Bottas fastest but facing grid penalty: 2021 United States GP practice round-up
Valtteri Bottas was fastest in Texas but is facing a five-place grid penalty for the race
Nico Rosberg took command of this one from the moment the wheels began turning on Friday. When they began turning as the gantry lights went out on Sunday, his were in unison with the car, Lewis Hamilton’s alongside were spinning. That blew Hamilton’s last chance of turning this weekend around in his favour. He was always going to finish second from that point onward.
The only question remaining was his route to that position – given that Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari had also taken advantage of Lewis’s excessive wheelspin to put himself second on a track where overtaking between cars on similar aged tyres is next to impossible.
So Hamilton was brought in as early as lap 13 – effectively consigning him to a three-stop rather than the lower maintenance two-stop most of the rest of the field, including Rosberg, were on – so as to undercut Vettel. But correcting a cross-threaded left-rear wheel nut added a vital couple of seconds to the stop, enabling Ferrari to respond by bringing Vettel in next lap and still staying ahead: “They gave us a little invitation there and we took it,” as Seb later put it. So the undercut had to wait until the second stops – by which time Rosberg was yet further out of reach.
Nico could have been further ahead had he chosen to be. The Mercedes had performance in hand, especially as the Ferrari had fallen quite drastically off the level of competitiveness shown in the season to date. Quite why this was so was perhaps the greatest mystery of the weekend.
It wasn’t that Mercedes had gained more than everyone, including Ferrari. It was definitely that Ferrari had fallen adrift, for the gap from Mercedes to Williams or Mercedes to Red Bull was much as it has been in the season to date. The red car simply was not working as well here as in any of the preceding four races. Vettel finished 45sec adrift of a cruising Rosberg on Sunday. Even in Australia it was only 25sec, and even then about half of that deficit could be explained away by Seb having been stuck behind a slower car for much of the race. No, Ferrari’s negative performance swing last weekend was drastic.
The Scuderia had arrived with a comprehensive aerodynamic update that involved 70 per cent of the car’s surfaces. It left onlooking teams seriously impressed as the cars gathered for scrutineering on Thursday, especially given the current restrictions on wind tunnel time and CFD power. Compared to the more subtle re-working by Mercedes of its front wing endplates and floor, it raised the prospect of just how much of Ferrari’s previous 0.25-0.3sec deficit might have been overcome or even reversed? Instead it was as much as 1sec adrift.
Ferrari, so confident coming into the weekend, was crestfallen – and confused. On Friday evening Kimi Räikkönen pushed to revert to the previous spec car, and the team readily agreed, giving it the opportunity of a back-to-back comparison with Vettel’s updated spec. “We saw that the new car was faster, which was a relief,” said Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene, “but not by enough.”
So it was the basic Ferrari car that was the problem, not the update. Was it a trick of the rubber at a track that traditionally throws up anomalous tyre behaviour (thinking back, for example, to Pastor Maldonado’s tyre-dominated Williams win in 2012)? “We are seeing some things that we cannot yet explain,” said Pirelli’s Paul Hembery on Saturday. “The track is a lot hotter than in winter testing, but not by enough to explain the extent of the lower grip we are seeing. Maybe there is something in the track surface, but usually that goes away after the cars have run on it for a while. It’s something we will have to analyse.”
The hard compound is perhaps too hard for the demands of the track and the medium was operating at the outer edges of its temperature band. Furthermore, it looked like the Mercedes still retained more downforce than the Ferrari, so was this more crucial than ever on a track that was just not offering up much grip? It may be significant that 90 per cent of Ferrari’s deficit to Mercedes came in the slow final sector. Is the Mercedes’ downforce advantage particularly acute at slow speeds? This is the slowest speed sector that we’ve had this year, stop/start and repeated second/third gear acceleration zones.
Then there were the paddock cynics trying to link the fall in form of the red cars with the new FIA technical directive (made public on Sunday but actually imparted to the teams before the cars began running) about fuel flow. Take your pick.
