Here’s a statement that will light up any Briton’s eyes: Lewis Hamilton has ended his 5 rounds of race win drought with a superb victory at the United States Grand Prix. After taking pole position on Saturday – the current World Champion basically led from lights to flag in an extremely controlled demeanor. But behind him, calamity was happening – which has left me with plenty to analyze!
As always, the race start proved to be a crucial turning point for many drivers. Lewis Hamilton proved immediately to everyone his start problem was cured as he led the field into Turn 1. Behind him, Daniel Ricciardo’s Super-Soft tires got the better of Nico Rosberg as the Australian split the two Mercedes heading into Turn 3.
However, the action was happening further down the field. After a tiny bit of ‘argy bargy’ off the line between Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas, it was Sebastian Vettel who would swoop around the outside of both of them – a move which had serious implications. The Ferrari would tag the front right corner of Nico Hulkenberg, which led to him tagging Valtteri Bottas in the right rear tire. The former would be left with damage which forced him to retire whilst the latter would suffer a puncture, ruining both drivers’ races. Vettel escaped with no blame or damage.
Further into lap 1 – Daniil Kvyat made a sloppy error into Turn 11 when he was trying to overtake Sergio Perez. As the Toro Rosso slowed behind the Force India, it appears as though Kvyat didn’t quite expect Perez to brake as hard as he did. Kvyat drove straight into the back of Perez, who would lose control and spin out. Both cars were left with recoverable damage, but both of their races were rather compromised.
The next key moment was the first pit stop phase. Originally, it was thought super-soft runners would stop around lap 15, with soft tire runners stretching 10 laps longer onto lap 25. But Super-Soft runner, Daniel Ricciardo, changed those predictions by making his first pit stop on lap 8. With the threat of the undercut, Mercedes would be forced to pit Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton on lap 10 and 11 respectively. The key outcome of this would be tire strategy choice; Lewis Hamilton was put on the faster soft tires whilst Nico Rosberg settled for the white striped medium tires. This would mean Nico Rosberg would run the faster tire toward the end – and so on paper, he would be faster than Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps of the race.
But ultimately the most bizarre moment of the race came on lap 26 – when Max Verstappen unexpectedly entered the pit lane. It was so unexpected, even his mechanics were unaware of their driver arriving in the pit box. After a scamper and very big save by the pit crew – Max Verstappen did admit he thought he had heard a call to box.
But his bad luck wouldn’t end there, as just a lap later he was speeding along the back straight at just 100km/h or so. An unconfirmed engine and/or gearbox problem was destined to ruin his day. The team kept their driver limping along the edge of the circuit – but after at least a minute of battling away; Verstappen was forced to pull off to the side of the circuit.
That move would prove costly because when the marshals went to push the car back, they were unable to engage neutral and the ensuing confusion warranted a virtual-safety-car. Little did Verstappen know, he had just inadvertently ruined his teammates afternoon. If there is any consolation for him, at least he controversially and unusually won Driver of the Day!
So just how did he ruin his team mates way? Ricciardo had already made his pit stop on lap 25 before the virtual-safety-car, whereas his two Mercedes rivals hadn’t. Rosberg and Hamilton needed no second invite to gain an advantage, as pitting under a VSC severely reduces the margin lost in the pits. Rosberg would jump back ahead of Ricciardo, who dropped to 3rd. Rosberg would lose out to Hamilton under the VSC because given the distance to the end of the race, Rosberg was forced to go onto another set of mediums – leaving him on the same compound as Lewis Hamilton. From this point on, the top 3 were set in stone as Lewis Hamilton comfortably sailed to a Grand Prix win with Nico Rosberg and Daniel Ricciardo finishing in 2nd and 3rd respectively.
Fast-forward to lap 38 – and it’s Kimi Raikkonen time to pit. But the man on the traffic light in the Ferrari garage obviously pressed the wrong button as the Ferrari driver left the pit box before the right rear wheel had been fully tightened. Raikkonen sensed something was amiss and pulled the car up at the end of the pit lane – his race was over just like that.
So with a Ferrari and Red Bull each missing from the race – 5th place became best of the rest and it would prove to be the most exciting battle of the race. In the closing laps, it was Carlos Sainz who held P5 from Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Problem was, the fastest of the three was Nando.
On lap 50, Massa ran slightly wide on the entry to Turn 16 and left a small gap. Fernando Alonso sought out his chance and forcefully touched wheels with Felipe Massa. Although both drivers left the track, the move was legitimate in the eyes of the stewards. Personally it was great to see some fantastic racing that saw both drivers on the limit – and they’re both professionals who haven’t had social media fallout over the whole event.
Unsurprisingly, Fernando Alonso wasn’t done – on the penultimate lap he found himself behind Carlos Sainz and fighting for 5th. For the first time ever, a Honda power unit proved its worthiness down COTA’s back straight as Alonso was able to out-drag Sainz’s 2015 Ferrari power unit! Fernando would hold the position and finish the race in P5 with Sainz and Massa in 6th and 7th respectively.
Special note goes out to Romain Grosjean – who had a relatively quiet race. He didn’t have many TV worthy moments, but kept a consistent pace to finish in P10. Haas as a team were overjoyed to score a point in their home race and I say full congratulations to them! It doesn’t need to be said again how much they have achieved this season.
So with Hamilton’s win, he moves closer to Rosberg in the Championship – but he really needs the German to finish lower than 2nd. The gap now teeters at 26 points – and I know Rosberg retiring in the next round while Hamilton wins would be a brilliant result. With such a big gap – it would be good to see a championship go down to the wire!
In conclusion, the fabulous display of racing between Alonso, Sainz and Massa was really the shining light to a rather dull and boring race. Not being able to see the Mercedes go wheel to wheel will continue to frustrate the pundits and fans around the world. We hope that can change for at least one of the three final rounds in 2016.
By – Steven Walton