What will be left of the 2020 British national racing season?
The month of April is traditionally when the motor sport season gets into full swing. It’s when racing truly becomes the norm again at most given weekends. But it’s best…
Lewis Hamilton fought to overturn the odds and win the 2019 United States Grand Prix from fifth on the grid, but Valtteri Bottas took the victory, as Hamilton secured his sixth drivers’ championship
Photo: Motorsport Images
Lewis Hamilton hadn’t realised that he’d knocked the cover off his brake bias switch on his first Q3 run. It’s on the side of the steering wheel and normally he doesn’t actually change the setting much during the Austin lap. But he was puzzled that he was getting a bit of rear instability under braking. So he started moving it forward. But without the cover, unbeknown to him, it kept winding itself rearwards on his second run. That’s essentially why he qualified fifth.
He was never going to win the race from there, with team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the only other car as quick as Lewis’s, starting from pole. Bottas is in fine form at the moment and to put three cars between him and Hamilton and expect the latter to win wasn’t realistic. But Hamilton didn’t see it that way, which is part of why he’s the multiple champion he is. “The whole time I was focusing only on where I was in relation to Valtteri.”
He’d cleared two of those three cars between him and his quarry – both of them Ferraris – before the race was eight corners old. But that still left Max Verstappen’s Red Bull in the way. “I wasn’t interested in my gap to the car in second,” explained Hamilton. “I wanted to win.”
It was a close see-sawing battle between the two Mercedes drivers once Hamilton had cleared Verstappen in his damaged car. Closer than it might have been given Bottas’ two-stop strategy, which was definitely faster in the increased temperatures of race day. But as it turned out Hamilton couldn’t overcome the odds. He had to settle with winning his sixth world title by finishing second to a team-mate who’d given himself the better strategy by setting pole – and not knocking the cover off his brake bias switch.
It was somewhat unfortunate that Hamilton’s amazing seasonal achievement was competing for attention with heated speculation about the reason for Ferrari’s lack of pace, as Charles Leclerc finished a very distant fourth, 52sec behind. This followed the issuing of an FIA technical directive Saturday morning regarding how the regulation fuel flow meter might be tricked into providing more than the maximum permitted flow.
Mattia Binotto was quick to dismiss speculation that Ferrari had been doing this – in the firmest possible manner and was seen having a private word with Red Bull’s Christian Horner after the latter’s lead driver expressed his frank opinion on whether there was any causation between the correlation of Technical Directive 0035/19 and Ferrari being almost a lap down.
Bottas on pole by just over a hundredth of a second Photo: Motorsport Images
Around a bumpy Circuit of the Americas, Bottas was the man by the tiniest of margins over Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, thereby sewing up his fifth pole of the season. That’s one more to date than Hamilton who languished back in fifth between Leclerc and Alex Albon.
The bumps were the dominant talking point of the drivers through the practices. The area is noted for its ‘high soil plasticity’ (ie it expands a lot when wet, contracts a lot when dry) and the bumps were particularly bad under braking into the first corner, through Turn Two, on the apices of Turns Three and Five, Nine to 10 and down the back straight.
Drivers were complaining of headaches and backaches after practice – and both Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean suffered bump-related high-speed spins. It wasn’t just a case of F1 prima donna syndrome; the MotoGP riders had complained of much the same thing when they visited in April.
But it was the cars with the most downforce that generally dealt best with it all amid a great three-way pole shoot-out between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. There was just 0.067sec between the three teams. Bottas put together a great lap on his first Q3 run and it was this that stood as pole.
“You rarely get a lap like that,” he said afterwards, very satisfied, “and on a track like this it’s a good feeling.” The previous day he’d been all at sea with the wrong set up, struggling with tyre temperatures and slow on the straights. All were corrected and he responded in this way to give Mercedes its first pole since Hockenheim.
Ferraris were unusually quick through the Esses Photo: Motorsport Images
Was it a coincidence that Ferrari’s run of poles – and a lower than usual speed advantage on the straights – came to an end just after a technical directive had been issued by the FIA answering a Red Bull query about whether using a pulsing electrical interference to trick the FIA fuel flow meter into momentarily over-delivering fuel would be legal or not?
It was hardly the conclusive smoking gun some were claiming. How so? Well, a look at the telemetry of the Bottas and Sebastian Vettel Q3 laps shows, for example, that the Ferrari was marginally faster than the Mercedes through the Esses. On such a downforce-dominant sequence of corners, this wouldn’t ordinarily be the case. It was quicker out of the slowish corner onto the pit straight – and it was clear the Ferrari was running more downforce than usual.