Fourteen seconds behind Vettel, Valtteri Bottas was a rock solid fourth for Williams, soaking up a lot of late pressure from Kimi Räikkönen’s standard-spec Ferrari, with Felipe Massa sixth, his weekend compromised by a crucial error in qualifying. Behind him were Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Carlos Sainz starred, qualifying the Toro Rosso fifth and even though it was a much less effective car on Sunday than Saturday, he made a last lap lunge on Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat that led to contact but gained him ninth place.
Fernando Alonso retired his McLaren with no rear brakes while Jenson Button in the misbehaving sister car finished 16th after enduring “the scariest 30 laps of my life”.
Hamilton was delivered to Barcelona on the crest of his wave and Ferrari arrived bursting with confidence about its major aero upgrades. They each had their bubbles pricked – Hamilton by team-mate Rosberg tuning in to a better balance, Ferrari by Mercedes appearing to increase its qualifying advantage. The head-scratching vagaries of the windy but very hot track played its part in the confusion of both Hamilton and Ferrari, huge variation in car traits from corner to corner, big changes in temperature and grip from one session to the next. How much of the deficits were real, pure performance, how much just the randomness of overheated tyres on one car and not another?
Rosberg secured pole by a comfortable 0.267sec over Hamilton and his calm resolve – after by his own admission getting his approach all wrong in Bahrain qualifying – came into its own in the confusion sewed by the track and the combination of a hard tyre that was probably too hard and a medium that was often beyond the upper end of its temperature working range.
Rosberg and his engineer Tony Ross recognised early that the key to this weekend was not going to be perfection. “To get the set up right it was more about getting the best possible average,” explained Nico, “because the track was so strange and variable that you were not going to get it right for all the corners. You just had to get it so it was sort of OK everywhere.”
They found that place on Friday morning and stayed there, give or take a few small tweaks. As Hamilton searched in vain for a set up that allowed him to lean on the rear end without it snapping out into time-consuming oversteer through the long duration corners, so Rosberg’s advantage remained stubbornly out of Hamilton’s reach.
Taking care this time to do a properly aggressive lap in Q2 to find his rhythm for Q3 (circumnavigating his Bahrain problem), either of Rosberg’s Q3 laps would have stood for pole. Even the second, set as the track temperature had risen by two degrees to 47deg C and its grip had fallen accordingly.
Around Barcelona’s long-duration corners, Hamilton freewheeling improvisation around chassis balance was never going to be enough, so he’d locked himself into an ultimately fruitless search for something closer to that ideal balance. “Nico’s generally not made many changes and he’s kept a balance,” Lewis pondered afterwards. “Most weekends that’s how it starts off for me. Driving style contributes to that as well.
“I just couldn’t lean on the rear without it moving a lot. So you try putting the mechanical balance forward but then you have understeer. It’s a real fine line, a lot of things you can change but you just keep arriving at the same point. One of those different ways will be right but I didn’t find it.”
The Mercedes had a new floor and associated tweaks to its front wing, but they were subtle in comparison to Ferrari’s radical upgrade, on which 70 per cent of the surfaces were said to be new, including totally different, more contoured, sidepods. So confident was the Scuderia about what the wind tunnel had told it that both Vettel and Räikkönen ran with it immediately.
There was dismay and confusion when on Friday they proved much further off the Mercedes pace than usual – and the decision was taken to switch Räikkönen’s car back to the previous spec for the rest of the weekend, to provide a back-to-back comparison. That did little to answer the conundrum in that both versions proved a long way off. Vettel qualified third almost 0.8sec adrift of Rosberg, while Räikkönen was further compromised by getting only one new tyre run in Q3, because his intended first set had been burned in the blankets. A poor, error-riddled lap on the new rubber – 0.4sec slower than he’d managed in Q2 when not really pushing – left him back in seventh. Räikkönen’s side of the garage does seem to suffer more technical issues than Vettel’s, just as it used to compared to Alonso’s side.
