This weekend’s United States Grand Prix was a relatively quiet affair all told, but it was just the sort of race Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Lewis Hamilton needed to up his confidence and bring him right back into the title race, cutting the gap to team-mate Nico Rosberg to just twenty-six points, with three more races to go in the 2016 Formula One season.
The Brit, for the first time in a long time, nailed his start and from there on in drove a flawless race to the flag, never troubled throughout the race, and not once putting a foot wrong. It was a supreme performance from a driver that has clearly mastered the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) track, having now won four out of the five races that have taken place there, since its inclusion onto the calendar in 2012.
At the start Hamilton moved off the line well, as did team-mate Rosberg, starting alongside him on the front row, who got the slightly better run into the first corner, and come round the outside to try to get ahead of the Brit. Unfortunately for the German that created a gap that Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo immediately squeezed his RB12 into, causing Rosberg to lose second position and drop down into third, behind the Australian, which is where he stayed for a large portion of the race, unable to find an answer to the RB12’s pace on the super-soft tyres.
First lap fury for Force India…
Further down the order however events were taking a dramatic turn, when Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenberg was catapulted into the side of Williams Martini Racing driver Valtteri Bottas, after hitting the left rear wheel on the Scuderia Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel who turned in sharply on the 2015 24 Hours Le Mans winner, and left him with nowhere to go but into the side of the Williams.
The incident put an almost immediate end to Hulkenberg’s race, whilst the Finn sustained a right rear puncture and an early visit to the pits.
The action for Force India was not about to end there however, when Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat tried to make a move under braking on an unassuming Sergio Perez at the Turn 11 hairpin, sending the Mexican into a spin, and calling the stewards into action, who deemed the incident worthy of a ten second penalty and the addition of two more points to Kvyat’s licence.
Kvyat was perplexed after the race, believing the punishment handed down to him had been somewhat harsh, as he felt Perez moved and changed his line under braking, an area of great consternation in the sport at present, and one that was clarified prior to the race as something a driver would not be allowed to do. Perez on the other hand felt the blame firmly lay with just one party!
Meanwhile Hamilton was off into the distance, having carved out a sizeable lead at the front, whilst Rosberg had the faster Ricciardo to contend with, and the Australian’s team-mate Max Verstappen was advancing ever closer, soon to join the party.
It’s the pits…
Ricciardo was the first to head for the pits to switch onto the soft tyre on lap 8, closely followed by Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen, who had been sitting comfortably in fifth place, but got the undercut during his pit stop and moved ahead of Verstappen into fourth place.
Rosberg was next in two laps later, and the German switched to the medium tyre ready to play the longer game. Hamilton made his switch one lap later and bolted on the soft tyre, leaving the Mercedes drivers on an altogether different strategy.
Having had such a big lead at the front, the Brit was easily able to get back out ahead of the battle for second that was building up between Rosberg and Ricciardo, who were about to be joined by Verstappen who had made his way past Raikkonen and could smell blood up ahead.
The spirited Dutchman got a warning from his engineer over team radio to remind him he needed to ensure he could complete his current stint, to which the 19-year-old replied “I’m not here to finish fourth.”
Despite his bravado Verstappen did start to drop off the back of the fight for second place, with no real threat behind him as fifth place Raikkonen was about to pit once again for another set of the soft tyres, as team-mate Vettel closed up to the back of the other SF16-H. Having started on that compound, it was clear the Finn would have to stop again, taking him onto a three stop strategy.
Having kept Rosberg at bay despite his advances, Ricciardo made a second pit stop, this time for the medium compound tyre on lap 24, leaving the German to move into second place and try to make inroads on his team-mate, who was ten seconds ahead.
A lap later, in one of the more bizarre race incidents, Verstappen was seen trundling down pit lane, clearly to the complete surprise of his mechanics who had not called him in for a stop. They rushed to get the medium tyres out to complete a change, but by then the Dutchman had lost a good chunk of time whilst stationery, 9.2 seconds in fact, with his unscheduled actions.
As the engineer radioed to ask the 19-year-old what happened, Verstappen replied somewhat sheepishly “I thought you had pitted me, sorry”. After the race the Dutchman elaborated further, describing how the team had asked him to push the lap previously and so he had assumed they were boxing him on the subsequent lap.
To pull over or not pull over that is the question…
On lap 30 the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was activated following a mechanical failure for Verstappen, who began to slow down the main straight, before retiring his car into a gravel trap at Turn 18, for what is believed to be a gearbox problem.
Due to the location of the beached RB12, the VSC was required to allow marshals to safely remove the car, which took them two laps. In that time a number of drivers, including Hamilton and Rosberg, pitted to take what was essentially a “free pit stop”, allowing the German to come out ahead of Ricciardo, who had not pitted, and take back second place.
The Australian was clearly furious as he relayed his exact thoughts to his engineer over team radio. To make matters worse his own team-mate was the trigger for the VSC that had just ruined his chances of taking that runner-up place.
