Monday, 15 October 2018

Austin Preview: Endgame

Lewis Hamilton's fifth world championship, up for grabs in 2018, has suddenly became a matter of when not whether. And with this weekend's gathering being the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, perhaps even the 'when' part is redundant.

Lewis Hamilton usually has Austin races to himself
Photo: Octane Photography
Of F1's six visits to Austin Hamilton has won five of them; taking it back further he's won six US races from the last seven. He's also won six of the last seven rounds anywhere. Do the math, as I believe the youth like to say.

Plus if Hamilton wins again this weekend then the title is done unless his foe Sebastian Vettel follows him home in second. And we have reasons to doubt that Vettel will manage that. In recent weeks Ferrari has both lost competitive pace and unravelled organisationally. While Vettel, perhaps in the same way that a dog imitates the characteristics of its owner, has similarly wavered. Any one of the last four grand prix results replicated will make Hamilton's latest world crown official.

Hamilton unfailingly beams throughout his Texas visits, relishing his stop-off in a country where he spends much of his time. And it shows in his driving - you can make the case that Lewis is a mood driver more than most. Last year his win here was one that Alain Prost would have been proud - facing down and beating then-as-now title rival Vettel with a calm and authoritative harnessing of brain power.

Valtteri Bottas could help his Mercedes stable-mate over the line, as in the previous two rounds he has occupied the second place spot that Vettel needs. Russia's team order notwithstanding, the Finn enters this one in much better form than was the case 12 months ago.

Vettel will need to finish ahead of at least one
Mercedes to keep the title open
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course in F1 more than most things there is many a slip betwixt cup and lip. But it will surely take something from left-field for Hamilton not to win this race. And likely for him not to win the championship in the same moment.

Another complication for Vettel, as has been the case in previous rounds, is that Max Verstappen is likely to be an irritant. Likely not enough to beat the Mercedes - Red Bull boss Christian Horner reckons Mexico is the team's only remaining victory chance this year - but more than likely enough to be close behind them and in Seb's direct vicinity.

Outisde of the title battle Carlos Sainz will be worth watching, as his record at this track reads seventh, sixth, seventh. This includes finishing sixth on the road in 2015 and being demoted by a post-race penalty (for pitlane speeding) as well as looking impressive on his freshman Renault appearance here last year.

The Austin circuit is one of Hermann Tilke's best efforts and has a bit-of-everything quality - the opening part is flowing with esses turns redolent of Suzuka and Silverstone; the latter part is more, as they say in the parlance, technical. Underlining its mosaic nature this track has more corners taken at over 250km/h than Spa and more at under 100km/h than the Hungaroring. Set-up inevitably is a compromise.

Max Verstappen as usual put a cat
among the pigeons last year
Photo: Octane Photography
One-stop strategies are the norm these days including last time out around tough-on-tyres Suzuka. The tyre compound selections for Austin are the same as 12 months ago - the soft, super-soft and ultra-soft - though the compounds generally are a step softer one year on in 2018. Also this selection is much more aggressive than was the case not so long ago at this track, which previously included the medium and in the early days included the hard.

Strategy at Austin can be hard to predict though and last year's race did indeed divert a little from the one-stop script. A storm on race morning tilted strategists' minds more towards stopping twice and while Hamilton cruised to the win with a one-stopper Verstappen, attacking from 16th on the grid after an engine penalty, got aggressive with a second stop which Vettel felt obliged to follow. Both homed in on the one-stopping Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in the late laps (even Hamilton sounded a little concerned for a while); Bottas indeed had to do an 11th hour stop when he 'hit the cliff'.

As at Suzuka the undercut is powerful here on the long lap and proactive approaches often are rewarded. Unlike at Suzuka overtaking here is a presentable possibility which will encourage teams to be aggressive. Last year the DRS on the 1km main straight was particularly powerful which not only helped for passing there and then but also to instead get close enough to attack in the sequence of corners that followed. Verstappen demonstrated that back-to front strategies having started outside the top 10 on a harder tyre can have some effect too.

Carlos Sainz is worth watching at Austin
Photo: Octane Photography
The bit of everything layout can confuse strategy calculations as can the local Autumn track temperatures which can vary wildly. While the sun usually is warm when it goes away - either behind clouds or overnight - the track gets cold quickly and tyre warm up can become knife-edge. Early morning running can be cold too while as was the case last year qualifying is scheduled late in the afternoon. The track layout also plays a part in making warm up tricky - as tyres can cool on the long straights.

Another thing that may disrupt calculations, and a bit more besides, is that rain has hit this event before, notoriously in 2015. Long-range forecasts this time suggest some may be around on all three days.

As a sideshow, McLaren as in Japan last time out has gone out on a limb in its Pirelli allocations and it remains to be seen if it will be compromised as a result as it was at Suzuka.

But, as outlined, at Austin there are likely to be bigger matters reaching their resolution.

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