Tuesday 23 October 2018

United States GP Report - Going off script

It was supposed to a coronation. In this United States Grand Prix a result of the sort we'd got used to lately repeated would secure Lewis Hamilton's fifth world championship. And Austin is just about his happiest hunting ground. Plus Ferrari, his closest challenger, was imploding.

Kimi Raikkonen won for the first time since early 2013
Photo: Octane Photography
But Formula 1, despite some convincing impressions otherwise, has a nagging tendency not to follow its predetermined scripts. This one instead turned out to be an improv show.

It went off script early too. Ferrari somehow rediscovered its pace that had gone missing since the Italian round. Although with it the team stuck firmly to its recent lines of going a way to scupper itself nevertheless. Or rather Hamilton's title rival Sebastian Vettel did. He didn't slow sufficiently under a red flag in practice and had three added to his qualifying slot in advance. Hamilton got the pole, like he always seems to somehow, but the red cars were right on his case.

It all left Vettel's Ferrari stable-mate Kimi Raikkonen starting alongside Hamilton on the front row – a man who in his second Scuderia spell has tended to fumble the rare opportunities for glory tossed his way. Plus among the front-runners he alone started on the ultra-soft tyre rather than the the more durable super-soft. But in the race we immediately got our latest evidence that this one was indeed diverging from what was written, and in a conspicuous way as Raikkonen for the first time in 37 races made up a place from his starting slot on the first lap. The ultimate one of taking the lead from Hamilton by seizing the inside of turn one.

But again, almost immediately, things swung away from Ferrari and Vettel from the championship perspective, as he collided with Daniel Ricciardo on the first lap and spun well down. A latest case of poor judgement of which he'd been cramming in a few in recent months.

Raikkonen seized the lead from Hamilton at the start
Photo: Octane Photography
Still Raikkonen looked to be controlling matters out front, until lap nine when Ricciardo stopped with a battery problem. The Virtual Safety Car was deployed as his Red Bull was cleared and Hamilton nipped in to change tyres, meaning a saving of the usual loss time of roughly 10 seconds.

It looked initially a masterstroke and gave rise to yet more familiar talk that Ferrari had once again surrendered the initiative with an incorrect call. But, it transpired, Ferrari had got it right. By sticking to its own script.

As for the usual one-stop strategy to be enacted Hamilton was left with a long way to go to the end on his tyres. And in time it became clear that, with rear blisters, he wouldn't be able to. In another thing that was a throwback to the balmy days of a few rounds ago the Mercedes's set-up and tyre usage weren't ideal, perhaps a consequence of practice running being severely curtailed by rain. It reminded us too that the team hasn't always got strategy right either – remember, for one, Austria (ironically when its error was not pitting under a VSC)?

Perhaps, some suggested, the error in fact came later from waiting too long to make Hamilton's second stop, as a lot of time was lost in the few laps before - there had been an earlier point where he could have pitted and emerged in second place around 3s off Raikkonen. Others suggested he'd have in any case hit the same blistering problems on a standard one-stop strategy or indeed with an earlier second stop.

Lewis Hamilton has to wait to confirm his latest title
Photo: Octane Photography
But that the only other cars to pit under that VSC were nothing-to-lose backmarkers said something. At the very least it seemed an unnecessary dice roll by Mercedes particularly given the precise situation, both in championship terms and with Hamilton's advantage of having more durable rubber than Raikkonen's. It also meant inevitably Hamilton would reach a Raikkonen blockage on track, which he did before the Ferrari pitted and indeed the Finn held him up for a crucial few laps.

More broadly it was far from a straightforward weekend for Merc - both cars had their water pumps changed before the race after reliability problems were discovered while it's transpired since that it modified its radical wheel rims amid fear of a rival protest.

"You saw the car was in a million pieces [before the race] so it wasn't ideal for the race," Hamilton said later. "Probably if we hadn't had to have a morning like that, our race outcome would have been a bit different."

And he hinted cryptically that the problems were even wider. "There was more on top of that, which we've just been talking about - and to how much of an extent that is. In the race there was some debris, some damage on the floor, all these different things add up. A couple of tenths in floor damage, [but you] have to assume everyone else had the same thing.

