ONE STEP FORWARD
This one is going to the wire. Three races to go and Lewis Hamilton has the championship gap to Nico Rosberg down to 26 points.
If he can keep showing the form (and Mercedes the reliability) on display in Austin, he could comfortably win all the remaining 2016 grands prix. But if Nico keeps on finishing second, there’s nothing Hamilton can do to prevent a Rosberg title…
Circuit Of The Americas is one of those ‘Hamilton’ kind of circuits. Since his first win here in 2012, for Mclaren, when he stood beaming atop the podium in a 10-gallon Stetson, to his Rosberg-busting, title-clinching victory last year, Lewis has always seemed very much at home at the Circuit of the Americas.
Three wins from the first four Austin grands prix and a fourth place in a not-too-competitive Mercedes during the ‘off ’ year of 2013, tell their own story: at COTA, Hamilton’s the man.
Yet surprisingly his pole for the 2016 edition was his first at this sinewy, quietly glamorous race track. Surprising, because it makes demands of every driving skill Hamilton possesses in abundance, such as his peerless ability to brake from massive speeds with pinpoint accuracy and control.
Nowhere was this more evident than on the approach to the exceedingly technical Turn 1. It’s uphill after the main straight, thus drastically shortening braking distances; then it elbows back on itself, falling left through a blind, off-camber hairpin: just the sort of place where an ace with a fine gift for manipulating the rotation of his machine can make a difference.
It was here last year that Hamilton nerfed team-mate Rosberg out of the way to take the lead and subsequent win that secured his third world title; it was here on Saturday that he was finding gains Rosberg struggled to match.
Their respective first runs in Q3 were telling: Rosberg, sensing that Hamilton had found his groove and would be sniffing his 58th pole position, came out guns blazing. But he carried too much speed to the top of the hill and ran wide over the exit kerbs. The drift cost him a tenth at least, though he regained composure to complete the lap in 1m35.442s. Seconds later Hamilton came through to take provisional pole with a lap of 1m35.370s (0.072s quicker). He’d been three-tenths up after sectors one and two, but a sweeter last sector from Rosberg tightened the margin.
A pause, then they were at it again, the silver cars being as (almost) always the only serious contenders for pole, despite fleet pace shown by Red Bull throughout practice and qualifying.
Rosberg once again shot first and posted a deft 1m35.215s – good enough for provisional pole. Hamilton was having none of it and set about proving that whatever the vicissitudes of this season he has lost none of his sublime speed. A tour of 1m34.999s made him the only driver to lap in less than 1m 35s and also nudged him closer to the 65 poles mark of his idol Ayrton Senna.
“It’s still a long way to go, but to think that I’m within shooting distance is incredible,” said Lewis, who looked momentarily quite moved when prompted to think about Senna’s achievements and reflect on his 58th pole. “It goes to show how amazing he was… the amount of poles he had in the amount of time he had. It has taken me a lot longer.”
Alongside, Rosberg looked sanguine with P2, knowing that while he’d been bettered by a Hamilton who was channeling the “incredible energy” of his US fans, he was nonetheless where he needs to be for the title race run-in. Second (or better) at the final four 2016 grands prix would be enough to make him champion, whatever Hamilton might conjure.
But what of the curveball candidate grinning alongside Lewis and Nico at the post-qually presser? That man Daniel Ricciardo headed row two, with Max Verstappen his P4 wing-man. Both Red Bulls had looked swift since Friday morning, with strong long-run pace suggesting they’d be in with a shout of victory. Uniquely among the frontrunners, Ricciardo would start on supersofts, having topped Q2 with Pirelli’s stickiest rubber. While that meant he’d certainly be first of the frontrunners to stop on race day, a strong getaway could give him an early advantage that might just flummox the Merc duo. Quizzed as to whether his strategy committed him to “all-out attack”, he just beamed “yeah!”, prompting sideways glances from Lewis and Nico. A darker horse was Verstappen, who’d start on softs, like Hamilton and Rosberg. With a brawling Ricciardo prepared to mix it up at the front, P4 looked like one of the best seats in the house.
Ferrari locked out row three, as seems lately routine, with Kimi Raikkonen two tenths up on Sebastian Vettel, who complained of an “over aggressive” last qualifying run. The red team, who started the season with such promise, continue to underwhelm and Vettel’s post-session comments hinted at disorder within: “There remains a bit of a question mark on why we were so competitive in fast corners in Suzuka and here we’re missing out; but then again we’re missing out across all sectors.”
Then came the typically fraught Williams-force India squabble, this time settled in Nico Hulkenberg’s favour ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Sergio Perez should have been in the mix, but he’d failed to progress from Q2, leaving the final top-10 spot in Carlos Sainz’s hands. A tidy effort in a car hamstrung by a year-old, undeveloped Ferrari engine.
Further back Fernando Alonso kept Mclaren’s end up with P12 after a woeful Q1 effort from Jenson Button that left him languishing 19th. A last-corner fumble with Jolyon Palmer skewered the lap that should have elevated Button to P2. Palmer, meanwhile, could be most pleased with a P15 that put him three places ahead of Renault team-mate Kevin Magnussen. Not a bad result for a driver who, with K-mag and probably Manor’s Esteban Ocon, is fighting for the sole remaining 2017 Renault seat…
If you’ve ever wondered why it is that Alonso remains the most highly rated driver in Formula 1, you only had to watch the closing laps of the 2016 US GP for an explanation.
