Feature: United States Grand Prix conclusions
Kimi Raikkonen ended his lengthy victory drought, Lewis Hamilton was made to wait for his coronation, while others encountered trouble. Motorsport Week presents its round-up from the United States Grand Prix.
Raikkonen – at long last
The ongoing wait for a Kimi Raikkonen was as frustrating as it was baffling – how could a driver compete for Ferrari, regularly rack up the podium finishes, and yet somehow conspire to avoid the top step? Some of that was his own limitations, particularly in the dying throes of Q3 or off the line, some of that was down to his usual role as the support act, and some of that was down to pure misfortune. Finally, after a run of 113 races, everything clicked. Everything aligned. The ball wasn’t dropped. Raikkonen was given the favourable strategy and totally maximised it: he used the softer tyres to his advantage off the line and then crucially and superbly defended for two laps in the face of sustained pressure from a fired-up and faster Lewis Hamilton. That cost Hamilton time which he was unable to recoup. Preserving the Soft tyres on which Mercedes struggled was another critical factor in Raikkonen’s success. The rapturous welcome he received upon crossing the line reflected the fondness that many possess for the enigmatic Finn. He was assisted by Mercedes’ slight malaise, Max Verstappen’s grid drop and his own team-mate’s ongoing strife, but this was a deserved win and earned on a weekend where the “small things” Raikkonen has previously spoken of were eliminated. “Fucking finally,” he joked, almost sighing, upon greeting the chequered flag; he was not the only one with such a thought!
Lewis Hamilton could potentially have won the race – and the title – in Austin, but that he did not highlighted the small and critical details that add up when a Grand Prix is on a knife-edge. The pre-race water pump change “wasn’t ideal” in terms of preparations, while losing out to Raikkonen off the line – partly as a result of Q2 tyre strategy – forced Mercedes to change tact. In going opposite to Ferrari during the VSC period it committed Hamilton to a two-stop strategy, but worse-than-expected tyre wear compromised matters further. In taking on Soft tyres (the hardest available tyre) and needing to push, Hamilton left himself susceptible to blistering, which is less commonplace on the higher-wearing Ultrasofts and Supersofts. Consider also the ambient temperatures were higher than any point all weekend, Pirelli had raised its minimum tyre pressures by 1.5PSI, and Friday’s washout left teams short on data. Add into that Mercedes’ higher downforce set-up (putting more stress into the rubber through Austin’s high-load corners) and Hamilton pushing hard in his second stint – including spending two laps right in Raikkonen’s dirty air – and it created the perfect storm. Mercedes perhaps left Hamilton out too long but had they pitted him a few laps earlier there’s every reason to expect he may have suffered a repeat of the blisters. Hamilton admitted to a conservative stance while scrapping with Verstappen and also suggested floor damage he picked up cost him a couple of tenths. But the over-riding factor is that Mercedes was simply not as fast as Ferrari – irrespective of strategy divergence. “We just weren't quick enough,” Hamilton conceded. “Collectively we've lost some performance in some areas, which I think we know where it is.”
Verstappen spent the first third of the campaign apparently magnetised to anyone and anything, hitting walls and rivals with alarming regularity. It was, as noted at the time, all part of the learning curve, and lately he has been one of Formula 1’s standout performers. In Austin he was superb. His compromised grid position enabled him to run the Softs early on and switch to the preferred Supersofts for the second stint, but that he finished within sight of victor Raikkonen was remarkable. His defence against Hamilton was robust and clean – this Dutchie wasn’t about to get passed on the left-hand side. Don’t bet against a repeat of his 2017 win in Mexico this weekend.
Vettel’s mistake list becoming a catalogue
That Vettel’s pair of mistakes were almost a sideshow to the weekend’s action only serves to emphasise the debacle of the last couple of months. That this could have been an easy breezy win was another sign of his malaise. Vettel is right to feel that a three-place grid drop for his red-flag transgression is harsh but it is consistent with previous, identical incidents (with Daniel Ricciardo's sanction in Australia setting a precedent) while no other driver on track at the time was in breach of the regulations. The subsequent contact on the first lap with Ricciardo was as clumsy as it was expected. A sly dig at Ferrari over reverting to where the SF71H was a few months ago highlighted its recent development struggles – and surely a sign of where improvements are needed for 2019. But improvements are also needed in the cockpit. Vettel cannot afford another season of regular slip-ups while under pressure, having now made four critical and costly mistakes while in close combat with opponents. He is a four-time World Champion and serial winner. As Ross Brawn has pointed out, he and Ferrari have to work out why these errors are happening.
Renault makes a break for fourth
Renault has had a wretched run in Formula 1, owing to mistakes, subdued qualifying performances and getting left behind in the development battle. It left the team under pressure from Haas, but it has surely sealed fourth spot after a strong performance at the Circuit of the Americas. The R.S.18 was more suited to the venue while there was no repeat of the errors that cost it points in previous weekends. Nico Hulkenberg converted seventh on the grid into sixth at the chequered flag, with Carlos Sainz Jr. profited from a strong getaway (and a slightly fortunate penalty call) to follow him home. Renault’s buffer over Haas is now up from eight to 22.
Fuel to be kind
Haas’ frustrations over Formula 1’s fuel regulations are understandable, especially in light of losing points, but it was only they who exceeded the fuel limit at Austin. No-one wants a go-slow race of constantly checking the gauge but that wasn’t the case on Sunday – unless you were Danish and drove a VF-18. Just as with tyres or engine components, fuel must be managed correctly, and that Haas was allegedly just 100g over the 105kg limit (perhaps as a result of not being lapped) goes to show they fractionally got their sums wrong.
Grosjean’s tightrope gets a strand narrower
Romain Grosjean’s propensity to stumble into incidents reared its head again in Austin – and it means he incurred the wrath of the stewards once more. Grosjean copped a three-place drop for Mexico but of more importance was that he received just one penalty point, upping his rolling total from nine to 10. He will drop one point on October 29 – that means that should he pick up two more points through the Mexican Grand Prix weekend he will receive a one-round suspension. Be careful Romain…
Pirelli’s simplification is good news
Pirelli has gradually expanded its compound range in recent years, with the addition of a Hypersoft in 2018 meaning it has seven dry tyres (though in effect six due to the non-use of the Superhard) and the accompanying ‘rainbow’ colouring system. It is not the most convoluted system in the world but that a ‘Supersoft’ compound can at one event be the softest tyre and the next the hardest is not the most straightforward method. At each Grand Prix next year there will be a Soft (red), Medium (yellow) and Hard (white) tyre, which will still be composed of a range of five or six compounds. Pirelli will still inform teams and media which compounds will be taken to Grands Prix – for example, 1, 2, 3 (or A, B, C) for Monaco, or 3, 4, 5 (or C, D, E) for Barcelona – but within events the 2019 approach is far more logical.
Car noises add to the spectacle
Whoever was making ‘neown’ noises when a helicopter shot was used on the world feed – you are the hero we don’t deserve. Majestic.