By Steve Keating
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The $400 million Circuit of the Americas stepped into the spotlight on Thursday as Formula One's best surveyed the track that could crown a driver's champion and breathe life into a sport largely ignored in the United States.
The eyes of the motor racing world will be focussed on Texas this weekend as Formula One returns to the U.S. after a five-year hiatus with the Circuit of the America's providing a spectacular stage for what could be a dramatic finish to the season and the start of a new era for the glamour series in a market it is determined to conquer.
Unfamiliar ground to every driver, the undulating 5.516km (3.4 mile) circuit carved out of the south Texas scrublands will provide a level playing as Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel tries to fend off a challenge from Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and clinch a third consecutive driver's championship.
Unable to find a suitable long-term venue, Formula One has barnstormed its way around the U.S. with Austin becoming the 10th city to host a race after Sebring (Florida), Riverside (California), Watkins Glen (New York), Phoenix (Arizona), Dallas (Texas), Detroit (Michigan), Las Vegas (Nevada), Long Beach (California) and Indianapolis (Indiana).
But even before one of the sleek cars had turned a wheel on the track, Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone gave the circuit two thumbs up, hopeful that the long search for a permanent U.S. home had finally come to an end.
"It looks very much like a permanent circuit and I hope it remains permanent as far as Formula One goes," praised Ecclestone. "We have a contract and we would be happy to stay here.
"It's absolutely first class. All things we wanted to get done have been done.
"We've taken the good bits from all the different circuits and tried to put them together. It should make good racing."
Until Thursday, most drivers' view of the circuit had come in simulators used to help familiarize them to the 20 turn layout.
But after getting their first look at the circuit the two words most commonly used to describe the twisting track were, "challenging" and "interesting".
"I think everyone has done simulation," said McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, the last driver to win a U.S. Grand Prix back in 2007 in Indianapolis. "It is quite a difficult track and quite difficult to learn initially but it looks fantastic to drive.
"I really started to enjoy it once I got use to it but it took perhaps a little longer than some of the other circuits to learn.
"It's going to be very interesting this weekend."
Vettel had also tested in a simulator but reserved judgment on the circuit until he gets out in a race car for first practise on Friday.
"By the looks of it, it looks quite interesting but there is always the feeling you get inside the car which is the important so I am looking forward tomorrow," said the German.
"Before anything happens we have to make sure we get the maximum on Friday and Saturday because the points are there to grab on Sunday. Not before."
Vettel, who will be competing in his 100th grand prix, must finish Sunday's race with 15 more points than his Spanish rival, which can be produced by many combination of results.
A sixth victory this 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 to keep the title from going down to the final race of the season in Brazil on November 25.
While Vettel may hold a slight advantage in the standings, Alonso believes he has the edge when it comes handling the pressure having four times entered the final races of the season fighting for a title.
"In 2006 I arrived at the last race fighting with Michael (Schumacher) in Brazil," recalled Alonso. "It was a quite stressful and intense weekend.
"In 2007, it was also a very stressful last race fighting three for the world championship and in 2010 we arrived Abu Dhabi fighting for world championship in the last race. I was much more calm there and confident.
"Now in these last two races I feel completely normal...this is the fourth time we fight for the world championship hopefully until the last race.
"We will concentrate on our job and try to do a good weekend and fight for the championship in Brazil. In my case I cannot do anything thing here, I can only save this match point and wait for Brazil."
(Editing by Julian Linden)