Re­ports from the US, Mex­i­can and Brazil­ian GPS

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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.


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

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