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Formula One hoping for happy U.S. return

By Steve Keating

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The eyes of the motor racing world will be riveted on Texas this weekend as Formula One makes its return to the United States but it is unclear if Americans will be watching, even with a driver's championship on the line.

The stage has been set for a Sunday of high-drama worthy of a Hollywood Western as clinical German Sebastian Vettel and fiery Spaniard Fernando Alonso engage in their own version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral at the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas.

The penultimate race in a title chase that has taken the glamour series to the four corners of the globe could well be decided in the distinctly unglamorous scrublands of south Texas, as Formula One tries again to establish a presence in the U.S. following a five-year absence.

Vettel, who will be making his 100th career start in Austin, will have an opportunity to complete a hat-trick of titles at the U.S. Grand Prix and join Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and Germany's Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to win three titles in a row.

"I think we were not always fast enough this year but for the last couple of races we were, so looking forward to the next two races," said Vettel, cautiously assessing his position following a third-place finish in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.

"The fans got the best Formula One for a long time. I personally would have loved it to be a little bit more boring at some stages.

"The tires keep results up in the air until the very last meters of the race. When you are in the hunt you still can turn it around - and when you are in the lead you can still lose it."

A 27th career win in his Red Bull would move Vettel into a tie with Jackie Stewart on the all-time wins list but it still may not be enough to clinch a championship.

Vettel, who tops the standings with 255 points to Alonso's 245, must finish Sunday's race with 15 more points than his Spanish rival, which can be produced by many combinations of results.

A sixth victory of the season would give Vettel the title if Alonso places outside the top four. Should Alonso fail to score a point, Vettel must still finish at least third.

ALONSO CONFIDENT

One thing that is certain - the Spaniard will not go down without a fight.

Ferrari's Alonso has stood on the top step of the podium three times this year and will be determined to take the championship down to the final race in Brazil.

"I am confident, we will fight until the end," said Alonso, who would move into a tie for fourth on the all-time win list alongside former-champion Nigel Mansell by notching his 31st career victory on Sunday.

"We are not fast enough, this is true and we are honest with ourselves, we know this. We need to accept this.

"We have some strong points which we will try to use."

They like big things in Texas and there is nothing bigger in motor racing than the crowning of a new F1 champion but for many Americans, Vettel and Alonso could just as easily be field goal kickers in the NFL as the world's leading drivers.

There is a good reason their names are not familiar. There has not been an F1 race in the U.S. since 2007 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and there will be no Americans on the starting grid.

While Sunday's race could be the pinnacle of the F1 season, Americans motor sports fans do not view the U.S. Grand Prix with as much anticipation.

In Texas, NASCAR is king and it is likely more eyeballs and television remotes will be focused on Homestead, Florida where the Chase championship will also be decided on Sunday.

This is also football country, where Friday night high school games can attract crowds that some English Premier League teams would envy.

Saturday's belong to college gridiron and the Texas Longhorns, while Sundays are dominated by the NFL with Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys taking the local spotlight.

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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