2016 United States Grand Prix

by Mark Hughes on 24th October 2016

Mark Hughes's comprehensive take on the United States Grand Prix, as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg cover off what is needed

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg each did what they had to do in their respective championship missions. Assuming no further Mercedes retirements, Hamilton came into this weekend needing to win all four remaining races while Rosberg’s minimum was three seconds and a third. Hamilton won – comfortably – and Rosberg was second.

For a while, before Max Verstappen’s transmission failed, Daniel Ricciardo looked to have a better than evens chance of splitting the Mercs, having established track position over Rosberg at the first turn and maintained it. But the virtual safety car triggered by Verstappen’s parked Red Bull ensured Rosberg got a much cheaper pit stop than he otherwise would have done. With Ricciardo already having made his second stop, Rosberg came out 10 seconds in front rather than five behind and so secured second.

In the process of achieving the first part of his four-race target, Hamilton claimed his 50th Grand Prix win (twice as many races as Jim Clark albeit with more than twice the number of starts). Win number 50 was one of his simplest: a better start from pole than Rosberg alongside, no interference from his team-mate who was busy trying – and failing – to fend off Ricciardo. The gap established, he went through the routine of winning a Grand Prix, monitoring, taking it easy on the tyres at the start of the stints in this two-stop race, making the required switch changes, a blur of neurons and electronic pulses, kept on schedule by a calm crew.

Before the Sunday routine came the stuff that really won him the race – in practice, when he cracked open of the code of how to use his extraordinary speed through the esses of turns 3-7 whilst still keeping the super-soft tyre sufficiently alive by the end of the lap. Bringing in the tyres earlier, between turns 6 and 7 he was a massive 8km/h quicker than Rosberg in qualifying. That generated more heat in the tyres than Rosberg and as they got to sector three Nico’s rubber was in better shape and thereby significantly quicker through that section. But not by quite enough to make up the time Hamilton had gained in the esses. It was a neat little manifestation of their different approaches – and it played out Hamilton’s way on this occasion, on this track, with these tyres.

The specific demands of the Austin track also played their part in a much less competitive Ferrari than we saw in Suzuka. The team admitted it hadn’t quite fully understood why yet, but it seemed as if the downforce levels required by this track – higher than those of Suzuka – took the SF16 out of its efficiency range. The wing angle demanded by this track brought too little extra downforce for its cost in drag relative to Mercedes and Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel took a distant fourth, Kimi Räikkönen having been forced to retire, through being released before the right-rear wheel was properly secured.

A great battle for fifth was won by McLaren’s Fernando Alonso who put late – and controversial – passes on Felipe Massa’s Williams and Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso.      

Qualifying

Pole carried more weight even than usual given the respective championship positions of the Mercedes drivers. Hamilton desperately needed to be ahead of Rosberg throughout this weekend – and starting ahead was obviously a valuable part of that.

Hamilton aced it when it mattered, having cured the braking problems he’d suffered through much of Friday. He always appeared to have a vital couple of tenths advantage over his team-mate, with much of that coming through the high speed esses in sector one. But getting that right while keeping the super-softs from overheating was a challenge in itself. Used at the COTA track for the first time, they were effectively old-school qualifiers, requiring an extremely gentle out-lap and then good for maybe three-quarters of a lap. The trick was in not taking too much from them through sector one so as they were still alive for the long sweep of 17-18 and the last couple of left handers. Hamilton reckoned that was the root of his advantage. “It was all about placing the car very precisely through those sweeps at a place where the tyres are overheating.” There was a speed trap between the last two of those sweeps, turns 6 and 7, and Hamilton was a massive 8kph quicker than Rosberg through there. Hamilton was clearly taking more from the tyres here and was consistently slower than Rosberg through the last sector as a result – but not by the amount he’d gained through the esses. The team had put both drivers on the longer-lasting softs in Q2 so as to be able to start their races on them.

Hamilton was pleased with his own progress around one of the few tracks at which he’d never set pole. “I've always been quite bad around the first corner,” he described, “finding it hard to get the right line but today I finally got it right - and it was the right time to do so!”

Now with uprated oil pumps following the Sepang failure, the Merc engines had more of their usual Q3 advantage than in Suzuka – and the Red Bulls, as best of the rest, were around 0.5s slower over a  single lap even though over a stint they seemed very closely matched. Ricciardo qualified his third fastest and – in a switch of the situation at Mercedes – he found an advantage over fourth fastest team-mate Max Verstappen by not attacking the final sector as hard, dredging the last bit of life from the super-softs. It found him a couple of tenths advantage. Verstappen was compromised by a communication mix-up, with a setting change radioed to him that was meant for Ricciardo, giving him brake balance problems in the last sector. There was a split in Q2 tyre strategy, with Verstappen making the same choice as Mercedes by running the soft, in contrast to Ricciardo who ran the super-soft. “Yes, I was a lot more comfortable on the super-soft in practice whereas Max preferred the soft,” explained Daniel, “plus it gives me a bit of a launch off the line.” It was an aggressive choice made very much with the intention of trying to lead at the start.

