Practice in Austin: Heikki’s back as the field eye next year’s drives…

AustinIn case you missed it, Heikki Kovalainen made a sensational ‘return’ to F1 at the Circuit of the Americas in Kimi Räikkonen’s car. Yes, yes, yes… we know he’s been doing Friday duties with Caterham since earlier this year and only lost his race seat last year, but did anyone really expect him to end the day two-tenths ahead of man-of-the-moment Romain Grosjean and best of the rest behind the Red Bulls and the Mercs? If he can keep up the form he’s going to make Lotus and F1’s sporting model look even more broken, if and when Lotus signs Pastor Maldonado over Nico Hulkenberg and now Kovalainen.

Maldonado was one of many drivers up and down the pit lane blowing hard in Austin in a bid to keep their F1 careers on track. A comedy FP1 which was delayed first for fog, then red flagged while a new helicopter was found to replace the first one (which had never arrived in the first place), gave those with something to say plenty of airtime in which to say it. Maldonado gracelessly told the world he’d done more for Williams than Williams had done for him. Good luck with that Lotus. Meanwhile Lotus’ own reserve driver, former GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi, wasn’t hiding his feelings about not getting the chance to race an E21. Faced with the undeniable evidence he’d been looked over, he’d moved on from denial and was just plain angry.

Remarkably Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez is managing to find some grace in his own grief, saying all the right things in public. But we can’t help but think that it’s McLaren, at the end of its worst season in over 30 years, could show a little humility itself as it is well on the way to ending the careers of not only Checo, but Jenson Button too.

Unless they’re wrong about Kevin Magnussen, 2014 will be JB’s last with the team. And if the MP4-29 isn’t light years faster than the 28, Button will be heading for GTs or Indycars. Shame. And just as if it wasn’t looking bleak enough, Button got a three-place grid penalty in FP1 yesterday after the red flags were unfurled while the organisers found a working helicopter. Maybe they needed to show they could get something right (or maybe chief steward Nigel Mansell has still got that chip on his shoulder).

Looking evermore like the guy who jumped off the ship before it hit the iceberg. Lewis Hamilton was a happy boy yesterday. Maybe he’s drawing some strength from the tabloid reports that Nicole wants to get it back on, that or maybe it’s the new W04 chassis Mercedes has brought along to Texas having found cracks large enough to have affected its handling in Abu Dhabi. He still wasn’t quicker that Nico Rosberg in FP2, but looks in the mood to turn on the magic later on a circuit he clearly loves. Sixth tenths behind Vettel in FP2 looks like a big gap, but it’s not beyond Merc and Lewis.

Daniil Kyvat, Toro-Rosso’s 19-year-old Russian, had his first outing in a F1 car at a race meeting in FP1. With a shiny-new Super Licence only just making itself at home in his wallet, he must be feeling pretty chuffed (as must Helmut Marko who organises these things across the Red Bull backed teams) to end up just two tenths behind Daniel Ricciardo, who’ll drive a proper Red Bull next year.

Those chasing F1’s biggest prize — a drive next year — had varying days. Both Saubers were fast, sixth and seventh in FP2, only Esteban Gutierrez was ahead of Nico Hulkenberg this time. Meanwhile Adrian Sutil (11th) was a long way ahead of Paul di Resta (15th) in Force India’s little battle for survival. Those four, plus Perez and possibly Sirotkin, are all chasing the drives at Sauber and Force India. That’s assuming Maldonado does go to Lotus. And assuming Caterham and Sauber don’t dump one of their drivers on the market. American Alexander Rossi, fresh from his first GP2 win, made a strong case for himself in FP1 with a solid drive in the Caterham in FP1.

And now, unexpectedly there’s Heikki in there too making a case for himself. Easy to forget last year when he was tooling around at the back in the Caterham, that Heikki is an F1 winner until McLaren spat him out. There is — over the next eight days in the US and Brazil — an awful lot to prove for an awful lot of young men. Small wonder Michael Schumacher didn’t take Lotus’ call. It’s going to get messy out there.

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