There has was, in full ‘matador’ mode, raging against his machine in pursuit of fifth place, defying those ahead of him – Massa and Carlos Sainz – to keep him from what he considered his due.
With 10 laps to go, Sainz was in possession of fifth place and closing on a result that would have been his best yet in F1. Having starred in qualifying to crack into the top 10, his Toro Rosso team reckoned a two-stop strategy would be their best means of securing a strong points finish. And as the laps ticked by their gamble of leaving Carlos to complete the last 26 laps on softs – five more than the recommended maximum – seemed to be paying off.
Trouble was for Carlos, Massa was closing on him, while Alonso was closing on Felipe.
In a post-ferrari reprise of the infamous 2010 “Fernando is faster than you” team order that gave Alonso victory at the 2010 German GP, at Massa’s expense, Fernando approached Felipe with irresistible intent. Spaniard caught Brazilian on lap 52 at Turn 15, and Alonso threw an uncompromising move up the inside of Massa’s Williams, thwacking his former team-mate aside like some irritating mosquito as he surged past. Contact forced Massa to pit with a puncture and condemned him to seventh place, while Alonso charged on, in pursuit of his younger compatriot, berating Massa for the wheel-banging as he went: “You cannot close the door with half a car in front of you.”
Sainz had already radioed “my tyres are finished” and the inevitability of Alonso prevailing was akin to watching a Great White devour a fleeing seal.
When Alonso is in this frame of mind, resistance is futile.
Into Turn 1, at the start of the final lap, Alonso, on mediums, was all over a gripless Sainz, and he took a wide line in as Sainz went defensive. It was hopeless. Alonso was able to use far less track on exit and simply screamed past through turns three, four and five, screaming “yee-hah” to his crew as he went.
Yee-hah, indeed, for this was an epic drive from an epic driver and re-confirmed Mclaren’s steady progress through the midfield, with Button finishing P9 to redeem his troubled qualifying a day earlier.
None of this, though, should detract from the achievement of Lewis Hamilton in taking his 50th F1 victory. In doing so he became only the third driver to reach that mark, along with Alain Prost, 51, and Michael Schumacher, 91. “I can’t believe there are three of us,” was his gracious acknowledgment, “but I hope better things are ahead.”
First on that list of good things to come must be his unfinished business with the 2016 world title chase.
Winning here (Lewis’s fifth US GP win in total and his fourth at COTA) was the most he could do in terms of maximising his points gain relative to championship leader Rosberg, though Rosberg’s own solid P2 meant he dropped only seven of his pre-race 33-point advantage to Hamilton.
They now stand at 331 to 305 – a 26-point margin with three races to go. The gap means Rosberg is still able to finish in second place at those three grands prix and take the title, regardless of Hamilton’s results.
For a while in Austin though, Ricciardo looked like he might upset Mercedes’ unruffled progress to their fifth 1-2 of the season.
At the start, both Mercs got away well, but Ricciardo’s launch was still better. This allowed him to pull alongside Rosberg into T1 as they dragged away up the hill. Rosberg had taken a wide line in, inexplicably following Hamilton through with little apparent thought of defence. Ricciardo needed no second invitation, and he nipped inside Rosberg and pinged off the apex like a rubber ball thanks to his softcompound Pirellis and the excellent traction of his RB12. He pushed Rosberg on the exit kerb and was able to draw ahead as they carved through the turn three to six sector.
Ricciardo remained in contention for
second until the inadvertent intervention of Verstappen on lap 28. Max pulled out with a gearbox failure that caused his rear wheels to seize when he parked his car. Its immobility necessitated the use of a crane to lift it from the track, triggering the Virtual Safety Car.
During three laps of slow motion, both Mercedes pitted for fresh mediums that had proved unexpectedly well suited to cool-ish track temperatures of 33 degrees Celcius.
Ricciardo, though, remained out, thus granting Mercedes what was in effect a ‘free’ stop and dropping him into a lonely P3. Ricciardo reckoned he’d lost around 10 seconds to Rosberg and was gutted, more than anything, to have been deprived of a late-race dust-up. “I was looking forward to the fight,” he said, “even if Nico had a bit more pace than me.”
Vettel dragged his Ferrari home in fourth, although he’d been shaded for much of the weekend by Raikkonen, who’d out-qualified Seb (P5 to P6) and who had looked the more competitive.
Alas, a strong result was squandered by a pit-box fumble that sent him out with an unsecure right rear. Cue retirement and a classic moment of Kimi comedy as he rolled backwards down the hill to retire. Engineers were heard voicing concern over his actions. But this was Kimi. They could have left him alone. He knew what he was doing.
Was second Hamilton did all he could with a win, but his team-mate Rosberg
Spaniard Alonso was a late-race star
Hamilton managed his tyres to cruise to victory
Raikkonen was looking racy until a bizarre botched pit stop put him out