Analysis: Formula 1 2019 United States Grand Prix – Assessing the field

by William Brierty

Given that Lewis Hamilton has won on 49 occasions from pole position – more than any other driver in history – it’s perhaps surprising that he has never signed-off a championship with a lights to flag victory. It was a win on home turf for title rival Felipe Massa in the legendary final corner title decider in 2008. Hamilton took his first two titles with Mercedes in fine style with a pair of wins but had to fight back with his team-mate Nico Rosberg starting both races from pole. Rosberg was particularly impressive during the 2015 United States Grand Prix – completely eclipsing Hamilton in the wet/dry conditions, passing him on-track before gifting the incoming champion an easy win with a strange error in the closing laps.

A pair of fairly forgettable Mexican deciders would see Hamilton clinch his next two world titles by finishing off the podium. A puncture on the opening lap in 2017 and tyre degradation woes in 2018 left a bittersweet aftertaste: the culmination of a year of excellence, capped-off by a disappointing performance. With the champion elect on the brink of setting a new career record for wins in a season, one of Hamilton’s strongest circuits would surely see him break his championship-day curse. However, instead, it was the newly crowned champion’s team-mate who shone in the lone star state…

Top of the class…

Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.292s | Race margin to team-mate: -4.148s

Calm, consistent, combative and very, very quick – Formula 1 has just witnessed Valtteri Bottas at his absolute best. Some may remember that the Circuit of the Americas played host to the Finn’s breakout performance during his rookie season in 2013, as he dragged his Williams FW35 – which had previously only scored one point in that season – to eighth in the race having threatened the top five in qualifying. In 2019, Bottas has been the master of the W10 in the high-speed direction change complexes. In Maggots and Becketts, the Suzuka esses and the snaking ribbon of corners in the first sector at CotA: Bottas has developed a distinct edge on Hamilton in these key corners.

But it wasn’t only the esses where Bottas excelled, as the Finn eclipsed Hamilton by a hefty three tenths to snatch a tightly contested pole ahead of a resurgent Vettel and a rampant Verstappen. Bottas’ race was virtually faultless. Certainly, the two-stop was the quicker strategy, but Bottas did a superb job of modulating his tyre consumption – something that he has tended to struggle with in comparison to Hamilton. He inexorably reeled in Lewis after his first stop before executing the first of two on-track passes on his team-mate. Hamilton did some damage after his one and only stop, but Valtteri cut into his advantage by three seconds on the first flying lap after pitting for the second time. Traffic frustrated the Finn’s progress and bit into his tyre delta, but he calmly regrouped and began to close in once again. The first of Bottas’ overtaking attempts was robustly defended, but there was no resistance as Hamilton’s tyres continued to drop-off. Will the finest performance of Bottas’ F1 career prove to be a warning shot ahead of 2020?

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.452s | Race margin to team-mate: -63.036s

There was no shortage of motivation for Verstappen as F1 arrived in Texas. A rare missed opportunity in Mexico at the wheel of a car that has trailed off rather alarming in recent races, compounded by some thinly veiled jabs from Hamilton and Vettel in the post-race presser. Mexico was a weekend marked by small errors with big consequences: unfortunately, this was a trait that the Dutchman couldn’t fully shake off a week later. A minor lockup at Turn 1 probably cost Verstappen pole; however, for a car that is definitely third best in qualifying trim, it still required an utterly mighty lap from Max to get within a tenth of pole.

A fine race saw Verstappen run as the closest challenger to the Mercedes duo, with the Dutchman forced to drive harder in order to keep up and consequently lost ground in the final laps of each stint as the tyres faded. Kevin Magnussen’s brake failure in the closing laps cost Verstappen a probable run at second, with the errant Haas causing a yellow flag on the back straight, nullifying the best overtaking opportunity. Some mysterious floor damage – origins unknown – reportedly created an instability on Verstappen’s car from lap five onwards, but it’s highly doubtful that the Red Bull ever had the speed to challenge Bottas. Overall, it was a thoroughly impressive weekend for a driver that since the summer break has put a few black marks on his erstwhile impeccable season.

Daniel Ricciardo – Renault F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.207s (Q2) | Race margin to team-mate: -22.229s

It’s becoming a familiar pattern: a less than stellar showing for Renault on Saturday upturned by a terrific recovery drive from their Aussie figurehead on Sunday. In fairness to Ricciardo, at the wheel of a car that is clearly not at its best in single-lap trim, ninth was probably the best he could have done in qualifying. Daniel’s battle-hardened racecraft put him at a clear advantage in the opening laps, producing a superb launch to immediately put himself in among the McLaren pair. Once he had dispatched the wayward Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, Ricciardo set about dicing with Lando Norris; twice passing the young Brit in a clean, finely balanced duel. With track position over his midfield rivals he executed the cleanest one-stop of anyone on the grid. For the third race in succession, Ricciardo expertly massaged the tyre life of the hard compound, running longer and more consistently than any of his rivals. Combative and just a little bit crafty – that’s vintage Ricciardo.

Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.328s | Race margin to team-mate: -17.917s

Much as Norris is still prone to spontaneous bouts of “like a rollercoaster”, the 19-year-old has been slightly less bubbly in recent races, amid a fairly awesome surge from his team-mate. Norris’ fastidious self-criticism will probably put him in fine stead in the long term, but at the moment he is beginning to cast a shadow on what has been a rather excellent rookie season. That’s not to say he hasn’t made errors worthy of criticism: he has certainly become prone to squandering fine laps with innocuous errors in qualifying. Laps that put Lando P3 in final practice and P1 in Q1 are probably indicative of McLaren wisely allowing Norris more practice laps on maximum power and minimum fuel.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Unfortunately, yet another three tenth deficit to Sainz in Q3 tipped the balance in the Spaniard’s favour in the season-long qualifying head-to-head. Although Sainz’s race was compromised with a clash with Albon in the opening corner, Norris definitely looked faster in race trim. A deftly executed two-stop saw Lando lap consistently faster than the rest of the midfield. However, despite his best efforts, Norris couldn’t catch the one-stopping Ricciardo following their superb tussle in the opening laps. The 19-year-old showed superb speed all weekend – he just needed to fully unleash it when it mattered in qualifying.

Homework to do…

Daniil Kvyat – Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.274s (Q2) | Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Despite some fine performances during the European season and a podium cameo in Germany, Kvyat has been getting a bit of a pasting at the hands of Pierre Gasly since the Frenchman rejoined Toro Rosso. Whilst Kvyat’s demotion in 2016 precipitated a painful downward spiral, Gasly hasn’t allowed his chin to dip: outqualifying the Russian at every race bar Monza (withstanding some excusable tummy trouble in Mexico). In Austin, qualifying was actually the better part of Kvyat’s weekend. He was unlucky to brush the transponder at Turn 19 and lose his fastest Q2 lap to a hairline track limits infraction. That said, he never quite had his team-mate’s single-lap pace. Unfortunately, race pace would prove more of an issue, as Kvyat fell back at a steady rate in the race. He was still just in points contention when he clobbered Sergio Perez on the last lap. His penalty should have come as no surprise, having creamed into Nico Hulkenberg on the final lap a week earlier.

Robert Kubica – ROKiT Williams Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.517s | Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Despite lapping 1.3s slower than George Russell in qualifying, Kubica actually enjoyed one of his better weekends in Mexico. It was one of the few occasions where the Pole was able to race competitively with his team-mate, culminating in a superb if somewhat risky lunge up the inside of the double apex hairpin. Kubica trailed Russell by a more respectable half a second in Austin, although again his deficit was largely confined to the high-speed corners. His race was poor: quickly becoming detached from the field despite a typically fine launch. Having been overwhelmingly the slowest car on-track he ultimately retired with a hydraulic leak. Looking ahead to what are almost certainly the final two races of Kubica’s F1 career, the feeling is mixed: happy that such a fine driver will get a proper send-off and relieved that Kubica’s season as a backmarker is almost finally over.

The rest…

What on earth happened to Ferrari? Having come within thousandths of pole position, a nightmare opening lap for Sebastian Vettel saw him drop like a stone, battling with cold tyres when a suspension failure dramatically ended his race. Charles Leclerc’s weekend began to unravel with an engine failure in final practice, robbing him of crucial practice laps ahead of an ultra-competitive qualifying. A completely anonymous race to fourth capped-off Ferrari’s worst showing since the summer break.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Sergio Perez might have been blind to the stewards ushering him into the weighbridge in FP2, but an excellent one-stopper was enough to steal a point from his pitlane start. Fourteenth was not a bad qualifying effort for Lance Stroll, but it did leave him in the thick of the action around a historically hazardous opening corner. He was duly sandwiched between Gasly and Magnussen, sustained damage and was never able to make much of a bid for points. A fantastically uncompetitive home race for Haas started badly as Romain Grosjean nosed a freshly upgraded front wing into the barriers in second practice. Kevin Magnussen again made the best impression in a difficult car – running as high as tenth on the opening lap – but both he and his team-mate quickly fell to the back of the midfield runners. Magnussen’s race ended in spectacular fashion with a brake disc explosion a few laps from home.

A handy tow for Antonio Giovinazzi and a lockup for Kimi Raikkonen again put the master behind the apprentice in qualifying, although the defending race winner was definitely the faster Alfa at CotA. A fine race for Raikkonen put him in outside points contention, however, the Alfa continued to struggle in race trim, as evidenced by Giovinazzi’s race in midfield obscurity.

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