There were three winners of the United States Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton, Red Bull (who took the Constructors’ Championship for a third successive year) and the race itself.
At a time when F1 needed to re-establish itself in the USA, the $400 million investment by Circuit of The Americas paid off with a superb weekend topped by a race-long battle between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. By finished second, Vettel extended his lead of the championship – but only by three points as Fernando Alonso, not for the first time this season, produced something from nothing to finish third after starting from seventh on the grid.
Pole belonged – no surprise – to Vettel as his Red Bull mastered this immensely challenging circuit, the defending champion becoming the first driver this season to be quickest in all three free practice sessions and qualifying.
But it had been clear that he would not have it his own way when, from the moment practice opened on a ‘green’ and dusty track, Hamilton’s extrovert, edgy performance showed he was going to have one of those weekends where he was at one with his McLaren and absolutely determined to sign off from McLaren with a win or two.
Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the car and the track worried Vettel and Red Bull just as much as it heartened Alonso as he struggled to make the Ferrari work and close down the 10-point gap to Vettel.
Ferrari’s efforts to throw everything at the championship saw the production of a new floor and rear wing – parts that didn’t work as well as the bits they replaced and which remained on Felipe Massa’s car. Proof came when Massa qualified ahead of his team-mate but Ferrari then used the rule book to their advantage by deliberately breaking the seals on Massa’s gearbox and taking a five grid penalty. This had the advantage of not only elevating Alonso one place but also moving him to the cleaner side of the track. Given the less competitive state of the Ferrari, Alonso said his best chance was to make ground early on – which is exactly what he did, coming through in fourth place at the end of the first lap.
Ahead were the Red Bulls, Mark Webber having jumped Hamilton at the start to slot in behind his team-mate. It took Hamilton just four laps to deal with Webber and put himself in position for an intense race-long battle with Vettel.
Proof that the FIA have found the right recipe for DRS came when, time and again, Hamilton couldn’t quite make the pass despite being in the DRS zone that allowed him to open the rear wing on the McLaren. In this game of cat and mouse, Vettel’s undoing came on lap 42 when he caught Narain Karthikeyan for the second time. Unfortunately for Vettel, this came through Turns 3 – 7, a fast sequence where race director Charlie Whiting had previously agreed backmarkers had no option but to stick to the racing line. By the time the HRT had moved over in Turn 8, Hamilton was right with the Red Bull and in the perfect position to make the move on the main straight.
The crowd were on their feet, loving every minute of this race and the presence of F1 in the USA after a break of five years. There was plenty of action elsewhere in the field, most notably Kimi Raikkonen taking Nico Hulkenberg with a brave and audacious run round the outside through the very fast downhill Turn 2. This would be for seventh place, Jenson Button having worked his way through from 12th on the grid and Massa having the race of the season as he took fourth. Everyone had moved up a place when Webber was one of just two retirements, the Red Bull stopping with alternator failure. Again.
“That’s a worry for us,“ admitted Vettel as he thought about the final round of the championship next weekend in Brazil and how the championship could turn on the smallest detail. Vettel now leads by 13 points. Had Hamilton not won, Vettel’s advantage would have been 20 points – a much healthier margin when you have a predator such as Alonso on your tail. But, on this memorable day in the USA, Hamilton was not to be denied.
One race to go and all to play for. What a season!
By Maurice Hamilton