Rival teams were very interested to see if the latest technical directive regarding fuel flow would make any difference to Ferrari’s speed. The Scuderia was believed to have found a (legal) way of momentarily feeding into the injectors a flow rate greater than the maximum 100kg/hour supplied by the fuel flow meter. Creating a vacuum between the device and the injectors when on part-throttle might have made it possible to have the full flow supplied by the device when on full throttle plus whatever had been saved in the system between device and injectors when on part-throttle. The new directive specified that the flow must remain constant above a fuel flow rate of 90kg/hour, i.e. without sudden spikes.
Kimi’s problems left the way clear for Bottas to secure fourth in his Williams-Mercedes, just 0.2sec off Vettel, with a good tidy lap in a difficult, oversteery car. Williams had brought similar updates to Mercedes and had maintained its gap to the silver cars, while Ferrari had dropped back towards them. Team-mate Massa on his single new tyre Q3 run ran very wide at turn three, losing 0.8sec right there. He ended up ninth, 1.1sec adrift of Bottas.
The Toro Rossos were proving very well suited to the track. “It’s in slow speed corners we tend to suffer most,” pointed out Max Verstappen, “whereas here is more medium and high speed, which really suits our car.” But it was team-mate Sainz who proved this most decisively, with a great fifth-fastest time, just over 0.1sec faster than sixth-fastest Verstappen.
The related Red Bulls, with their new shorter noses reckoned to be worth as much as 0.7sec per lap, might have been faster than the Toros, but were never in a position to prove it. Engine problems continued to limit their running, with Ricciardo particularly badly affected. Kvyat out-qualified him for the first time with an eighth-fastest lap that was 2sec off pole. Ricciardo lined up 10th, struggling particularly in the final slow sector.
Grosjean – who in Q1 handed his Lotus over to Jolyon Palmer – was suffering with a tricky braking balance that resulted in his locking up into turn 10 in Q2, exactly as he’d done in the earlier practice session. It lost him 0.5sec – but even that probably wouldn’t have made the difference between graduating to Q3 at Kvyat’s expense and lining up as he did, in 11th. Even with this problem, he maintained his 100 per cent qualifying record over team-mate Pastor Maldonado, one place behind. Actually, it was probably better qualifying 11th/12th than in the lower reaches of the top 10 given that the extra set of new tyres it allowed (and being free to start on new rather than used rubber) was calculated to be worth 15sec over a race distance around here.
McLaren had made further small progress. Until reliability has been established Honda is unable to progress to its next stage of performance development, and it’s still losing whole chunks of time in the slow corners to its stuttering driveability. In the aero sections of the track however it was performing much better than the more powerful Saubers and Force Indias, allowing it to get both cars through to Q2 for the first time.
Button had been shaping up to once more out-qualify Alonso, but a problem with his front brake discs had the car pulling sharply to the left at turn one. “They got me to heat the brakes up in a different way for Q2,” he related, “but that just meant they were under-temperature for the first part of the lap and I was locking up everywhere. I’d rather just have had it pulling to the left in turn one!” This left him just over 0.1sec adrift of team-mate Alonso, who reported no particular problems.
The Saubers were oversteering beasts all weekend. Felipe Nasr qualified his 15th while Marcus Ericsson – who missed the first practice session to give a run to Raffaele Marciello – failed to clear the hurdle of Q1. But at least that was better than the gripless Force Indias of Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez directly behind. Three seconds adrift of the Force Indias, Will Stevens was again the quicker of the Manors, with Roberto Merhi at the back.