Second-fastest Vettel, just over a hundredth slower than Bottas, was ruing being over-cautious on his first Q3 run. He concurred with Bottas about there being less grip in the track at the end. “I left a bit of time on the table in the high-speed sections of the last sector on my first run, but in my final run when I got there I was already a little bit down; one hundredth, you know, there is always somewhere.”
Verstappen — involved in a niggly bit of queue rage with Hamilton in Q2 — did manage to improve marginally on his final run, but not by quite enough. “Q3 was a bit more difficult generally than Q2; the grip just wasn’t quite there but it’s good we’re so close on a track like this which wouldn’t normally suit us particularly. It’s big step forward from last year here.”
Leclerc and Hamilton lined up only fourth and fifth, not quite on the pace of their respective team-mates. Leclerc had missed all of morning practice when his engine sprung an oil leak on his installation lap. For qualifying, this was replaced by his Spec 2 unit from Spa, around 10bhp down on the Spec 3.
Hamilton hadn’t yet realised the crucial contributory cause of his sub-par couple of laps in Q3. “Sometimes you just don’t hit it. The start of my first lap was going really well but then I lost time on the exits of Turn 11, 12 and 13. On my second I abandoned after I lost a load of time at Turn Eight.” Subsequent investigation by the team centred around why his brake bias was constantly changing, as revealed on the telemetry. It was only then it was realised that he had inadvertently knocked off the bias switch cover, thereby allowing the bias to change whenever his hand made contact with it.
Albon completed the top six, just over 0.4sec off Verstappen. He was another to have suffered a small moment on his final run, in this case in the final sector. Otherwise that lap was shaping up to be within 0.1sec of Max. Unlike those ahead of him, he’d taken the soft tyre for Q2 rather than the medium so would potentially be at a strategy disadvantage on race day. But not necessarily….
Sainz was, once more, best of the rest Photo: Motorsport Images
McLaren retained its usual best of the rest status, with seventh fastest Carlos Sainz 0.8sec off pole, 0.3sec and one place better than team-mate Lando Norris who got only one new-tyred run on account of having used up a second set in Q1 because of traffic on his first run. The car was handling quite benignly and both drivers were attacking the fast sweeps of this wonderful circuit with gusto.
Daniel Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly rounded out the top 10 for Renault and Toro Rosso respectively, both drivers in strong form but their cars almost as far off the McLarens as Sainz was from pole. Nico Hülkenberg ‘just didn’t quite find the harmony’ with the Renault and would start 11th. Daniil Kvyat was a couple of tenths adrift of Gasly, in 13th.
Splitting them was the Haas of Kevin Magnussen who was satisfied with his car for once. “I really felt I had the car beneath me today, I’m pretty happy with qualifying in terms of my own performance and the team’s. We’ve built up over the weekend and we’ve had some fairly strict aero programs to get through.” This was a reference to an experimental front wing that was tried and discarded on Friday, Romain Grosjean feeling it may have contributed to his FP2 off at Turn Five.
With a different – less efficient – rear wing, Grosjean was a couple of tenths adrift of KMag, in 15th. Nestled between them was Lance Stroll in the only Racing Point to make a proper qualifying effort (Sergio Perez was starting from the pitlane, penalised after missing a weight check on Friday).
Neither Antonio Giovinazzi nor Kimi Räikkönen (a big Q2-costing lock-up under braking at the end of the back straight) could get their Alfas going quickly enough to escape from Q1, only 1sec quicker than George Russell’s Williams, with Robert Kubica a further 0.5sec adrift at the back.
More from the US Grand Prix
Lights out in Austin Photo: Motorsport Images
A bit of last-minute drama for Verstappen as a crack was spotted on a rear wing endplate and a new wing was hurriedly fitted on the grid beneath clear skies, with a packed, wildly enthusiastic crowd looking on. A little later, just 20 pairs of eyes watching the gantry lights from within their padded cocoons.
Bottas from the outside pole side judged things to perfection, cleanly away up the hill and quickly covering off the inside approach to Turn One. It seemed the pole side of the grid was grippier – and Verstappen, who stayed out wide on the approach to Turn One was able to grind ahead of Vettel and get partially alongside Bottas as they rounded that looping corner.