After its impressive turn of speed in Suzuka, the Ferrari was out of sorts here. Räikkönen and Vettel monopolised the third row, with a couple of tenths between them, but there was general mystification about the loss of form. It was 0.6s slower than the Red Bull and over 1s adrift of the Merc. “The car felt fine,” said Vettel, “but in the end we were not just quick enough. For sure in Q3 I could have done a slightly better lap, but obviously we are missing a bit. There remains a bit of a question mark at this point on why we were so competitive in fast corners in Suzuka and here we are missing out; but we are missing out across all sectors.”

Nico Hülkenberg was flying in the only Force India to make it into Q3, lapping within 0.3s of Vettel’s Ferrari to line up seventh, comfortably faster than the two Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa just behind. Carlos Sainz produced a great Q2 lap to make the run-off, described by his engineer as ‘near-perfect’. He didn’t quite match it with his Q3 lap and lined up 10th, definitely punching above the Toro Rosso’s weight.

Because of the short life expectancy of the super-softs here, the last few Q3 positions were at a bigger strategic disadvantage than usual to the upper Q2 positions, so Sergio Pérez wasn’t as disappointed as he might have been in putting his Force India 11th. But at 0.7s off his team-mate, something was clearly amiss. “This morning we found an issue with one of the components at the rear of the car, which impacted on my pace,” he explained. “I thought we had solved that going into qualifying, but I still believe there is an issue because the data showed it was very difficult for me to match my team-mate in the braking zones. The car also felt nervous through the high-speed corners.”

Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was next. He pointed out over the radio that, “it would be nice if we weren’t losing 0.15s down every straight.” He was at least in better shape than team-mate Jenson Button who failed to make it out of Q1, 19th fastest, after being impeded through the final corner by Jolyon Palmer’s Renault. Daniil Kvyat was 0.305s off Sainz, putting the second Toro Rosso 13th ahead of Esteban Gutiérrez’s Haas, Palmer and the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson. Romain Grosjean failed to make the Q2 cut in the other Haas, as did Kevin Magnussen in the other Renault, which was later found to have a broken floor. Pascal Wehrlein put his Manor ahead of Felipe Nasr’s Sauber with Esteban Ocon 0.3s slower at the back after a lock-up on the crucial lap.

Race

The track was 36-degrees C, the stands heavily populated, a sunny day in Texas as the pack lined up, Hamilton’s pole on the outside, Rosberg angling his car over towards him from the inside. The concern for them both was Ricciardo on the clean side of row two on his grippier super-softs. For an equivalent start, they were reckoned to be worth almost one car length. Over the duration of what was widely calculated to be a two-stop race, there wasn’t actually much of a strategic difference between starting on the soft or the super-soft. The former allowed you to get further clear of the midfield pack before making your stop, thereby making you less vulnerable to potential traffic delays while the latter gave you better acceleration off the line. Wear of the front left was the limitation for both, but came much more quickly with the super-soft.

Ricciardo’s whole race was predicated on trying to use his super-softs to out-accelerate both Mercs. If he could just do that and run a first stint of, say, 8-10 laps, he would be compromising their races, as they’d be held back to his pace on his deteriorating softer tyres after four-five laps. If he could retain comparable race pace when on the same tyres later – which practice had suggested was feasible – then it was potentially a winnable race for him. It didn’t quite work out for him at the start – and in that moment his victory chances evaporated.

As the gantry reds extinguished, Hamilton was a burst of perfectly co-ordinated wheel spin and clutch slip, allowing him to run any line he wanted into turn one. Rosberg from the dirty side swooped right to the outside while Ricciardo went for the inside, too far back to threaten Hamilton but able to go side-by-side with Rosberg through the turn at the top of that dramatically steep hill, the duel continuing down the hill to the fast sweep of turn two. Just behind, Verstappen and Räikkönen were also two-abreast through turn one, Kimi prevailing. But behind them, three abreast between Bottas, Hülkenberg and Vettel didn’t work – the Williams and Force India snagging each other, giving Bottas a puncture and breaking Hulk’s track rod. Sainz and Alonso speared onto the run-off in avoidance. Vettel got through unscathed to chase after Verstappen, with Massa, Sainz, Pérez, Kvyat, Alonso and co. following on.