The long run simulations of practice had given tyre degradation rates that suggested the race would be delicately poised between two and three stops. The medium option tyre was the favoured one, around 0.8sec faster than the hard prime initially, the latter being good for maybe an extra five laps – not enough to buy it the earlier time loss to the medium. Everyone began the race on the white-striped softer tyre. The earlier haze in the sky had burnt off and the track temperature was up at around 45deg C by the 2.00pm race start – not quite as high as when the long runs had been conducted on Friday, suggesting that those figures may have been pessimistic and that two-stopping could turn out to be faster.
“It’s been a while coming, but finally I got a great start,” rejoiced Rosberg. It helped that the pole was on the grippier side and also that Hamilton’s start wasn’t good regardless. But Nico didn’t even need to take a defensive line as he led the snarling pack down the long drag into the first turn, the beginning of that trouble-inviting right-left-right sequence. Hamilton’s wheel-spinning Mercedes was instantly out-accelerated by Vettel’s Ferrari and Lewis was even forced to pass Bottas’ Williams around the outside of turn one to grind ahead through two and into three.
As he was accelerating through the gears Sainz briefly snagged the rev limiter and almost instantly Räikkönen and Verstappen dived ahead up to turn one. They, however, were being challenged by the rocket-starting Massa, who tried to go around the outside of the Ferrari through two, but found himself bundled out onto the kerb by Kimi, the Toro Rosso pair going around the Ferrari through three as he was slowed. Massa rejoined behind Kimi and ahead of Grosjean, Ricciardo, Alonso, Kvyat and Maldonado.
Räikkönen nailed Sainz up the inside of turn four and was aggressively onto Verstappen, side-by-side through the downhill hairpin of five and continuing from there to slip ahead at the bottom of the hill before they headed upwards to the blind apex of Campsa onto the back straight where the first of the DRS zones would come into play from lap three.
Maldonado was on the move, taking both Kvyat’s Red Bull and Alonso’s McLaren. Nasr was immediately ahead of Sauber team-mate Ericsson while Button’s McLaren had dropped like a stone, lying between the Force Indias of Pérez and Hülkenberg, as he could find virtually no traction. “It was bizarre,” he related. “I couldn’t even touch the throttle without it wheel-spinning like crazy. But worse than that, it felt like the front and the back of the car were just not connected. It was an unbelievably scary drive.”
1 N Rosberg Mercedes 1hr 41min 12.555sec
2 L Hamilton Mercedes +17.551sec
3 S Vettel Ferrari +45.342sec
4 V Bottas Williams +59.217sec
5 K Räikkönen Ferrari +60.002sec
6 F Massa Williams +81.314sec
7 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1 lap
8 R Grosjean Lotus +1 lap
9 C Sainz Toro Rosso +1 lap
10 D Kvyat Red Bull +1 lap
11 M Verstappen Toro Rosso +1 lap
12 F Nasr Sauber +1 lap
13 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
14 M Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
15 N Hülkenberg Force India +1 lap
16 J Button McLaren +1 lap
17 W Stevens Manor +3 laps
18 R Merhi Manor +4 laps
DNF P Maldonado Lotus
DNF F Alonso McLaren
As usual, the Circuit di Catalunya’s layout and the succession of medium- and high-speed bends of the first two sectors had the effect of quickly spreading the cars. Most of the direct wheel-to-wheel action was therefore in the hectic early laps. Maldonado used his Mercedes horsepower to drag by Ricciardo for 10th on the second lap, with Massa taking seventh from Sainz into turn one a lap later. The slow straightline speed of the Toro Rossos made them sitting ducks to the faster cars they had out-qualified and Massa was past Verstappen at the same place a lap later.
Just behind, Maldonado got his DRS flap open while slipstreaming team-mate Grosjean down to turn one. He dived for the inside, Romain tried to hang on but overdid it and was forced to take to the run-off area and its car-launching sleeping policemen. He rejoined from his shortcut still with Maldonado trying to pass and the two Lotuses touched slightly as Romain tried in vain to keep Pastor back. It’s suspected that this was what caused Maldonado’s right-rear wing endplate to collapse a lap later.