In the split-second, millimetre-close judgement calls made in cars on tyres not yet fully warm, Verstappen’s left-front endplate lightly glanced Bottas’ right-rear tyre. The Mercedes was unaffected but a piece of Red Bull endplate flew into the air as Verstappen got his elbows out keeping Vettel behind him down the hill, with Hamilton looking on.
It wasn’t a great few seconds for Red Bull, as Albon – squeezed between Leclerc and Sainz – oversteered his left-rear into the McLaren’s path on the exit kerb, lifting the Red Bull into the air and clattering it hard over the kerbs, damaging its front wing and underbody. He’d be in for a new nose at the end of the lap, as Leclerc took up fifth place ahead of Ricciardo and Norris – with Stroll flying off onto the tarmac run-off at the bottom of the hill, losing several places as the rejoining cars from the Turn One incident filled the width of the track. Hülkenberg lost momentum avoiding them and was bundled down the pack between Turn Two and the fast, funnelled approach to the Esses.
Already in trouble was Vettel, the Ferrari feeling awful right from the start with a severe lack of front-end grip, especially on right-handers. It was bad enough that Hamilton was easily able to nip around his outside for third as they exited the slow Turn Eight to head up to the track’s summit of Turn Nine.
Down through the kink of 10 and under braking for the hairpin, Leclerc sliced himself past the sister Ferrari, Vettel retaliating by slipstreaming down the back straight and going for the inside of Turn 12. Light contact appeared to be made between the two red cars, with Leclerc staying ahead and Vettel having his hands full fending off Ricciardo’s Renault, which would pass into Turn One to begin the next lap.
Bottas leads the field early in the race Photo: Motorsport Images
At the end of the first lap Bottas led from Verstappen, Hamilton, Leclerc, Norris, Vettel, Ricciardo, Gasly, Sainz, Magnussen, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Kvyat, Giovinazzi, Stroll, Perez, Kubica and Russell – with Albon rejoining at the back after pitting for his repairs and a switch to mediums. Kubica would be an early retirement with lack of hydraulic pressure.
The higher temperatures of race day made the tyres even more prone than usual to heat deg around here and the game, once the positions had settled, was to manage the rubber. Teams were split on whether it was a one- or a two-stop but in contrast to Mexico last week, this time it seemed to be heading from a one towards a two. Most of those outside the top 10 had started on the medium (with Hülkenberg and Kvyat on hards, Räikkönen on softs), with the aim of at least making a one-stop feasible.
Bottas gradually extended his gap at the front as Verstappen’s front wing damage slowed him. A later loss of part of the floor ahead of the rear wheel from about the fifth lap upset the handling even more. “I just began getting this weird oversteer,” he reported. “I only saw the damage after the race. I’ve no idea where it came from.” Hamilton, reckoning on one-stopping as the only way he might win this race from third, backed off to keep his tyres out of Verstappen’s dirty air.
Though Hamilton needed only four points to clinch this title, he’d no intention of surrendering on the win. “When I was in third, I wasn’t even looking at the blue car that was ahead of me, I was looking at Valtteri, thinking how do I get there.”
But even Hamilton’s initial tyre-conserving pace was something Leclerc had no hope of matching, regularly up to 1.5sec slower and only gradually easing clear of the soft-tyred Norris. In a Ferrari? “I just don’t understand what the problem was,” he shrugged. “I just had no grip at all. It was as if the tyres were just not coming in. It was especially bad in the first stint but it was there all the way.”
Suspension failure for Vettel Photo: Motorsport Images
Vettel was walking wounded at this stage, understeering and locking up everywhere. On the seventh lap, his right-rear suspension collapsed on the exit of Turn Nine, the Ferrari spectacularly lifting its diagonally opposed front left as Vettel fought to bring it under control before pulling off. “I think it was maybe broken from the start,” he said. “When it collapsed I hadn’t done anything different to the previous laps over the whole weekend.” A sausage kerb had been fitted on the exit of Turn Eight but Vettel was adamant he hadn’t been over it. Scratch one Ferrari.
Ricciardo got ahead of Norris with the help of DRS into Turn 12 on the eighth lap to run as ‘best of the rest’. He’d spend the rest of the afternoon trying to hang onto that place as Norris counter-attacked.
As the window for the first stops opened up, so undercuts (anticipated or real) began to push further in the direction of two-stopping. “You could see as the temperatures came up that [Bottas and Verstappen] were beginning to struggle with their tyres,” related Hamilton, still intent on trying for his one-stop, even as he nudged up towards the Red Bull. From 3sec behind, Verstappen was brought in on the 13th lap. So much quicker were the new hards than the old mediums, Mercedes was forced to bring Bottas in from the lead on the very next lap, his gap over the Red Bull halved as he rejoined, also on hards.
