Intrigue in Austin – the 2017 USA Grand Prix

The Formula 1 train pulled into Austin with Mercedes on the brink of their fourth consecutive constructor’s championship, and Lewis Hamilton on the edge of his fourth driver’s championship. It also saw Carlos Sainz make his Renault debut, New Zealander Brendon Hartley made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso, and Daniil Kvyat briefly returned to Formula 1, also with Toro Rosso, standing in for a weekend amidst a complicated arrangement involving new drivers and transfers.

It was a typically scinitilating performance from Hamilton over the entire weekend, with the Briton top of P1, P2 and P3, and also top throughout qualifying, nailing his 11th pole of the season. Following an excited American boxing-style introduction for the drivers (which, to be honest, does not suit the sport at all) it was time to go racing, with Hamilton joined on the front row by title rival Sebastian Vettel. The Ferrari man actually got the better start, squeezing into the lead at turn 1, whilst behind the leading pair Valtteri Bottas would almost immediately come under pressure from the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, with Kimi Raikkonen a little further back in the second Ferrari. Initially Vettel would begin to open up a small gap to Hamilton, but within a few laps Hamilton was reeling Vettel back in, and on lap six, pounced aVt the end of the DRS run into turn 12. Vettel tried to fight back but lacked the pace, leaving Hamilton to open up a gap of his own.

Behind them, Bottas appeared to be struggling but Ricciardo was unable to get by him – the Mercedes had too much power on the straights for even one of the trademark late lunges Ricciardo is so fond of, and the ultra-soft tyres on Ricciardo’s car were getting chewed up in the dirty air behind Bottas. It seemed that the Finn would hold on to third place, at least for the immediate future. Behind all that, Max Verstappen (who had started 16th due to grid penalties) was making his way up the order and a another potential battle was looming between the Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Nico Hulkenberg was forced to retire early on for Renault, as was Pascal Wehrlein for Sauber. Shortly after his first stop, Daniel Ricciardo joined them.

His engine conked out – leaving him to pull over and park up. It was a disappointing and early end to a race that might have seen him battle for a podium, but it simply wasn’t to be. Car trouble also led to Fernando Alonso – on course to score points for McLaren – retiring as well.

We were treated to a reminder of Sainz’ talent when he came up to the back of Perez. The Force India driver was stuck behind his teammate Ocon, who was in turn being held up by the Williams of Felipe Massa. Perez was in a typically aggressive move, wanting Ocon to move out the way, but his team refused to impose orders. When Massa eventually pitted (leaving it quite late), Ocon was released but Sainz was able to use DRS into turn 12 to pounce on Perez, with the pair racing hard but fair around turns 13 through 19 before Sainz made the move stick. Sainz would take off after Ocon, whilst elsewhere, Verstappen was starting to get dicey with the Ferraris and Bottas. In fact, Verstappen would force Ferrari into a second set of stops, after he himself pitted for the super-soft compound. This promoted Bottas to second, but on softs, so it wasn’t long before he had Vettel, Raikkonen and Verstappen closing in. In fact, Vettel swept between Bottas and a lapped Vandoorne on the exit of turn 1 to retake second place, a move that looked quite good on camera!

Raikkonen also managed to take Bottas off guard a few laps later, leaving Verstappen to trail the Mercedes. It was with a handful of laps to go that Bottas pitted, with the soft tyre unable to generate the desired performance. This released Verstappen to chase after Raikkonen and a possible podium.

Chase he did. Despite the Ferrari having more power, Verstappen was swiftly gaining upon Raikonnen, and soon the two were battling for position, with Verstappen only having a narrow window to make a move and make it stick. That moment would come on the very final lap, through the sweeps and curves near the end of the lap, with Verstappen proving to be very happy with a podium, as anyone would be after starting 16th!

There was however, a sting to the tale. In making his move all four tyres had left the track, which left the stewards with a decision – they gave the young Dutchman a five second time penalty, demoting him back to fourth. It was gutting for Verstappen, who has since hs feelings very clear.

Up front, Hamilton was able to make a one-stop strategy work, closing out a straight forward win that doesn’t quite assure him of title no.4, but puts him on the brink of it. Hamilton now leads Vettel by 66 points with a maximum of 75 remaining. Should that advantage be more than 50 points come the end of the next race, Hamilton will be world champion. His team, Mercedes, did clinch the constructor’s championship, for the fourth year in a row, continuing their dominance of the turbo hybrid era. What will it take to stop them?

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