Structurally, the wing remained OK and Pastor pressed on, while Ricciardo took advantage of Grosjean’s slowed momentum to pass. Next time through Maldonado picked off Sainz who sat defenceless as Ricciardo and Grosjean followed through on successive laps, with Maldonado then picking off Verstappen to go seventh. That was as far up the order as Pastor would get as all the cars ahead of him now were pulling away.
Within these first 10 laps Rosberg had pulled himself over 7sec clear of Vettel around whom Hamilton could find no way by. “If you want to win this race you have to overtake Seb,” Pete Bonnington advised his charge Hamilton. “That’s not possible,” retorted the driver, after having hassled Vettel mercilessly for lap after lap, the Ferrari visibly less grippy, needing a lot more track width on the exits but still staying ahead. “You’ll have to think of another solution.” Mercedes began to wait for a gap in the traffic they could drop Hamilton into at the first opportunity, so as to undercut the Ferrari.
Coming up to lap 13 they’d pulled out enough time that he would be able to drop into clear space between Massa and Maldonado – and in he came. The stop itself was quick but the mechanic on the left-rear noticed that he had cross-threaded the wheel-nut. Remaining calm, he removed and refitted it – but it had cost a vital extra couple of seconds. Had he not spotted his error, the driven wheel would have likely bounced off down the pitlane Mark Webber-style and Hamilton would have been an instant retirement.
1 Lewis Hamilton 111
2 Nico Rosberg 91
3 Sebastian Vettel 80
4 Kimi Räikkönen 52
5 Valtteri Bottas 42
6 Felipe Massa 39
7 Daniel Ricciardo 25
8 Romain Grosjean 16
9 Felipe Nasr 14
10 Carlos Sainz 8
11 Max Verstappen 6
12 Nico Hülkenberg 6
13 Sergio Pérez 5
14 Marcus Ericsson 5
15 Daniil Kvyat 5
It was a high-stakes moment that was rescued with aplomb – though it meant that Ferrari could now bring Vettel in a lap later, almost certain to be able to remain ahead. That is exactly what happened, helped by Ferrari’s usual ace stop – Seb stationary for just 2.3sec. Both had rejoined on the fresh option tyres they had saved from Saturday.
Lap 13/14 was early but feasible for a two-stop as the tyre degradation rates were not proving as high as on Friday, and Ferrari intended sticking to this plan for Vettel. But with Hamilton now stuck once more on the Ferrari’s gearbox, unable to use the Merc’s superior pace, Mercedes planned to take the next available undercut opportunity – and this essentially confirmed Hamilton to now be on a three-stop.
Rosberg pitted from the lead at the end of the 15th lap and was underway on his new options after 2.5s. With Bottas having pitted then too, it left Räikkönen leading for a couple of laps. Massa had pitted from 5s behind Räikkönen on the 14th lap – too big a gap to make up given the good pace Kimi had maintained on his old tyres just prior to his stop. Ferrari fitted him with primes, ready for a long middle stint and an attacking final one. With all the leading group having now been in, Rosberg led the Vettel/Hamilton battle by 5.5sec, with Bottas, Räikkönen and Massa stretched out behind them.
The increasingly distant midfield pack was shuffled as the strategies diverged. Ricciardo replaced Maldonado at the head of it. Maldonado had pitted on lap 14 but was ordered back in a lap later by the race director, unhappy with the dangling rear wing endplate. This was removed and Pastor sent back on his way, but now way back and effectively out of it. He was later retired to save engine mileage.
The Toro Rossos, with their high wing settings, gutless engines and poor harvesting efficiency, were sure to be more competitive later in the race than when on high fuel loads. Now that they had both been passed by faster cars (with Ricciardo going past Verstappen as they each were on their in-laps) they were brought in early to get off the option tyres that seemed ill-suited to the car and onto the primes – Verstappen was brought in on lap 13, Sainz a lap later.
