LEWIS

ONE STEP FOR­WARD

Motor Sport News - - Us Gp Report - BY AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON

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…

Qual­i­fy­ing

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…

Race

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

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