and don't expect to see too many people gambling on risky set-ups or race strategies.
Pirelli are models of that conservatism and with only asphalt samples and simulations to work with the tire company has opted for its hard and medium compounds -- very safe choices. To help with the learning curve, Pirelli will supply an extra set of hard tires to the teams on Friday.
Given that they are expecting a smooth surface and the choice of durable tires, it could even be possible for teams to go for a one-stop strategy. On the other hand, with the swift changes of direction in the ‘Esses’ and some high-speed corners, lateral loads will be high, so... well, it's anyone’s guess really.
Race distance: 56 laps (191 miles)
Start time: 13:00 local, Sunday, November 18
Circuit length: 3.4 miles
If we were to say this is one of the most hotly-anticipated races of this or any recent season, we wouldn't be exaggerating by a whole helluva lot. F1 and the U.S. go together like peanut butter and jelly, Fred and Ginger, guns and ammo.
Well, actually they don't, as the sport has always had a rocky relationship with the U.S., but F1 types absolutely love it there and when Indy fell off the calendar, great was the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Austin, though, looks even better. The city bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, is home to the SXSW music festival, is a student town, a haven for high-tech firms and also prides itself on its motto of ‘Keep Austin Weird’.
It sounds like the perfect venue to us. Its proximity to the Mexico border should mean there's a more than healthy attendance for the race (especially with the rise of Mexican driver Sergio Perez, who will be moving from Sauber to McLaren next year) and circuit officials are reporting that a crowd of almost 120,000 fans is expected.