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Has there been a cooler podium picture than that of the three champions, past and present, trying to get some bubbles out of the rose water? There were no villains, no disappointments, no grudges, no forced smiles, just Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel, the three most recent champions, genuinely happy.

Hamilton and Button have their titles (and ever-present hot girlfriends) and they’re likely to be competitive next year. And Vettel, the new champion, an outcome that was long on odds, looked like he just won American Idol.

Why shouldn’t he? At 23, he’s the youngest driver to do it, and coming into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Vettel – and his team – were probably the only ones giving him half a chance. He was 15 points down. He needed to win and for Fernando Alonso to make a seriously awful mistake, which didn’t seem likely after his charge over the past five races.

Even when Ferrari did goof and Alonso wound up behind Vitaly Petrov, who didn’t think Alonso of all drivers wouldn’t will his way back to the front? I’m not sure which scenario will have people talking for a long time.

But this is Formula One under Bernie Ecclestone’s global directive, which means the season is long and the off-season is short. The Pirelli tire tests are upon us, Nico Hulkenberg has announced he’s leaving Williams, Amazon has dropped the price of “F1 2010” in Britain, and Alonso has not let his eyebrows unfurrow. 

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There will be more driver announcements and the new cars will be revealed, followed rapidly by the first grand prix in early March. Questions about Ferrari’s pitstop decision and Alonso’s uncharacteristically flailing moves behind Petrov’s Renault will give way to fresher fodder, of which there will be much.

We’ll have the return of KERS and the introduction of an adjustable rear wing, about which some veterans have complained, in part because of the number of buttons it adds to the steering wheel. “You have change gears, you have KERS, you have rear wings, you have radios, you have diffs,” said Rubens Barrichello, chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, who will be back for yet another season. “You have plenty of things and possibly you’re going to be pressing KERS and the rear wing at the same time.”

There will also be five world champions – if Michael Schumacher doesn’t retire after his dismal season at Mercedes Grand Prix – on the grid. And for the first time, there will be a grand prix in India, which means there will be just as many races outside of Europe as in it – a first. It’s a balance that will be offset in 2012, when Formula One is expected to return to the United States in Austin, Texas.

Still doesn’t quite roll off the tongue – United States Grand Prix in Austin. What sport are we talking about, ultimate Frisbee? At the same time, Austin doesn’t make any less sense than Las Vegas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Detroit – some of the other host cities for the USGP.

In fact, the proposed circuit in Austin is several steps up from any of those past locations. In Phoenix, the grand prix was a held on a lackluster street circuit based on the city’s grid structure. In Las Vegas, it took place in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace (and only 2.2 miles in overall track length). It wasn’t much better in Dallas or Detroit. In Indianapolis, the grand prix circuit was an afterthought built inside the historic oval. So by those measures, the specially-designed circuit in Austin will be the first real world-class circuit in the United States (no matter what one thinks about its designer, Hermann Tilke).

Watkins Glen, where the USGP was held from 1961 to 1980, and the Long Beach street circuit (1976 to 1983), which was called United States Grand Prix West, were the only two venues that seemed to satisfy the requirements of a Formula One race: circuit and landscape. 

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Long Beach also benefited from the proximity to the glamour of Hollywood – something that seems to matter less these days, as F1, under Bernie Ecclestone 2.0, targets a bigger television audience over live attendance. During the broadcast from Abu Dhabi, I spotted rows upon rows of empty white seats along the front straight.

But even through the TV set – and maybe especially through the TV set – I want to be transported to somewhere amazing. Take video games, for example: would “Monaco GP” have been as alluring were it called “Dallas GP”? The background for “Out Run” was a seacoast, not the Rust Belt. “Pole Position” was set at Mount Fuji, not Caesar’s Palace.

It may be hard to believe, but in 1982 there were actually three F1 races in the United States: Long Beach, Detroit and Las Vegas, which was officially called the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix. In many ways, they signified the best and worst of what a United States Grand Prix could be, although the inaugural race in Vegas in 1981 seemed to be quite a spectacle, as described by the great Murray Walker in his prime during the broadcast for the BBC:

“Welcome to the blue skies and the blazing sunshine of Las Vegas for the championship-deciding last grand prix of 1981. Well, the preliminary festivities are over. We’ve had the inaugural parade with its high-stepping baton twirling majorettes, the balloons have been released, Tom Jones has done a victory lap in a semi-genuine chariot, the circuit has been christened in Champagne, the skydivers have dived to deliver the race flags, and Paul Newman, the race director – yes, the Paul Newman – a very successful racing driver himself, has addressed the 45,000-strong crowd in their $250 seats. Yes, that’s Las Vegas for you.”

Paul Newman, skydivers and Tom Jones on a semi-genuine chariot? Hopefully Austin can measure up.

 

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