With just over a week before the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Austin, Formula 1 put on a showcase displaying everything that is good about international open-wheel motorsports.
Formula 1, no doubt, is hoping to hook American racing fans over the next month and Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had a little bit of everything – the exotic Yas Marina circuit, tight racing, two exciting crashes and each of the championship contenders on the podium. In the end, Kimi Räikkönen was eliminated from title contention but won the race, completing a comeback two years in the making after spending that time out of the sport entirely.
He joins Mario Andretti, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda and Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers to take a year off from the sport and return to win a Grand Prix – all former World Drivers' Champions.
As popular as Räikkönen 's breakthrough appeared, it wasn't the main topic to come out of Sunday's race. Most of the attention was placed on the championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
Vettel entered Abu Dhabi with a 13-point lead but was forced to relinquish his third starting spot and start the race from pit road after he failed to return his car to the pits following the session – a requirement allowing Formula 1 officials to test fuel load and performance.
The rules require that the car must return to the pits with at least one liter of fuel on board because running less gives the car a performance advantage.
With the penalty, most thought Sunday would produce a big points swing for Alonso, who started the race in sixth. But several accidents and two safety cars continued to close the gap between Vettel and the leaders. The double world champion picked-off the field off one-by-one, including Jenson Button at the end for the all-important final step of the podium.
What at one point looked like a race where Alonso would regain the championship lead, ended with Vettel minimizing the damage and keeping Alonso just 10 points back. It was a tremendous drive for Vettel who is now just two races away from capturing his third straight championship.
Abu Dhabi displayed the best of Formula 1's current product. With tools like DRS and KERS at the drivers' disposal, racing is closer than ever before. The margin of victory was just under a minute from Räikkönen to Alonso, with Vettel just another four seconds back.
The myth that there's not a lot of passing in Formula 1 is just that -- a myth. In fact, many drivers have criticized recent rule changes, stating that overtaking is far too easy this season. They argued that it has diluted the challenge of passing.
Call us impatient but you won't find many Americans that agree with that sentiment. We crave passing and Formula 1 is giving it to us in bunches.
Räikkönen is also the eighth different winner in 18 races this season -- the most since 2003. The relative parity has also drawn some criticism from traditionalists, including Alonso himself. He believes that Formula 1 could lose credibility if the results are perceived as too random. Of course, this was before his championship rival went on a tear that includes winning four out of the last five races.
He's likely wishing for a little more parity to complete the 2012 season.
The truth is that Formula 1 is evolving with the times. Its product is starting to resemble the worldwide entertainment brand that it has to become in order to stay globally competitive and enter new markets like the United States (a second planned race is expected to be held in New Jersey in 2014). NASCAR and IndyCar has taught us in recent years that a little integrity must be sacrificed in order to attract a larger audience and Formula 1 is starting to reflect that sentiment in expanding beyond its European base.
The United States is a culture of instant gratification and Formula 1 plans to deliver later this month when it rolls into Austin. The sort of action witnessed on Sunday will likely repeat itself at the Circuit of the Americas but will you be watching?