Saturday 22 October 2016

Austin Qualifying - Doing what you must

He needs to bounce back this weekend. And so far, he is.

Lewis Hamilton must deliver in Austin - and so far he is
Photo: Octane Photography
For hardly the first time it's Lewis Hamilton that is preoccupying us F1 folk. Yes, you can talk about the mathematics all you want, but if he is to retain his world drivers' championship crown he simply must get something back on Nico Rosberg in this United States Grand Prix. A deficit of more than the current 33 with 75 available after this one doesn't for him bear thinking about.

But fortunately for him the Circuit of the Americas near Austin is among the first places he'd pick to effect such a bounce back. He's won three out of F1's four Austin visits, while coincidentally or not he tends to beam out of the car during his US stop-off - adoring the support he gets and embracing it apparently as a home-from-home event. And he made good on it in qualifying by bagging a fine pole position. Somewhat incongruously it's actually his first at this track.

"I know - crazy right? It's taken me a while..." he grinned afterwards on that subject. "I've always been quick here, just not perfectly on the qualifying lap for some reason."

And as his boss Toto Wolff noted after the last round Lewis also is at his best when he has something to fight against. He had plenty this time, not just with the soap opera since Snapchat and all in Japan. Not even with the points deficit outlined. In Saturday morning practice Merc didn't get a representative qualifying run in and the team's closest challengers - Red Bull particularly - looked menacing. Some mused that the Merc may have to step down from its usual place on top. Lewis even added some intrigue of his own by talking on his team radio of a "weird" gearshift while winding up for his final qualifying effort.

Hamilton tends to go well at the Austin track
Photo: Octane Photography
In that most familiar of modern tales though the silver machine found extra urge when it mattered. Come the final qualifying part it had half a second on the rest.

And some of that was all Lewis. He topped the first qualifying segment, was then pipped by team mate Rosberg in the second part when both Mercs ran on the soft compound tyre (more of that anon). But then just like with his car in the final part Lewis himself found extra kick when it mattered. He was under a tenth ahead of Nico after their first efforts, a gap that many were surprised wasn't wider (particularly as Nico got his turn 1 rather wrong). But come the final goes Lewis asserted himself properly, especially in a fast and neat opening sector which was three tenths under his team mate's. This was roughly how the gap remained at the end of the lap.

"Turn 1 was always my weak point," Lewis said later, "every year I come back and I'm working on it and never get it right. This year I got it spot on."

As for Nico, he tried not to dwell on his team mate's gaping sector 1 advantage. "It was nothing specific" he said. "I just preferred sector two and three today and that's it, Lewis was just quicker in sector 1 - pretty simple. It was quite a good lap I did, nevertheless."

Nico Rosberg was optimistic about the race
Photo: Octane Photography
He reminded everyone subtly perhaps of Lewis's start line struggles in races this year, which still could have a big bearing on tomorrow's outcome. And could be Nico's major way in. "As we've seen this year qualifying isn't all-important so from P2 I still have a great chance tomorrow."

He insisted also that with his favourable championship position he hadn't gone into a more cautious mode. "For me, I'm not thinking about all those things - I just want to win the race tomorrow."

Not that Lewis was planning on going anywhere. "This is a place I've loved for a long time, I've got great people who come out" he added.

"I'm just going to give it everything I've got tomorrow, as I have done today. It would mean the world to have the win, that's the goal. I've just got to put thoughts to action."

As for his bugbear of getting off the line well? "I have been practicing the starts all weekend so feel positive about it tomorrow."

In more ways than usual in qualifying today we had the first shadow boxing for the race itself. As anticipated both Mercs did Q2 on the soft compound tyre rather than the quicker but delicate supersoft and thus will start the race tomorrow on them, possibly to do a one-stopper; certainly increasing their strategy options and possible length of their first stints. Max Verstappen followed their lead, but his Red Bull stable mate Daniel Ricciardo, like everyone else, went through that part on the supersofts. Almost alone yesterday he did a good race simulation stint on that tyre in practice and this may have influenced his thinking. A one-stopper looks a stretch still though.

Daniel Ricciardo was best of the rest and will
start on a different strategy to the Mercs
Photo: Octane Photography
He ended qualifying as a clear best of the rest in P3 for tomorrow's grid, one place and two tenths better than Verstappen. As ever it would be foolish to count the racy Australian out; at the very least on the softer tyres he'll likely be in attack mode in the opening laps.

"We talked about it before the session," said Ricicardo later, "and Max was more keen to start on the soft and I was happy with the supersoft.

"Hopefully it gives me a bit better start and can really get in the mix with the Mercedes guys. Obviously they're going to be fighting each other but hopefully I can be another number in their equation!"

Red Bull's race runs generally looked good yesterday, better than the Mercs indeed. But that's another thing we've said before and rarely materialises when it matters. Not enough to usurp the silver cars anyway.

Ferrari couldn't repeat its Red Bull-beating Suzuka pace and continued the Noah's Ark formation at the front, by filling the third row, Kimi Raikkonen once again ahead. Both drivers reported good handling and that the explanation for dropping back since a fortnight ago wasn't obvious.

Carlos Sainz impressed - not for the first time
Photo: Octane Photography
After them came the usual succession of Mercedes customers - the on-the-move Nico Hulkenberg got P7 and was just three tenths off the Ferraris' times indeed, and some half a second quicker than the Williams pair that followed him in P8 and P9, Valtteri Bottas ahead. Sergio Perez starting P11, presumably on soft tyres to try a one-stop also, will be worth keeping an eye on.

And one worthy of a shout out is Carlos Sainz, who got his Toro Rosso with its long-in-the-tooth Ferrari power unit into the top 10 of the grid, and did it despite a hugely disrupted third practice session wherein he punctured twice, a result apparently of his brake ducts overheating the wheel rims. McLaren Honda meanwhile struggled again and Fernando Alonso in P12 was its lot, Jenson Button slinking out in Q1.

Out front considerations are much more simple. And for pole man Lewis Hamilton the consideration is, in many ways, the most simple of all.

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