With such early stops they were definitely two-stopping, as one-stopping Hamilton now assumed the lead. He was lapping a couple of seconds slower at this stage than the new-tyred Bottas who, together with Verstappen, was able to pass the no-mans-land Ferrari of Leclerc, who’d yet to stop but was already 17sec behind Hamilton.
Norris and Ricciardo battled throughout the race Photo: Motorsport Images
Just behind the ongoing Ricciardo/Norris battle, Sainz undercut himself past Gasly. After Norris and Ricciardo made their stops, the Renault continued to lead the unofficial class but now with a two-pronged McLaren challenge to see off. Renault was reckoning the best way of doing that was to retain track position, no matter what. Like Hamilton at the front, Ricciardo was determined to one-stop and was driving accordingly, with a similar blend of momentum and tyre conservation. Every time Norris pushed him, he’d respond to stay just out of reach – and then back off once more as Norris did the same. McLaren began to think in terms of switching Norris to a two-stop before it was too late – and keeping Sainz out there to cover the one-stopping option.
In between the lead battle and that of Class B, Leclerc, with no undercut pressure, stayed out until lap 20 (and was delayed there with a sticking left-rear) – with leader Hamilton asked to pit on the 23rd lap. “I’m staying out,” he insisted, and pressed on for one more lap. He then pitted for the hards. As he stepped up the pace, he was reminded he had to get these tyres to the end. But what was the right pace? The optimum trade-off between tyre life and gap over Bottas? “Give me a target Bono. Work with me,” the fierce competitor demanded.
Although he remained focused on trying to ensure he could one-stop as a route to beating Verstappen and Bottas, the team could see by the degradation rates that he wasn’t on course to beat his team-mate. It was going to play out with Bottas coming out not far behind after his second stop but on vastly faster tyres and plenty of laps in which to catch and pass.
Verstappen’s damaged car was around 1sec per lap slower than Bottas in this stage of the race, which probably wasn’t going to be enough to allow the Red Bull to make up the time loss to Hamilton of its extra stop.
So that’s how it played out. Verstappen pitted for a second time from around 8sec behind Bottas on lap 34 and rejoined on a set of mediums. Mercedes brought Valtteri in on the next lap for the same choice of tyre. He exited 14sec behind Hamilton with 20 laps to go and lapping significantly faster. “I worried that one-stop was going to be a better strategy for Lewis. All I could was focus on my every single lap, every corner, trying to perfect everything with the traffic, trying to minimise the losses and maximise all the gains I could. Then it was all about seeing towards the end of the race where we are.”
But Hamilton was keeping up a great pace – and initially, Bottas didn’t seem to be catching him fast enough to be on schedule to get by. It was a tricky thing to judge because. in order to pass, Bottas would need to be around 1.7sec per lap faster by the time he arrived on Hamilton’s tail. So he needed to have his tyres in good shape. But those tyres, although newer than Hamilton’s, were one step softer. Hamilton was radioing that he wasn’t sure if his hards were going to last, yet he was setting a challenging pace regardless. On the Mercedes pit wall they still believed Bottas was on course for the win. But with Hamilton, you never know.
Running interference with the Class B battle was the recovering Albon. In a Red Bull, he’d predictably come through from the back without much trouble and had passed Sainz, Norris and Ricciardo in quick succession after they’d each stopped once. But such a pace was always going to require another stop. He came in again on lap 40 and on a set of softs emerged 14sec behind Ricciardo, who still had the McLarens (and Gasly) on his tail. Norris was brought in for a second stop a couple of laps later and put onto a set of softs with which to charge back up to Sainz and Ricciardo, both of whom Albon would pick off again without any significant resistance, such was the pace difference.
With more than a stop’s-worth of gap behind him, Leclerc was brought in for a set of softs – and with these, despite the car’s difficulties, he was able to set what would stand as the race’s fastest lap and thus take the extra point.
Meanwhile, Perez had made great progress from his pitlane start – on hard tyres and stopping only once. After all the two-stoppers had made their final stops, he was running 10th and catching the one-stopping old-tyred Gasly. Not far behind them ran the battling Räikkönen, Hülkenberg and Kvyat. Hulk had passed Räikkönen with all four wheels off the track at Turn 14 and was ordered to give the place back. He made a move that stuck a few laps later and Kvyat followed him through. Things were going to get tight and scrappy in this little group towards the end.
