Update at 4:05 p.m. ET: Lewis Hamilton of the legendary McLaren team wins the inaugural F1 race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Hamilton — the 2008 series champion — also won the race the last time it was run in America, five years ago in Indianapolis. Championship leader Sebastian Vettel placed second today in a closely fought race. Ferrari's title contender Fernando Alonso finished a distant third, sending the championship battle to the final race of the year at Interlagos in Brazil next Sunday.
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The circus is back, five years after it last spun its wheels in the United States. No, it's not the return of Cirque du Soleil or Ringling Bros. It's the high-tech, globe-trotting riot of big money, big egos and blinding speed known as the Formula One World Championship.
Simply called "F1" by its legions of fans, the racing series has a global TV audience extending to nearly 200 countries. Each year F1 runs its custom-built cars in races on five continents. Despite a regular stop in Canada, the series hasn't run in the U.S. since a seven-year Indianapolis stint ended in 2007 after a contract-renewal impasse between F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and management at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Which brings us to Austin, Texas, where a purpose-built track will host the U.S. Grand Prix today at 2 p.m. ET. Dubbed the Circuit of the Americas, about 120,000 people are expected to show up at the course to see a duel in the penultimate race of the 2012 season between this year's two remaining title contenders.
The race and title favorite is Red Bull Racing's two-time champion Sebastian Vettel, a German driving for a British team owned by an Austrian drinks magnate and powered by a French engine. His car is the fastest in the 24-car field. Looking up at him — after qualifying ninth — and hoping for a miracle is another two-time series champion, Fernando Alonso, a Spaniard driving for the one name all Americans will know from F1: Ferrari.
Alonso's car has rarely, if ever, been the fastest this season. Yet he led the championship until recently and has won three races (to Vettel's five wins). The crowd favorite sounded optimistic when quoted by Austin's American-Statesman:
"We said yesterday, after qualifying probably Red Bull will be one or two, we will be seventh or eighth, people will think that it's all over. And then Sunday, rest assured we can score more points than Vettel. I don't know how, but I have this feeling inside."
Head over to the American-Statesman for blanket coverage of the big race and its impact on that city. You can watch the U.S. Grand Prix — and the final race of the year in Brazil — on cable's Speed channel.
While the world may be watching the race in Austin, Americans are more likely to be watching another race today. NASCAR, the premier racing series in the U.S., finishes its season with the title on the line in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Points leader Brad Keselowski is on the front row for the start of the 3 p.m. ET race, which can be seen on ESPN.