Ferrari faux pas…
Having entered the pits for his third stop on lap 39, Raikkonen exited ready to complete his final stint of the race, but as he came to the end of the run off, his engineer immediately came onto the radio and ordered the Finn to stop the car, as the right rear tyre had not been correctly fitted.
That then brought about another weird moment, as Raikkonen rolled the SF16-H backwards down the pit lane exit, retiring the car and unfortunately ending his race.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner…
From there it was a clear run to the end for Hamilton, who barring pit stops, had led the pack for the entire race, with Rosberg coming home 4.5 seconds down the road in second, and Ricciardo taking third place.
Vettel came home fourth, lucky to have completed the race following his first lap incident with Hulkenberg, a solid fifty seconds ahead of McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver Fernando Alonso, who had a fantastic race for the Woking based squad, ending the grand prix in fifth place.
Following a poor showing at their home race in Suzuka, the MP4-31 looked much stronger in Austin, allowing Alonso to battle his way through the field from twelfth on the grid, without much problem.
Towards the end of the race the double world champion was involved in a three-way battle for fifth spot with the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz Jnr, who started the grand prix from eighth on the grid thanks to a better than expected qualifying session, and former team-mate Felipe Massa.
The initial tussle had been between the Toro Rosso and the Williams, but the McLaren had been steadily gaining on them before arriving on the back of Massa, who at that point was sat in sixth place.
An opportunistic move from the advancing Alonso, who dived up the inside of Massa at Turn 15, banging wheels with the Williams and shoving him off track, saw him jump ahead of the Brazilian.
The Williams man had possibly not seen the Spaniard move in alongside him due to his concentration being fixed on Sainz Jnr, who had locked up ahead coming out of the earlier corner. The incident was investigated after the race, but the stewards felt no further action was necessary.
Alonso was not done there however, as he closed in on his fellow countryman in the dying moments of the race. After plenty of dicing between the pair, Sainz Jnr knowing his fate but not letting the McLaren man have the place easily, Alonso passed the Toro Rosso, calling “Yeehaw!” over team radio as he moved into fifth place, and came over the line two seconds ahead of Sainz Jnr.
Massa unfortunately suffered a puncture during that battle, but was able to pit without losing position and came across the line in seventh place.
And the rest…
The luckless Perez came home in a creditable eighth place after recovering from his first lap incident with Kvyat, ahead of Jenson Button who was ninth, despite starting all the way down in nineteenth on the grid, following a poorly timed final run in Q1 of qualifying on Saturday. It was a strong for both McLaren Honda drivers, who brought home a double points score for the Woking based team.
The Brit had one of the best starts of the season, when he clawed his way through the order to eleventh after just a handful of laps, and was ahead of Haas F1 Team driver Romain Grosjean who claimed the final point available, coming home in tenth place on home soil.
Renault Sport Formula 1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen finished in eleventh place on track, but was demoted to twelfth after the race, having received a five second time penalty. The deduction was handed down by the stewards for a late pass on Kvyat, which the Dane completed by running off track, and officials deemed gave the 24-year-old a lasting advantage. That saw the Russian leapfrog Magnusson into eleventh place after the event.
Team-mate and rival for the remaining Renault seat, Jolyon Palmer, was thirteenth. Completing what was a highly frustrating grand prix for the Brit, who struggled to get passed the RS16 of Magnusson for the majority of the race, annoyed that despite his remonstrating, no help was forthcoming from the team.
Sauber F1 Team drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, were fourteenth and fifteenth respectively, with Bottas, who never really recovered from his early puncture, in sixteenth.
The familiar sight of the Manor Racing MRT machines of Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon bringing up the rear, completed the order, with just the one further retirement of Esteban Gutierrez, who had an off track excursion at Turn 11 thanks to a brake problem on lap 17, forcing the Mexican to retire from the race.
Sunday’s result see’s Hamilton reduce Rosberg’s lead in the Driver’s standings to just twenty-six points with three more races to go, and although the result is now out of his hands so to speak, with the German only needing two second place finishes and a third to be crowned champion, it was a sublime performance from the Brit, that must surely have given him the self-belief that this title battle is far from over.
Red Bull were able to stretch out their lead very slightly over Ferrari for second place in the Constructors’ Championship, despite Verstappen having to retire from the race, the gap now at fifty-three points. The Milton Keynes based squad definitely had the edge on their Italian rivals here in Austin, and look set to seal that coveted runners-up spot come the end of the season.
The gap between Force India and Williams for fourth and fifth has been reduced to eight points, thanks to the Silverstone based teams disastrous first lap, and this battle looks set to go down to the wire, whilst McLaren have moved nineteen points clear of Toro Rosso in their quest for sixth place, a position they may well have though nigh on possible at the start of the year.
Further down the order the Haas F1 Team have a twenty-one point lead over fellow 2016 new boys Renault, and Manor keep their one point advantage over Sauber, who are still to score their first point of the season.