The build-up to the 2017 United States Grand Prix may have been very…American: louder, bigger, brighter, yet not necessarily any better, but the race itself provided enough intrigue to distract from the ill-received pre-race Americanisms and saw Lewis Hamilton deliver one last blow to Sebastian Vettel’s dwindling title hopes.
(Yes, we’ll get to the Max Verstappen post-race penalty later.)
Hamilton may have won the race in Austin for the fourth consecutive year but it wasn’t as straightforward as his 10.1second winning margin suggests. From Friday’s practice sessions through to the closing stages of the race, onboard shots showed Hamilton fighting armfuls of understeer, while off-board shots showed bottom-twitching oversteer; the W09 is still living up to its reputation as somewhat of a diva.
Despite this, throughout the weekend the W09 – in the hands of Hamilton at least – was quick. Very quick. Hamilton dominated all three practice sessions, delivered his 72nd pole position and set a new record for front row starts; victory seemed assured.
Vetttel however, clinging on to his slim championship hopes and with Michael Buffer’s words ringing in his ears, was indeed, “ready to rumble.” His start from second on the grid was faultless, enabling him to scythe his way by Hamilton with millimetres to spare and park his Ferrari at the apex of turn one, snatching the lead from Hamilton.
It was a precious lead for Vettel, one that could just offer a glimmer of hope in the title race, if only he could keep it until the chequered flag…
It was short-lived; on lap six Hamilton had had enough of following the Ferrari and with apparent ease cruised up to Vettel’s rear and overtook him into turn twelve. Vettel offered little in defence, deflating those of us who expected a titanic battle.
Vettel would have another opportunity to regain the lead however, following Hamilton’s one and only pit-stop on lap nineteen, three laps after Vettel’s own stop. Hamilton emerged from the pit-lane narrowly ahead of Vettel but the German squandered the opportunity to put one over on his championship rival by being somewhat trigger happy on the throttle; the Ferrari stepped sideways at the exit of turn one and Hamilton became a small silver spot on the Texas horizon.
From there, Hamilton eased away but his confidence of victory was put under pressure later when, while still holding second, Vettel made a second pit-stop with eighteen laps to go, losing track position to a chasing Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen but gaining far fresher rubber and a chance to put pressure on Hamilton, albeit still from a distance.
It was enough to make the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team think about pitting their cars for a second time too, and at a point of the season where Hamilton appears untouchable, to make him question his own strategy is about the last weapon in Ferrari’s armoury.
As it was, Mercedes didn’t blink, Hamilton stayed out and claimed his 62nd race victory while Vettel quite sublimely fought his way back into second, overtaking Bottas around the outside of turn one before team-mate Raikkonen offered no resistance, as expected.
The result means that the driver’s championship isn’t quite dead and buried yet but it is limping along as Vettel makes Hamilton wait at least one more race. But the constructor’s championship once again goes to Mercedes, Ferrari’s challenge rather falling apart in recent races.
Instead of focusing on the post race celebrations by a team who claim their fourth title in a row however, attention turned to the star of the United States Grand Prix, Max Verstappen, and the controversial post-race penalty that saw him demoted from third to fourth place.
As the smoke continues to rise from the frantic friction of conspiracy theorist’s keyboards, let’s dive in to an incident that has divided fans like perhaps no other this year.
Having started sixteenth, courtesy of grid penalties for himself and others, Verstappen performed exquisitely, deploying aggression and patience in perfect balance to climb through the field back to his original starting position of sixth by lap ten.
Sixth became fifth with the demise of Daniel Ricciardo — power unit failure — and Verstappen even held the lead for two laps when those ahead pitted. A brief battle with Hamilton as the championship elect regained the lead was a glimpse of the future before Verstappen’s own pit-stop on lap twenty-four returned him to fifth.
On lap thirty-seven Verstappen pitted again for fresh super-soft tyres, losing nothing but time to the leaders but applying pressure to them nonetheless with the pace he would show on fresh rubber. Indeed, Vettel’s second stop a lap later saw him emerge just a second ahead of Verstappen.
While Vettel managed to escape any serious Max-attack, Bottas failed to keep the Dutchman behind and the scene was set for a last lap battle for the final podium position between Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen.
Once clear of turn twelve at the end of the long back straight you’d be forgiven for thinking Raikkonen was safe, but an inspired Verstappen on a fight-back through the field is something to be feared at all times.
Indeed, the move came at the ultra-quick turns seventeen and eighteen, catching everyone, especially Raikkonen by surprise. The problem, of course, and cause of the current social media storm, was that Verstappen completed the pass with all four wheels off the track, cutting the corner.
Now, the letter of the law suggests that Verstappen’s post-race five-second penalty was entirely justified…but there are other things to consider. The letter of the law is one thing but perhaps the spirit of the law and for-the-good-of-the-sport should be taken into account also.
Verstappen had driven a sublime race, thrilling spectators with his distinctive driving style, and few could argue that third place was thoroughly deserved. Now though, the entire sport’s integrity is being questioned by outraged fans across the world and instead of fawning over a brilliant drive from one of the sport’s most exciting drivers, focus is on a small group of stewards making race changing decisions from behind an office desk.
As many of you will be shouting at your screen however, Verstappen did cut the corner, an abuse of track limits, something however, that had been happening throughout the entire weekend at various points around the track with no penalties handed out.
Consistency is the key then; if it’s a penalty for one, it’s a penalty for all. Or, how about a clause whereby if an overtake sees people jumping to their feet for its brilliance, allow it to stand and encourage more of the same.
The argument is likely to continue into this coming weekend at the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix where the subject of track limits will doubtless be a popular one. It’s also a venue that may very well see Lewis Hamilton crowned world champion for the fourth time and where, if recent events are anything to go by, the drivers will be introduced to the crowd by a Mexican wrestler accompanied by a four-piece Mariachi band…