Ricciardo hung grimly on around the outside of turn two, squeezing Rosberg in tight, forcing Nico to take some inner kerb and briefly lift – enough to get Ricciardo up to second. And so they all swooped through the esses, a crazy colourful snake of colour and glint, Hamilton pulling out ground already, then back uphill and down the kinking chute to the hairpin of 11 where Kvyat misjudged things and clipped the back of Pérez, spinning the Force India. Both were able to restart, the only damage to Pérez being to his race position and his temper, but Kvyat had picked up front wing damage, to which would later be added a 10-second penalty to be served at his pit stop.

Vettel got a run going on Verstappen down the long back straight but even with the slipstream didn’t have the end-of-straight speed to pull the move off, Verstappen forced to defend the inside, compromising his entry into the tight left of 12, allowing Vettel to continue the dice for a few corners. But the Ferrari remained behind.

Hamilton led by just under a second at the end of the lap and would steadily extend his advantage over Ricciardo. By lap five the Red Bull’s super-softs were no longer faster than the softs on Rosberg’s car and the second Merc began to pull him in. So here was Rosberg’s race being compromised – but Hamilton was off and away. Ricciardo/Rosberg were quickly putting distance on Räikkönen, the Ferrari just not a factor around here. Verstappen was soon being held up by it.

Grosjean was like an ambulance through rush hour traffic in the early laps, picking off Palmer, Ericsson, Kvyat and team-mate Gutiérrez in quick succession to put himself on the tail of the dicing Button and Pérez. This trio would remain locked in battle for many laps, their fight extending into the pitlane.

Ricciardo and Räikkönen were in for the first stops (from second and fourth respectively) at the end of the eighth lap. This compromised Verstappen slightly as it meant Red Bull had to bring him in on the next lap to combat what could’ve been an undercut threat from Vettel (who then stayed out). It meant Verstappen wasn’t getting the full benefit of the longer opening stint possible on his harder tyres. With no threat to Vettel from behind, Ferrari kept him out – the longer the opening stint could be stretched out, the faster he could go subsequently on his shorter stints.

Rosberg was in on the 10th lap – and fitted with a set of mediums. As is often the case, only the Mercedes likes this tyre. Even on a Merc it was probably still slower than a soft but it gave him the range to be able to pressure Ricciardo late in the stint. Hamilton was in next lap and fitted with softs. He rejoined at a very gentle pace, using the gap he’d built up in the first stint to allow him the luxury of bringing the tyres in nicely. Vettel now temporarily led the race and would get his super-softs to last for an impressive 14 laps.

But before Seb pitted, Verstappen made a move on Räikkönen, using DRS down the back straight to out-brake him into turn 12. Kimi was not at all happy with the Ferrari on the soft tyres and this was where his race began to unravel. “With the super-soft the balance was good. But once we changed, it lost it and became really difficult.” Vettel would have no such trouble and quickly began gaining on his team-mate. 

Vettel was just beginning to be held up by Räikkönen on the 23rd lap when the awkward problem was resolved by bringing Räikkönen in. He was being switched to a three-stop to get him off these tyres he didn’t like. Put onto used super-softs for a very short middle stint, he rejoined still ahead of Massa.  

In this second stint Hamilton kept the gap over Ricciardo out at around 5s. The interesting question was what could Rosberg do about the Red Bull. He was generally within a couple of seconds of it but on tyres that would last considerably longer. He wasn’t going to be able to jump ahead at the second stops, but the plan was then to put him on the brand new set of softs that had been saved from the day before – with a much shorter final stint than would be required of Ricciardo on his slow mediums. It was all set for Rosberg to be much faster in the last stint but having to find a way past a doubtless defensive Ricciardo on track. Daniel was brought after 25 laps and fitted with the mediums that would be going through to the end.

Verstappen for a time had been catching the Ricciardo/Rosberg dice. Upon being reminded he had to make this set of softs last many more laps Max replied that he wasn’t here to finish fourth. But even youthful bravado could not defeat the laws of physics and before long he was running out of front grip and locking up. This was not his strongest of weekends, one of those races where the data banks were still being filled, where he discovered things that will be filed away for future reference. With his mind a-clutter he thought he’d heard an instruction to ‘box’ (pit) but there’d been no such communication. Nor did he make a pit confirm response – but instead just arrived in the pits at the end of the 26th lap. That came as quite a surprise to the crew, who had nothing ready for him. They actually performed a superb recovery. As he pulled up to where only four tyre blankets lay, he was forced to stop. As these were moved aside he accelerated hard into the space and perhaps in that moment damaged the transmission. He rejoined – between Massa and Sainz – and for a lap or so all seemed OK. But then a mechanical clanking that got worse with speed – just as he’d already passed the pit entry road to begin his 29th lap. The team instructed him to see if he could keep it going, to drive it slowly back to the pits. He crawled around off line and got as far as turn 18 before being instructed to pull off. He aimed the car for the gap in the fence and as it came to a crawl he pressed the neutral button to keep it moving but there wasn’t enough pressure in the hydraulics to allow it to work and the car stuttered to a stop, still on the grass. 