1 Mercedes 202
2 Ferrari 132
3 Williams 81
4 Red Bull 30
5 Sauber 19
6 Lotus 16
7 Toro Rosso 14
8 Force India 11
9 McLaren 0
10 Manor 0
Ricciardo came in on the 13th lap and was underway again on his fresh options. The closely following Grosjean stayed out a couple of laps longer and went quickly enough to leapfrog Verstappen but not Ricciardo. Romain gradually closed up on the Red Bull through the rest of the stint, but was much slower through the traction-dominated sector three and therefore slower onto the pit straight. He could never quite get himself into DRS range.
Alonso was finding the McLaren exceptionally easy on its tyres despite driving it very aggressively and he stayed out until lap 21. A few laps later he was out of rear brakes, slid straight on at turn one and made his way gingerly to the pits. As he pulled into the box area, there was simply not enough retardation from the front brakes only, especially once they locked. The front jack man reacted quickly to jump aside, though the car hit the jack itself before being wheeled into the garage to retire. A big portion of the 86,000-strong crowd groaned.
On lap 23 Kvyat made a DRS pass on Verstappen down to turn one, Max reacted late in defending but Daniil came through regardless, magnesium sparks flying. But his poor first lap had contributed to him now being 12sec and two places behind team-mate Ricciardo.
Button struggled on near the back in his totally gripless McLaren, something seriously amiss. The Force Indias – with Pérez as is often the case able to stop one less time than Hülkenberg and thus pulling away – were now well clear of the McLaren but trailing the Saubers. Only the Manors ran behind the McLaren, with Stevens having long ago passed the faster-starting Merhi.
Mercedes didn’t want to give Ferrari a chance of anticipating its second Hamilton stop and didn’t even wait until Lewis had got more than a pitstop’s worth of time over Räikkönen before bringing him in. It was marginal whether he’d get out ahead of the second Ferrari but it was felt that with his new tyres he’d be upon it and past within one lap. That indeed is how it panned out, Lewis stationary for a conservative 3.4sec as a set of hard tyres were fitted, exiting behind the now fourth-placed Ferrari but slipstreaming and DRS-ing it effortlessly into turn one at the end of his out-lap.
“There was no point responding,” answered Vettel to the question of why Ferrari didn’t match Hamilton’s three-stop. He was correct. Coming in a lap later, he would have lost position regardless, and from there Hamilton would be pulling away in a car that was just plain faster. It made more sense now for Vettel to stick with the two-stop plan. The only way Ferrari might have been able to foil Hamilton’s strategy would have been if it had anticipated the second stop – hence Merc’s eagerness to bring Hamilton in even before Räikkönen had been cleared.
Hamilton was now on a mission and the Mercedes was immediately getting the hard tyres working as Lewis sliced into Bottas’s third place, going by into turn one to begin lap 39. Vettel made his second stop a lap later and emerged 14sec behind Hamilton. Lewis needed to get that out to 22s to buy his extra stop – but that was easily achievable.
In Hamilton’s mind, he was now chasing Rosberg for the win. But in reality that was a lost cause. The time lost behind Vettel and the skewed strategy it imposed on him meant Nico’s advantage had snowballed. Rosberg peeled into the pits from the lead for his second and final stop on lap 45. Now leading, Hamilton pushed, maximum attack, going at a different rate to anyone else, before making his third stop on lap 51 and emerging 20sec behind his team-mate with just 15 laps to go. Although he was now on the faster options and Rosberg on the primes, that was an unbridgeable gap.
Mercedes could even afford to lose Rosberg some time in order to keep the divergent strategies of their two drivers out of each other’s way – as Toto Wolff explained: “As Lewis was building the gap he needed ahead of Sebastian in his third stint, we actually compromised Nico a little bit by leaving him out longer than optimum before his second stop. This made sure the two cars didn’t trip over each other on track, while running different strategies, and gave Lewis the clear air he needed to build the gap to secure P2.”
