Monday 3 November 2014

United States GP Report: Lewis swoops yet further

It was just like qualifying, only very different.

Just like in Austin's qualifying session we were reminded starkly on the United States Grand Prix race day of things we perhaps too readily forgot. Particularly in thinking we knew what the final act contained in advance. But it couldn't have been more different as matters at the sharp end were turned utterly on their head.

In a familiar tale, Lewis Hamilton prevailed in the race over
team mate Nico Rosberg
Photo: Octane Photography
Things looked good for Nico Rosberg in advance of Sunday's action, him having the day before taken a fine pole position with a time close to four tenths ahead of his (admittedly bad brake-hobbled) team mate and title antagonist Lewis Hamilton. But delving deeper there where causes for his concern, and not just that Lewis - and Lewis with a healthier car - was likely to be a formidable foe. Of Nico's nine poles this year only twice has he converted it to a win. And this was a statistic he didn't improve on.

Early in the race things looked good though. Lewis was indeed up to speed but in the first stint on soft tyres Nico was able to just stay at arm's length up the road. Indeed Lewis hit the cliff with his tyres slightly earlier and as is his right as the one ahead Nico pitted first, and after this had all shaken out his advantage was a balmy three seconds.

But even at this point Nico had problems, experiencing understeer, and on the medium tyres it really manifested itself in lap time. Lewis - aided by a front wing tweak at his first stop - took chunks out of his lead, rapidly was in DRS range then before we knew it, just shy of half distance, had crisply outbraked him at the end of the long straight.

From them on the result didn't look in much doubt. Nico did get back with the programme, and was able to match Lewis as well as on occasion take a bite from his advantage. But Lewis was able to respond every time. Come the end he fishtailed past the flag 4.3 seconds prior to Nico. In a weekend of twists Lewis fifth win on the bounce was one thing that had immense familiarity.

We have seen repeatedly that Lewis when hunting down his prey is not easily repelled, but Nico's difficulties in converting fine qualifying pace to a similarly fine race result is becoming a pattern. As outlined the statistics are by now overwhelming. If he does indeed lose out on this year's title this - never mind Spa or whatever other shenanigan of choice - will be the greatest contributor.

Nico Rosberg was candid afterwards about where he
went wrong
Photo: Octane Photography
And it is no exaggeration that this was a vital weekend for Nico's title hopes. Now with a 24 point advantage Lewis has the luxury of cruising in behind Nico in the final two rounds to win the championship. Realistically this means unreliability or some other severe delay or random event is all that can scupper him. Nico is now needing snookers. No wonder he wasn't thrilled afterwards. Indeed he showed some of the exterior of a beaten man.

Yet as Martin Brundle noted 'Lewis doesn't do second very well'. And for this reason, as well as that his approach his serving him very nicely right now thanks very much, Lewis will likely for the season's remainder keep doing exactly what he's doing.

Indeed the man himself said as much: 'If the racing points were normal (it) could be a different feeling, now I'm going into these next races and I've got to attack. I need those 25 points in the next one and I want the 50 points in the last one.'

Lewis is correct that the double points that await in Abu Dhabi makes matters a lot more open than it would have been ordinarily. Without it Lewis finishing ahead of Nico in Brazil would have wrapped things up there and then, but with it the championship goes into the mixer of the Abu Double whatever happens in Interlagos next weekend. And with ten wins now to his name if Lewis does indeed miss out of the title it would break that particularly record for individual triumphs in a season without the title to smithereens.

Nico though was impressively lucid afterwards, not seeking to obfuscate as to where the responsibility lay: 'Just didn't drive well enough today' he explained candidly, 'it took too long to get my rhythm.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed once again on the way to third
Photo: Octane Photography
'F1 is always about adapting, no situations are ever the same. And getting into the race everything was different to qualifying. It took too long (for me to adapt). When Lewis got past, five or eight laps later I started to nail it, but too late.'

When asked to elaborate on all of this, Nico explained that it was 'two main things - one is over-driving the front tyres, because with the Pirelli tyres if you exaggerate and they overheat in a corner and just lose complete grip. And you need to be very very careful with them and I didn't notice that early enough. And the other thing is then with all the settings in the car you can really massively influence the car, and it took me a long time to sort them out.'

Nico added later that a fumbling on his part meant he didn't have full ERS power at the vital moment when Lewis passed either.

Lewis meanwhile was serene: 'There was no doubt in my mind' he said. 'Practice was really good, but qualifying I really didn't get into a rhythm but I knew I had the pace, but Nico's lap was fantastic...And then going into the race there wasn't a second or a moment that I didn't feel I could win. The opportunity's going to be in there somewhere so I just needed to keep working and pushing and eventually it presented itself.

'At the moment I'm just enjoying the moment, today it feels great...I wanted it that bad and I got it and it felt fantastic when I came across the line.'