Cue a virtual safety car – which was great news for those who had yet to make their second stops (the two Mercs plus Sainz and Alonso) and a bit of a disaster for those who’d just stopped (Ricciardo, Vettel, Massa, Button). By pitting under a VSC, the pit stop time loss to the others – as they have to maintain a reduced pace – is 10-15s smaller. Which meant that Rosberg came out 10s ahead of Ricciardo rather than 5s behind.

In theory Ferrari, once they were alerted to Verstappen crawling back, might have realised a VSC was possible and asked Vettel to delay coming in for another lap. But that didn’t happen – and Seb lost the chance of taking a big chunk out of Ricciardo’s advantage over him.

Had Verstappen not made his premature stop, there was every chance Red Bull could have used him to put undercut pressure upon Rosberg, thus forcing Nico to lose the stint length advantage of his medium tyres over Ricciardo. They had just asked him to push for that very reason - but it seems it wasn’t the push call that he confused with ‘box’ for he did another lap after that call.

Whatever, the way it panned out as the VSC was rescinded at the end of lap 33 was that Hamilton led Rosberg by 11s, both of them on new mediums. Ricciardo on his six laps older mediums lay a further 3s or so back from Rosberg and ahead of Räikkönen, Vettel, Sainz (who had undercut Massa thanks to the VSC), Massa, Alonso, Pérez, Button and Grosjean. Pérez had got ahead of Grosjean at the first stops thanks to a superb 1.8s pit stop from Force India, and had then undercut Button at the second stops.

Hamilton again played in his tyres gently, giving Rosberg cause for faint hope, while Ricciardo had no greater pace than Rosberg and consequently couldn’t get close enough to try anything. The VSC had come earlier than ideal for Räikkönen – just five laps after his second of three stops – but Ferrari might still have brought him in and fitted him with the single set of mediums he had available. But, ever nervous of that compound on their car, Ferrari decided instead to leave him out until lap 38 – late enough to be able to put him onto new softs. This would have dropped him back behind Vettel, but he didn’t even get that far. A cross-threaded right-rear wheelnut caused confusion and Räikkönen got the green light before it had been properly tightened. He was past the white line of the pit lane exit by the time they told him to stop (so as to avoid what would have been a grid penalty for the next race). As he sat there the idling the engine overheated and even though he allowed the car to run backwards down the hill back into the pitlane, he was instructed to turn it off.

So Sainz, Massa and Alonso were now fighting for fifth place. The Toro Rosso had been fitted with softs at its stop, the Williams and McLaren with mediums. Soon Massa and Alonso together were being slowed as Sainz struggled with worn-out fronts, but defended faultlessly. With six laps to go, Sainz locked up and began to run wide into turn 18. Massa was distracted by that and Alonso pounced – sliding the McLaren up the inside. They banged wheels as they ran out wide, but Alonso was ahead. There were bitter recriminations from Massa later to his former team-mate but it was deemed a racing incident. Next on Alonso’s hit list: Sainz. He was in no shape to defend now, with the front tyres literally down to the canvas, but still he tried. “The battle with Fernando was so much fun! I knew that he would end up getting past me but I said to myself, ‘let’s make it a bit complicated for him!’ I perfectly know how he attacks and how to defend against him, as I’ve been watching him race for the past 12 years… And I think that to be able to keep him behind for all those laps until he just opened the DRS and said ‘ciao, ciao’ was pretty decent.”

The move came into turn 12 on the penultimate lap – and arguably shouldn’t have counted. In out-braking the Toro Rosso Alonso ran out wide – and turned in from the run-off. Had there been grass or gravel defining the track limits there, the move would not have worked. But no investigation followed and a feisty fifth was his reward. Sainz’s sixth was a similarly superb result.

Hamilton cruised the last few laps, Rosberg always had Ricciardo under control after the VSC. Vettel, with a big gap behind him, had the opportunity of a free third pit stop. He made this on lap 53 and with a set of super-softs on the low-fuelled car was able to set the race’s fastest lap. Massa got a slow puncture – probably from wheel rim damage in the Alonso hit – and pitted for replacements without losing his seventh place. Pérez, Button and Grosjean ended their race-long dice in that order to fill out the points places.   

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