Reports from the US, Mexican and Brazilian GPS
The champagne earmarked for the crowning was on ice, the t-shirts loudly proclaiming Lewis Hamilton’s fifth world championship neatly folded in their wrappers. Come Sunday evening in Austin Mercedes would decant them unobtrusively into packing crates along with the rest of the team’s equipment, onwards to Mexico.
Lewis Hamilton only needed to out-score Sebastian Vettel by eight points to claim his fifth world championship, but things didn’t quite work out that way for Lewis, even if Seb had another one of those days. For Kimi Räikkönen, though, the race was one he’d waited over five years for.… QUALIFYING
Heading into qualifying, Vettel knew he was carrying a three-place grid penalty. During FP1 the Ferrari man had fallen foul of a recently introduced regulation dictating a specific pace threshold drivers must not exceed when returning to the pits under red-flag conditions.
But although Vettel would have to go quickest of all in qualifying just to start fourth, he wasn’t the only driver facing a disadvantage. Wet weather on Friday had rendered the first two sessions largely meaningless, prompting Mercedes to set up with qualifying in mind, aiming to secure track position at the start of the race so they would at least be in front if tyre wear became an issue. Ferrari, though, were proving to be much closer on pace than in recent races, having binned a number of technical developments that appeared to have not worked.
The first Q3 runs gave an indication of the margins involved. Valtteri Bottas went quickest with a 1m 32.686s lap. He was eclipsed by Hamilton’s 32.567s and then Vettel, who did a 32.655s. Vettel thought he could overcome his nemesis on his final flying lap – but it would be very tight.
On the last Q3 run, once again Bottas went quicker (32.616s this time), before Räikkönen (32.307s) placed his Ferrari on provisional pole.
All eyes then switched to the top two in the title chase. Hamilton’s final lap was a 1m 32.237s, while Vettel stopped the clocks on 1m 32.298s. The difference between the pair? Just 0.061 seconds, meaning Vettel would line up fifth, behind Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
The start would be crucial to both occupants of the front row. Polesitter Hamilton needed to stay in front to control the race and cope with whatever tyre-wear issues eventuated, while Räikkönen had gone through Q2 on the softest available tyre compound – the ultrasofts – to maximise his chances of ousting Hamilton on the opening lap. Off the line, Räikkönen’s ultras hooked up faster than Hamilton’s supersofts, and even though the Mercedes swerved left in defence Räikkönen resolutely occupied the inside line into Turn 1. Now the tyre-management onus would be on him.
As the pack entered Turn 13, Vettel attempted to pass Ricciardo on the inside for fourth, but he understeered into the Red Bull – which sent the Ferrari into a spin. The championship looked done and dusted even though Hamilton wasn’t leading.
By lap eight, Max Verstappen had lifted his Red Bull from 18th on the grid to run fifth behind Räikkönen, Hamilton, Bottas and Ricciardo. A suspension breakage in qualifying – and a gearbox change – had consigned Verstappen to a lowly grid slot but enabled Red Bull to put him on an offset tyre strategy and with a more race-oriented setup.
Fifth became fourth for Verstappen when Ricciardo’s engine shut down and the Virtual Safety Car was deployed to retrieve his stricken machine. It was perhaps too early to pit, but the established orthodoxy in these circumstances is to do the opposite of what the car in front is doing, and when Räikkönen stayed out Hamilton pitted for soft tyres. The VSC meant he only lost one place, to Bottas, and when the race went green again Bottas yielded. By lap 18 Hamilton was on Räikkönen’s tail, but even with the advantage of newer rubber
it took three laps to get by the Iceman – laps that would prove crucial later on since the delay brought Verstappen into play.
Räikkönen pitted immediately to exchange his thoroughly shot ultrasofts for a set of softs he’d keep to the end of the race. Hamilton led, but as his tyres began to exhibit symptoms of stress it was clear he would have to stop again. Verstappen made his single stop a lap after Räikkönen, and successfully undercut Bottas, who pitted a lap later.
At half distance Hamilton had 17s in hand over Raikkonen, who was 4.5s ahead of Verstappen, with Bottas 3s further in arrears and contemplating the arrival of the recovering Vettel. If Mercedes had pitted Hamilton at this stage, he might just have emerged ahead of Verstappen and with fresh enough tyres to worry Räikkönen. But they didn’t, and it was another nine laps before Hamilton stopped, during which time his tyres significantly blistered and their performance went ‘off the cliff’. Räikkönen had taken nearly 10s out of his lead.
When Hamilton did stop, he emerged 12s behind Räikkönen and Verstappen. Not only was this a three-way battle for the win, Lewis only needed to pass Max to claim his fifth world title.
With two laps to go, Hamilton caught his prey and made a move at Turn 12, but Verstappen would not yield. They went side-by-side around the next three corners, before Hamilton tried a run around the outside of Turn 18. There he ran wide onto the marbles, squandering his chance.
The matter of the title became academic when Vettel passed Bottas for fourth on the last lap. Räikkönen, meanwhile, was celebrating his first win since 2013 in his own inimitable way: “**** ing finally,” was his terse – if not inaccurate – verdict.
“THE MATTER OF THE TITLE BECAME ACADEMIC WHEN VETTEL PASSED BOTTAS FOR FOURTH ON THE LAST LAP. RÄIKKÖNEN, MEANWHILE, WAS CELEBRATING HIS FIRST WIN SINCE 2013 IN HIS OWN INIMITABLE WAY
Kimi used his ultras to beat Lewis away (above), and held him off long enough mid-race (right) for one stop to be the winning strategy