As for the rest, the two Williams and Daniel Ricciardo were impressive in the extent that they kept the mighty Silver Arrows in sight and once again Ricciardo was particularly so. Third place was his reward this time, having ambushed one Williams of Valtteri Bottas in stop one and the other of Felipe Massa in stop two (aided by a tardy in-lap, tardy stop as well as a tardy getaway for the Brazilian). In another recurring pattern for this season both Daniel and his RB10 seemed to grow in competitiveness as the race went on. It seemed a little inappropriate that today was the day that his remote title prospects officially evaporated.

Fernando Alonso just hung on for sixth place
Photo: Octane Photography
The rest were way back, though there were plenty of adventures among them. Fernando Alonso pedalled hard as always, though for the most part he had a rather lonely existence somewhere between the top five and the warring pack behind. Towards the end though his lap times fluctuated incredibly (his penultimate lap was nine seconds off his best), as it transpired due to front vibrations which led the Spaniard to seek to allow the gap to the car behind the fall as much as possible.

Sebastian Vettel also had a variable time of it. For the first half of the race he gave the impression of one not wanting to be there, but gradually as the race went on he came alive. And he really came alive in a late five-lap sprint on soft tyres that vaulted him from P14 to seventh at the end, and oh-so nearly bagged him Alonso's scalp too. Alonso was just about able to muster enough from his wayward machine to hold on for sixth though.

There was lots of spirited fighting behind also, so after last year's tepid Texan race the locals had plenty to look at on this occasion.

The main thing to look at though, and not for the first time at this venue, was Lewis Hamilton swooping on victory like a hawk to a glove and discarding an opponent firmly along the way. And his progress towards the title is establishing the same characteristics. In an appropriate place, given Austin prides itself on being weird, Lewis Hamilton ensured that now only the weird can deprive him of the 2014 World Drivers' Championship.


  1. Isn't Nico supposed to be the cerebral one? Yet he is having difficulty with the gadgets available on the steering wheel.

    I suggest it could be the lack of coaching that maybe Nico's problem.

    1. Hi Osborne. It's an interesting point. And indeed I've argued before that the common assumption of cerebral Nico vs. quick-but-brainless Lewis isn't especially borne out in reality. Certainly Lewis has much more of a brain than many give him credit for.

      As for Nico missing the coaching, well it can't be denied that he hasn't won a race, plus he seems to have lost a bit of form, since the radio coaching restrictions came in. Personally though I'd like to wait for more of an evidence base before concluding that Nico's lost out because of it.

  2. As I mentioned on Twitter on Saturday, something felt "off" about the Austin weekend. I thought it was some mixture of the dire financial winds swirling around everywhere, the shortage of cars (even if they didn't usually feature in any notable way), and the notion that F1 might really intend to become nothing but Rich Guys performing for Rich Guys (which it has been, for many years, but it's not ONLY that, at least not yet).

    While the financial news has become somewhat more hopeful in the last couple days, after watching the race itself (even with its bright spots), another reason for my unease made itself clearer: for the first time this year, the current F1 cars seemed really unsuited to their environment, even clumsy. Alonso's onboard demonstrated this in the Turns 3-4-5-6 complex, all sloppy jabs at the throttle, no flow whatsoever. Yes, the Mercs were undoubtedly better, but the reality was still the same - the previous gen cars were much better-suited to COTA, where the only really challenging bits are the esses and the faster loop on the back side, all much more demanding of aero than grunt.

    As a general supporter of the new formula, the fact that I found COTA to be uninteresting to watch has been an interesting notion to deal with. Why I felt it about this particular event more than any other is an interesting point to ponder. It seems that the lack of aero grip and loss of normally-aspirated drivability took away the only visually interesting bits of watching F1 cars circulate on this particular track, and I don't think that's been the case so much at any other venue. On paper (and in its first two years), COTA looked the part of a diverse, interesting track, but now it appears that the nature of the piece of land they had to work with - long and thin - produced a layout that just isn't that visually interesting without a ton of downforce.

    1. I watched most of a re-air of the USGP last night, and I may have been a bit too harsh in my assessment - during the re-air, I realized that the camera angles, particularly for the esses, were abysmal: down low, into the sun for the first part (so the cars were enveloped in glare), and not wide enough. This section of the course demands a high, wide camera angle looking down on the esses, which would emphasize the speed and rapid changes of direction (and also eliminate the glare problem). There are high-and-wide angles used at Maggots/Becketts at Silverstone (the corners this section of COTA is modeled after) that are a good example to follow here.

      The camera angles on the back straight are also problematic - telephoto shots from the end of the straight compress everything and don't give any sense of the speed of the cars. The Turns 16-18 complex also suffers from poor camera placement.

      It also didn't help that we had persistent video issues throughout the weekend - not sure if the rest of the world saw them, but I saw constant compression artifacts, with patches of grass literally seeming to jump up and down over a couple seconds as the compression kept getting things wrong.

      Finally, the direction of the race could have been better - we almost missed the pass for the lead, and we never really saw much of the tail end of Vettel's charge over the last couple laps, and had no idea how close he got to Alonso, since we were being shown the Mercs on their cool-down lap.

      So, it's not all on the cars, it seems - the TV coverage simply didn't show them to their best advantage, and contributed a lot to them seeming slow and clumsy to my eye.