Could Hamilton have been left leading on his primes and not done the third stop? It would have entailed an unfeasibly long stint of 34 laps on tyres that had been pushed hard – and would have entailed Rosberg catching hand-over-fist on much faster tyres, which in turn would have enforced a wheel-to-wheel in-team battle and its attendant risks. It would also have been wholly unfair on Rosberg, who had dominated on merit right from the beginning of the weekend.
Bottas was driving a quietly excellent race, in fourth place not so far distant from Vettel. Räikkönen’s long middle stint on his primes did not work quite as well as in Bahrain and he rejoined on his new set of options 12sec behind the now prime-tyred Bottas with 25 laps to go. With that challenge thus defined, Kimi began lapping quickly. It was this combination of light fuel with fresh options that was responsible for the old-spec Ferrari doing a best lap 0.8sec faster than Vettel’s new-spec car. Seb was on the slower primes when his fuel load was light and had no need to be pushing, second long-gone, fourth comfortably behind.
Kimi was upon Valtteri with 10 laps to go. But it seemed as if getting there may have used the best of his tyres. He remained resolutely on it, keeping the pressure on the Williams and occasionally getting into DRS range, but never quite with the traction out of the final turn to get a good move going on it down the pit straight. Bottas, as he always is, was totally impervious to the pressure and remained line-perfect throughout.
Massa was unable to live with Räikkönen and, with a big gap behind him to the midfield, was converted to a three-stop, ditching his primes for a set of options on lap 47. He rejoined 20sec distant from the Bottas/Räikkönen battle but comfortably clear of Ricciardo who was still being closely pursued by the tenacious Grosjean, despite Romain having to nurse a failing fourth gear as he up-changed. Badly worn tyres and a slippery pit area had conspired to him taking down three of his pit crew at his second stop, luckily without serious injury. “I definitely owe them some beers,” he later surmised. The long resultant delay allowed Kvyat past briefly, Romain retaliating around the outside of turns two and three a lap after rejoining.
On their prime tyres the Toro Rossos had consolidated their positions during their middle stint. Verstappen was in on lap 38 for another set of them, while a little further back Sainz was able to extend his stint to lap 43. This allowed him the gamble of a switch to the options. In this final stint, the car was rather better suited to them than it had been in the first and soon Carlos was tracking down his team-mate, both of them closing on Kvyat/Grosjean. Sainz was helped by the blue flags falling awkwardly for Verstappen as the leaders had arrived to lap them.
With four laps to go Sainz slipstreamed past down the pitstraight and pulled himself closer to Kvyat’s ninth place Red Bull. With what was to be their final lap, Sainz pulled an aggressive move on Kvyat into turn one, turning across him from the outside after squeaking past with DRS. Daniil locked up and slid into the Toro Rosso, forcing it across the run-off area, from which it emerged still in front. The stewards, including Alan Jones, investigated the incident but found that no further action was required.
Hamilton had been reluctant to surrender into his final stint and chased an impossible dream until finally accepting reality a few laps from the end, turning everything down and cruising home 17.5sec behind the dominant Rosberg.
Vettel was in a resigned frame of mind post-race, accepting that third represented absolutely the maximum result possible on the day. But it was a much more distant third even than that of Melbourne and a long way from that of Bahrain. “I think we can improve our car,” he said, hopefully. “We’re still in the fight. There are some good steps coming.”
They thought that before this event, though…
Valtteri Bottas was fastest in Texas but is facing a five-place grid penalty for the race
The F1 grid has gotten creative this weekend but who has the best US Grand Prix helmet design?
Donington will host Hunt vs Lauda this weekend with the sons of the F1 champions going head-to-head
Formula 1 might not have always appreciated Indycar and its stars, but Liberty's keenness for success in the US – and Colton Herta's eye-catching performances – could be about to change that