“For the first time in 113 years…races, the chequered flag falls for him as a winner!” Sky Sports F1‘s David Croft‘s slip of the tongue in commentary summed up how Kimi Räikkönen‘s long-awaited twenty-first victory in Formula 1 felt. Promising weekends ruined by: a slide on a crucial flying lap, a poorly timed strategy, a necessity to make way for team-mate Sebastian Vettel for championship reasons or just a mystifying lack of race pace made the wait between the Finn’s last two victories seem a lot longer than five years and seven months.
Indeed, re-watching Räikkönen’s performance in last weekend’s United States Grand Prix makes the long wait even more peculiar. Freed by another Vettel first lap slip-up, this time a careless error when battling with Daniel Ricciardo leading to a spin, Räikkönen drove like a man who was used to winning every other race – a serial winner. He knew what he had to do and executed Scuderia Ferrari‘s plans perfectly.
It’s only fair to praise Ferrari for their strategy last weekend, given how quickly their errors have been spotted and criticised in the past. The decision to split tyre choices between the Ferrari pairing was well thought out. Vettel, compromised by missing out on pole by six-hundredths and a contentious three-place grid penalty for not respecting red flag protocol, was put on the middle tyre, the super-softs. Räikkönen, elevated to second, was the only man in the top five starting on the softest compound, the ultra-soft. Ferrari had planned to trouble polesitter Lewis Hamilton off the line and Räikkönen obliged. Hamilton tried his best to deter the 39-year-old, squeezing him to within an inch of the white line on the pits side, but a snap of wheelspin as he toggled through the mid-range of the gearbox allowed Räikkönen to get ahead into the tightening Turn 1. Talk about picking a moment, it marked the first time since the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that he had gained a position through an overtake on the first lap of a race.
Come lap 11 at the Circuit of the Americas, it looked like a mistake not to have pitted either Räikkönen or the recovering Vettel under the Virtual Safety Car for Ricciardo’s sudden retirement. Particularly when Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport brought Hamilton in for soft tyres on that lap – the order being: ‘Whatever Kimi does, you do the opposite’. Räikkönen ambled towards the pit entry as a dummy before continuing to take the final corner. And particularly when Hamilton set about scything down the gap to Räikkönen with numerous fastest laps, catching the Ferrari just before its sole stop on lap 22.
It was in this period that Räikkönen proved his ability and worth. Confidently, he placed his car in all the right parts of the circuit and frustrated Hamilton, who darted about looking unusually flustered. By the time he’d had enough of his worn ultra-soft tyres and pulled in to pit, the Finn had cost the runaway championship leader eight seconds.
Relinquishing the lead and coming out fifth, behind the resurgent Vettel, Räikkönen calmly set about easing his softs into the race, for there was another 34 laps still to play out. Waved through by Vettel – for the German’s own benefit – and unhindered by Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen‘s respective pitstops, Räikkönen ate away at Hamilton’s 16 second lead and, along with blistering on the W09’s rear tyres, gave Mercedes no choice but to bring Hamilton in again on lap 38 for a second set of softs, demoting the Brit to fourth.
Even with Verstappen and Hamilton gaining rapidly in the final stages on fresher rubber, Räikkönen stayed true to his ice-cool persona. Allowed some time by the intense scrap for second, the Finn closed out the final few laps to take a well-deserved and very popular victory. And if it is his last victory in an unforgettable Formula 1 career, then what a time to get it. On a day where Vettel lost his head at the start again, Kimi gave him one more – albeit slim – chance.
Inevitably, the reactions included questioning whether the decision to leave Ferrari at the end of the year and join the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team in a swap with Charles Leclerc was on his terms. Quickly, Räikkönen rubbished that thought process.
“No,” he said in the official post-race press conference. “I don’t think people understand that I am actually very happy to go where I am going.
“I have had my time with Ferrari. I won the championship with them, won many races with them and for me, as a driver, I want different challenges…I want different things. It [Sauber’s Hinwil base] is roughly 40 minutes from my home – my family will be happy with that and I’m happy to be with my family, so I think it is probably the best thing.”
And what did he make of breaking his barren run? “Life goes on.”
NO VERSTOPPEN HIM
He’s a man who has been learning from his past mistakes. There were even calls for Verstappen to be out of Formula 1 after a testing start to the 2018 season. However, since a rash move that culminated in Vettel pointing the wrong way – through no fault of Vettel’s own – in China, Verstappen has shown signs of true maturity and discipline.
Before the race, CoTA’s official Twitter account highlighted the insert of a raised yellow and black kerb on the inside of the Turn 16,17 and 18 triple-right complex in the final sector – the site of Verstappen’s illegal move on Räikkönen to get onto and then chucked off the podium last year – labelling it as the ‘Verstopper’.