Max Verstappen rose magnificently to finish second
Photo: Octane Photography
"We had another problem that we just discovered but we don't know how much time [lost] that is.

"We were forced into a two-stop race for certain things we had that weren't ideal with the car. We didn't know that was going to be the case when we got into the race.

"If we hadn't had the problem we've had, tyre usage wouldn't have been anywhere near as big an issue as we had."

And so Hamilton, by now leading, pitted for a second time and suddenly had not only 12s to make up to the leader Raikkonen but overtaking to do if he wanted to seal the title that day. Or win the race, or both. There also was another car in the mix - now in second place, not far off Raikkonen, was the astonishing Max Verstappen who'd risen prodigiously in that way of his from starting 18th, a lowly grid slot resultant of a qualifying suspension failure (which he may have caused with his kerb-hopping though the man himself insisted not). Hamilton's wing man Valtteri Bottas was ahead too though he predictably got out of his path sharpish.

As the laps ticked down Hamilton closed in on Verstappen as the Red Bull man in turn edged in on Raikkonen and a grandstand finish was on. As it was F1's familiar dirty air problem called off many of the fireworks as the trio then circulated at about a second apart for a good few tours. Hamilton did though get to engage with Verstappen late on for a second place which at that point would have been enough for the title, getting alongside in the track's twisty final section and having several outside-to-in pass attempts. It looked for a split second he'd be by at the quick Istanbul-aping turn, but he got on the marbles and ran wide. The show was over.

Sebastian Vettel had another frustrating weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
In any case Vettel made the point largely moot almost immediately, by getting past the by now struggling Bottas for fourth. That meant Hamilton had to win to secure the championship there and then.

And that wasn't going to happen as a by-product of the Max-Lewis scrap was it let Kimi establish crucial breathing space.

So Raikkonen won, and won with a hand that by rights should not have let him win – between starting on the ultra-softs and then not pitting under the Virtual Safety Car (something worth remembering when those point out how Hamilton and Vettel's weekends were compromised). The Finn did exactly as he needed at crucial moments, including the start, his holding off a more freshly-tyred Hamilton (twice) as well as his sympathetic touch stretching out his tyres on his lengthy second stint. There is, it seems, still a racing driver there. He also seems one way or another to have had his showings boosted by his Maranello departure for Sauber next year being confirmed.

His win also provided the thickest underline of all that this one diverged from the script written in advance. It was Raikkonen's first triumph since the opening round of 2013. It also set a record for Grands Prix completed between victories. Some 111 of them.

He was typically coy afterwards, but there was the odd hint in his deportment that a weight had somewhat been lifted.

"Obviously, I'm happy. [I] just proved some people wrong," Raikkonen said.

Renault had a fruitful result
Photo: Octane Photography
"It hasn't really been a big deal for me. It's been a much bigger deal for other people. If it comes it comes, if it doesn't it doesn't change my life one bit. I'm happy because we are here purely to try to win. The biggest difference is how people look at you."

Behind Class A, Renault reversed its previous iffy form by bagging sixth and seventh places, Nico Hulkenberg ahead. Carlos Sainz though perhaps was a little lucky to only get a 5s penalty for for gaining several places off track at the opening turn - justice which had a lot of 'price worth paying' - from Sainz's point of view - about it.

The result proved very helpful to Renault's quest for fourth in the constructors' table, and it got more helpful post-race as Force India's Esteban Ocon, eighth on the road, and Haas's Kevin Magnussen in ninth both got disqualified. The former for excessive fuel flow and the latter, more intriguingly, nudged over the maximum fuel allowed for the race.

This lifted Ocon's team-mate Sergio Perez, Brendon Hartley of Toro Rosso and Marcus Ericsson of Sauber to fill the final three points-paying slots in that order.

So in the Austin round everything changed. Yet in terms of the big prize in effect nothing changed, as Hamilton now only needs five more points - a seventh place in other words - to make the title secure, which he'll get barring an inside sabotage job at Mercedes, as Jolyon Paler described it. And even if that does happen the out of sorts Vettel would need to win everywhere to shift the championship destination.

And, as noted, we have reason to doubt that.

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