Hamilton couldn’t hold off Bottas’s fresher-tyred car Photo: Motorsport Images
Up at the front, with 10 laps to go and Hamilton’s old tyres beginning to surrender, Bottas was progressively closing in for the kill, the gap coming down from 3sec to 2.5sec, 1.8sec, 1.5sec, 1.2sec on successive laps until he was within DRS range by lap 50. “Ok, no talking now,” Valtteri had told his engineer.
Hamilton was deep into the Turn 11 hairpin and slow onto the back straight on the 51st lap and Bottas had DRS on him, swooping for the outside into the braking zone for 12. Hamilton braked super-late and held him out wide, Bottas forced to take to the run-off. He quickly caught back up but as they entered the pit straight Hamilton had DRS from the lapped Gasly, so neutralising Bottas’ advantage. A few corners later Hamilton was again deep into the hairpin and this time Bottas was early enough into his tow that he could claim the inside line into 12 – and that was all it took; Bottas was through and on the way to a victory Hamilton had made him fight for.
Verstappen was only a couple of seconds behind Hamilton now and began to close in, Honda giving him access to maximum modes. The niggle between these two had run on from Mexico into qualifying here but there was a title for Hamilton to win and, with Bottas winning the race, Hamilton could not afford a collision. So how might he react if Verstappen chose to get rude?
The action further back was building to a similar crescendo. Two-stopping Norris had just repassed his one-stopping team mate Sainz and was back on the old-tyred Ricciardo’s tail. Perez had gone down Gasly’s inside for ninth place into Turn 13 and they’d touched, breaking the Toro Rosso’s suspension and putting it out. But now Perez was being caught by Hülkenberg and Kvyat. Meanwhile, Magnussen’s Haas had done its typical slide down the order after its early reasonable showing and was running behind Stroll and Giovinazzi towards the back (ahead only of Grosjean and Russell’s Williams) when it suffered a brake failure into Turn 13, beaching itself in the gravel. This meant yellow flags were flying at one of the circuit’s key passing places for the last couple of laps.
Which put paid to any plans Verstappen had of launching one final move on Hamilton on the last lap. “Without that, I’m sure I’d have passed him,” related Max. A lap down, Kvyat had forced his way past Hülkenberg and tried to follow it up with a move on Perez into Turn 15. Contact was made – allowing Hülkenberg past them both. Kvyat came out ahead of the Racing Point for 10th but for the second successive race was penalised for a last-lap contact, his 5sec penalty dropping him to 12th. He was furious with the stewards’ decision.
If Bottas had to lose the championship here, there was no better way of doing it than with a hard-fought victory. “Yeah, my pace was good today and at the end I could catch Lewis and have some good fighting with him on track, which I enjoyed, and it was a good feeling to get ahead and to win the race like that. It feels good when it doesn’t come easy.”
World Championship number six for Hamilton, a remarkable achievement. “It’s been the hardest year,” he related. “We lost Niki [Lauda], a crucial, pivotal member of the team and it’s been an emotional rollercoaster… I’ve tried to remain focused through the year – but it’s been so hard. Only athletes at top of their game can relate to it; weekend after weekend where you can’t drop the ball. And this is not an easy car. At the mid-point of the season we were behind [on performance]. It’s the toughest second half-season we’ve had. Every journey’s different. We all struggle with something in our lives. From outside things may look great but that’s not always the case.”
Photo: Motorsport Images
|1||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||1hr 33min 55.653sec||25|
|3||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+5.002sec||15|
|5||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||+1min 18.038sec||10|
|6||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault||+1min 30.366sec||8|
|7||Lando Norris||McLaren||+1min 30.764sec||6|
|8||Carlos Sainz||McLaren||+1 lap||4|
|9||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault||+1 lap||2|
|10||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||+1 lap|
|11||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|12||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||+1 lap**|
|13||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||+1 lap|
|14||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+1 lap|
|15||Romain Grosjean||Haas||+1 lap|
|16||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||DNF|
|17||George Russell||Williams||+2 laps|
*Includes point for fastest lap
**5 sec time penalty
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||235|
|6||Alexander Albon||Red Bull||84|
|8||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||77|
|10||Sergio Perez||Racing Point||44|
|13||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso||34|
|14||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||31|
|15||Lance Stroll||Racing Point||21|
|18||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||4|
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