Amid fanfare and hoopla that would have done credit to the recent US election, Formula One came back to the United States, at the grandly named Circuit of the Americas. After years of wandering in a wilderness, from which it made its exit at Indianapolis back in 2007, it has found the right home.
The track was greener than Al Gore when the F1 cars took to it in anger for the first time yesterday morning, when the air was still crisper than one might have expected down Texas way and the road was still dusty and dirty. Force India's Nico Hulkenberg was the first man to christen it with a spin, as the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso explored the limits and run-off areas. The spectators, healthier in number than any Friday crowd at a US meeting in most memories, loved every minute of it.
Hamilton, sporting the US flag atop his crash helmet, set the pace for most of the session, using all his ability to find the grip in a McLaren bearing Verizon sponsorship decals in place of its more familiar Vodafone livery as a reminder of the importance of the US market. But at the end it was the familiar story of Vettel, wearing what looked like a Texan corral fence painted on his helmet, who pushed ahead by 1.4seconds as he took the chequered flag.
"The track's quite difficult to learn initially but it's fantastic to drive," Hamilton said. "I really started to enjoy it once I got used to it, which took perhaps a little bit longer than some others but it's going to be very interesting."
Vettel's pace, even at this early stage when it should not be taken too seriously as times will drop as more rubber goes down on the racing line to enhance the level of grip, will have been a hammer blow to Ferrari's Alonso, who chased Hamilton energetically throughout.
The Spaniard bore his usual stoical expression all morning, as Ferrari continue to await the major upgrade that he hopes will be the magic bullet next weekend in Brazil to enable him to snatch back a title that increasingly seems destined for Vettel. There are some changes to the red car here, but the Spaniard made it clear that he does not expect them to push him right to the front.
"Nothing has really changed in terms of preparation and approach for the weekend," he said. "Maximum concentration, maximum effort from everybody in the team. We try to do a very good job today and maybe it's more important than some other circuits, to do a lot of laps, to learn the racing lines and, maybe, some tricks that the circuit can have."
Interestingly, he says that he feels much more relaxed than he did when he fought for the championship late in the day in 2005 and '06.
"I'm much more focused. In 2006, I arrived at the last race fighting with Michael [Schumacher] in Brazil. It was quite stressful, quite an intense weekend and not easy to get focused or sleep. It was a very emotional weekend. The year after, 2007, it was also a very stressful last race, three of us fighting for the world champion [sic]: Lewis, Kimi [Raikkonen] and me and it was also a stressful weekend and not easy to do things.
"In 2010, we arrived in Abu Dhabi, again fighting for the world championship at the last race, it was much more calm and more mature, I felt. The race was what it was and we didn't win in the end but feeling-wise we were much more prepared. In these last two races, I feel completely normal."
* Sebastian Vettel can retain the drivers' title with a race to spare in Texas tomorrow, as he starts the weekend 10 points clear of Fernando Alonso. * If the German wins tomorrow's race he will take the title only if Alonso finishes fifth or lower.
Second place for Vettel would leave Alonso needing to finish eighth or higher to take the title race to the final Grand Prix in Brazil next weekend.
If Vettel finishes third, Alonso must finish in the top 10 to stay in the hunt.
Should Vettel finish any lower than fourth, he would not be able to win the title this weekend.
Alonso cannot win the title this weekend.