Driver insight: United States Grand Prix

by Karun Chandhok on 24th October 2017

Karun's solution to the late penalty drama at Austin, with insight into Hamilton's blistering qualifying form and Hartley's debut

What a fairly dramatic and mad weekend it’s been. We had wet weather starting off on Friday and lots of stories in the paddock with Brendon Hartley making his debut, Carlos Sainz at Renault, and the possibility of Lewis Hamilton winning the World Championship. Then, there was a whole new format to the weekend which really shook things up in terms of grid positions for the teams, and of course the fans and broadcasters on Sunday morning. Ultimately, the biggest story has got to be the one on track, so let’s start there.

Mixed messages on penalties

Unlike my normal columns, we’re going to skip the guys in first and second and go straight to the debate for third place because Max Verstappen pulled off an amazing overtaking move on the final lap with two corners to go on Kimi Räikkönen. Obviously, he got a penalty and if you look at it as an individual case, Max had all four wheels over the white lines when he passed Kimi and that deserves a penalty – that’s a slam dunk – there’s no debate about that. 

Where the debate and the issue lies is that there were several other instances during the race where drivers left the track and overtook and they weren’t penalised: Bottas in Turn 1, Sainz on the Force India as well. Technically Sainz left the track to set himself up for that move. Then there are also things through qualifying: at Turn 19 they all went off-track and at Turn 9, the left-hander at the top of the hill, they’re all driving off track.

Fundamentally, if you’re going to turn a blind eye to these sort of things then you have to do it across the board; you can’t selectively penalise people, and I think that's where the issue is. 

I don’t have an issue with Max himself being penalised but then you’ve got to penalise everybody. If you’re not going to penalise any of those people then in Max’s head, the precedent has been set through the weekend that you’re allowed to have all four wheels out of the white line, and therefore he made that move. So it’s a very mixed message that’s being sent out to the drivers. 

For years we’ve banged on about these track limits, I absolutely hate it. I think we should have five or five and a half metres of real grass on the edge of the circuit. I think you should have the track, the white line, a bit of the kerb, and then five or five and a half metres of real grass or gravel as a deterrent. And therefore, we wouldn't have these debates and discussions. If Max then chooses to put two wheels on the grass to pass Kimi that’s a risk he's willing to take, and if he does it it’s a spectacular overtaking move, like in the old days. I think there’s a fundamental issue here which is larger than just what happened this weekend. 

Going forward, I would like to see clear consistency applied across the board when issuing penalties because I think there are too many grey areas here and I thought it was wrong that drivers weren’t penalised for Turn 19. In FP3, Lewis set a purple sector three, which is the fastest sector three of anybody, by driving way off into the run-off area in Turn 19, which is ridiculous really. 

So, I think that’s where this issue lies. It’s a bigger problem to resolve because obviously, the circuits have invested a lot of money over the past few years putting in these tarmac run-offs. That's not cheap to do – putting in high-grip asphalt across the board – but it's really time that somebody took a stand with the FIA and said, ‘right we need to deal with this, it’s creating more problems than it's resolving and it does need to get sorted’. 

Hamilton strengthens his hold

Hamilton was in imperious form this weekend. Right from Friday morning, he looked like he was just so hooked up to the circuit and when it came to Q3 he was just on such another level. 

I spoke to some people at Mercedes just to try and understand what’s going on there because since the summer break there’s been a clear shift, in that Lewis has gone so far ahead of Valtteri, particularly in the qualifying performances, but even in the races. I was struggling to understand why.

Fundamentally I think this year's Mercedes has been a tricky car to drive, but at Mercedes, they're saying that Lewis has arrived with a much more cerebral attitude. He’s really thinking about how he gets the car prepared for the qualifying laps. He's not just thinking about the lap itself but the prep lap, making sure that every individual corner of the car is in the right temperature window with the tyres and the brakes. That approach isn't just for the first corner of the qualifying lap but Lewis is making sure he’s got tyres available to attack the final sector of the lap, and I think this whole mental approach to making sure that the tyres and the car are in the right zone is really paying dividends for him – he's unquestionably the king of qualifying at the moment. 

Daniel Ricciardo did a good job in qualifying to get himself within half a second and if you look at it in the lap time comparisons, they do lose a good five or six tenths in straight line speed so once again the Red Bull had very good pace around here and it’s a shame the engine problem put him out of contention. Sebastian Vettel also did a good job of getting himself on the front row. Ferrari had a tough Friday, had to change the chassis overnight which isn’t a small job, but he managed to dig it out and get himself on the front row. 

Max showed that, until that whole little battle towards the end, he had dragged himself up from the back of the grid to within 12 seconds of Lewis, and that just showed once again that he and Red Bull had great race pace, as they had in Japan and in Malaysia. Really, I wish that they were able to dig it out when it came to qualifying. That's on Renault more than on Red Bull, at the moment. 

Two promising debuts

Carlos Sainz Jr had an absolutely stellar debut with his new team. I think they were surprised he settled in so quickly, even he was surprised, frankly. I spent a bit of time with him and his dad on the weekend and he was really happy with the environment and said the people in the team really welcomed Carlos well, and have a high amount of respect for him. And Sainz delivered. 

It fully justified the move that Cyril Abiteboul and Alain Prost made at Renault to drop Jolyon and bring Sainz in. They needed a guy who’s going to score points in the second car. Carlos has done it straight off the bat. Maybe he could have caught Ocon but I think ultimately the Force India was just a bit too quick, particularly in a straight line. The Mercedes power unit lets you crank up the power and they used the energy saving in strategic ways to make sure that they’ve got enough power to pull away down the start-finish straight or the back straight with DRS so I thought that Carlos really never had a chance to get him there.

Brendon Hartley also made his Grand Prix debut. It’s a tall order to make your debut having never driven a current generation F1 car. I know from driving one of these cars earlier this year that they’re quite different in terms of engine characteristics and the complexities of getting the tyres in the right window. They’re very, very complex cars and I think he did a very respectable job. With every set of new tyres that they gave him, he found big chunks of lap time. 

Although, Kvyat also raised his game. It’s almost that he recognised that he had one last chance to fight for his Formula 1 career and he delivered a really strong weekend, probably one of the strongest we’ve seen from him. He gave Red Bull and Helmut Marko a slightly complicated headache: what do they do?

Should they have looked at the short-term view which then would have kept Kvyat in the seat alongside Gasly for the Malaysian Grand Prix, or should they have taken the long-term view and said ‘Kvyat, has he peaked? He’s plateaued, he’s had two or three years at it, we’ve sort of sacked him two or three times but he’s resurrected himself but Brendon Hartley is going to be on a massive upward learning curve and getting better and better, so could he be more of a long-term solution?' 

There’s a tricky debate going on there for what Toro Rosso want. For the team, keeping Hartley and Gasly will be difficult to create a benchmark because effectively it’s two rookies, so again it’s tricky as a short term or long term view. So I think there were a few debates going on there and I don’t think it was an easy problem for them to solve because Hartley did a good job this weekend. It’s very short hop off to Mexico, so I have a couple of days here in Austin and then I'll see you all next week from Mexico.

More from Karun Chandhok

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