That day, the Dutchman came from fifteenth on the grid after engine penalties. This time his lowly dwelling of eighteenth was down to another set of kerbs, just before the ‘Verstopper’, that ripped his right rear suspension apart under torque load and damaged his driveshaft in Qualifying 1.
Avoiding the various degrees of chaos at the start, from Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso‘s tangle at the Esses to Romain Grosjean punting Leclerc at Turn 12 and Vettel and Ricciardo’s coming together at Turn 13, Verstappen found himself well inside the top ten almost immediately. Just before his pitstop on lap 23 he ran third behind the two Mercedes cars and even managed to leapfrog Bottas by pitting a lap earlier than the Finn, who did anything but fly over the course of Sunday’s race.
A legal move at Turn 16 on Vettel, seconds before the German dived into the pits to replace his fried rear tyres (the result of slamming the throttle to flick the car back in the right direction on lap one), put him back on the podium and in pursuit of the leading pair. Ridiculously, it looked like the 21-year-old had a very good chance of winning. On the softer tyres and showing no signs of questioning Aston Martin Red Bull Racing‘s order to push after a period of conserving his Pirellis, Verstappen managed to hunt down Räikkönen to move within two seconds of the lead.
However, Hamilton on his second set of softs had managed to close the 10 second gap to the Red Bull, setting up a thrilling finale. Hamilton made it no secret that he would tread with extreme care when dealing with Verstappen, but knew that with Vettel still behind Bottas with three laps to go a move would secure a fifth world championship. So, he tried around the outside of triple right-hander but gave a little too much respect to Verstappen, ran onto the marbles and slithered onto the run-off area; this negated all the hard work he had done previously.
Although he could not equal Rubens Barrichello in winning from the second-lowest grid spot in Formula 1 history, Verstappen did at least register a podium from the second-lowest grid spot in the history of the United States Grand Prix. However, Teo Fabi‘s 1984 record of reaching the rostrum from twenty-third was impossible for him.
Having recently reached the legal drinking age in Texas, that champagne was a well-earned refreshment for a different Verstappen – a driver now looking like the future of Formula 1. Again.
MAKING A HAAS OF THEMSELVES
The United States Grand Prix has not been a happy hunting ground for its compatriot team. The Haas F1 Team have only registered one point at CoTA in three years – Grosjean in 2016. They did manage to finish inside the top ten this year, courtesy of Kevin Magnussen‘s ninth place, only to lose that status less than an hour after the race. Just like eighth-placed man Esteban Ocon, Magnussen was pulled up for transgressing the laws on fuel usage.
However unlike Ocon, who exceeded the permitted flow in a single lap, the Dane used more than 105kgs of fuel across the race. Both were disqualified, promoting Brendon Hartley and Marcus Ericsson into the points paying positions.
“It’s a shame that we have fuel saving in Formula One and not being able to attack,” bemoaned Magnussen to Racefans.net.
“At the end of the day, what the fans want to see is great racing. We can’t do it because we have to save fuel. It’s disappointing.”
Magnussen also said on Twitter that he was “racing in Formula Fuelsaving rather than Formula 1”. In the end, readings showed that he had broken the limit by just 100g.
Grosjean had no need to worry about fuel, for his race was over inside five laps. On lap one a mistake going into Turn 12 saw the Frenchman snatch his inside front brake and tip Leclerc’s Sauber into a spin, damaging both cars. Leclerc continued for testing purposes before being summoned into the garage in the midway part of the race, but Grosjean was left to abandon his afternoon much earlier.
With the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team taking their best points haul in their third spell as a works team with sixth and seventh, Haas have fallen to 22 points behind the French marque in the battle for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
LACK OF FRIDAY DATA PERFECT FOR ENTERTAINMENT
Ideally, Formula 1 would not have been greeted by Texas with wet and cold weather. With a lack of wet and intermediate tyres on Friday, running was heavily limited. Over three hours of green flag conditions, just 428 laps were completed – an average of 21.4 per driver.
This left ex-Ferrari and current Liberty Media guru Ross Brawn to ponder the idea of limiting data for teams, if it produces races as thrilling and unpredictable as last weekend’s. No dry tyre running on Friday left everybody guessing their race pace and longevity of the tyres. Even Pirelli Motorsport were left in the dark.
“The three drivers on the podium crossed the line within the same three seconds,” Brawn told Autosport.
“They all ran different tyre strategies, through choice in the case of Räikkönen and Hamilton and by necessity for Verstappen who started from the penultimate row of the grid.
“That’s unusual in Formula 1.”
With Liberty Media and the FIA pushing to make F1 more exciting in race conditions, the abandonment of Friday Free Practice or limiting data throughout the weekend could be a pivotal step.