It’s going down to the wire between the Mercedes drivers in Abu Dhabi. That much we do know after Lewis Hamilton scored an emphatic victory in a race that, for the previous 24 hours in Austin, Nico Rosberg looked set to win. And he needed to if he was to stop Hamilton’s slow but sure advance on the title.
Having won the previous four races, Hamilton was on a roll. Rosberg seemed to answer the question of whether he was up to fighting back when he smashed Hamilton in qualifying in Austin. Not only that, he looked confident and happy; capable of finishing the job on Sunday.
That seemed to be the case when Rosberg got away cleanly and led Hamilton into the first corner. There was a setback not long after when Sergio Perez got his braking wrong in the Force India at the end of the back straight, bounced off Kimi Räikkonen’s Ferrari and took out Adrian Sutil – a desperate disappointment for the Sauber driver and the financially-strapped team after starting in the top ten for the first time in 2014. With debris scattered everywhere, the Safety Car was required for four laps.
At the restart, Rosberg simply picked up where he had left off and had his team-mate under control. Each time Hamilton would go faster in sectors one and two, Rosberg pulled the time back in sector three. The gap remained about two seconds until the first of two pit stops just before one-third distance in the 56-lap race. Then it appeared to go wrong for Rosberg as both Mercedes switched to the Medium tyre, having started on the Soft.
After the race, team principal Toto Wolff said Rosberg appeared to have been ‘too conservative’ with these tyres. Gradually, Hamilton reduced the gap, got himself into the DRS zone (less than a second behind) and pulled off a brutal but clinical move at the end of the 200mph back straight. Coming from a long way back – far enough to lure Rosberg into not closing the door – Hamilton braked super late, got alongside and scrabbled through the left-hander, Rosberg having to take to the exit kerb. Job done.
Now it was Hamilton parrying every personal-best sector time set by Rosberg before and after the second pit stop. It was a fairly dejected Rosberg who took to the podium for the post-race interview with Mario Andretti.
Having spoken to the Mercedes drivers, the 1978 World Champion took time to show his obvious pleasure, not so much in seeing Daniel Ricciardo on the podium but in admiring how he got there. In truth, the Red Bull driver had stolen third place from the Williams drivers after Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas had occupied the second row of the grid.
“It didn’t start well at all,” said Ricciardo. “My launch [from fifth on the grid] was pretty dismal. It was my fault; I was a bit keen on the throttle, lost four places, recovered well got [Kevin] Magnussen and then Fernando [Alonso] on the re-start.”
In fact, the move on the Ferrari driver was a classic feint right and then a dive left into the first corner, a manoeuvre that is becoming a Ricciardo trademark. That done, he jumped both Williams drivers by coming in first in successive pit stop routines.
Despite another powerful performance extracting more than expected from the Red Bull, Ricciardo has dropped from the mathematical equation for the championship. That is now the domain of Rosberg and Hamilton and will run to the final round in Abu Dhabi, regardless of what happens next weekend in Brazil.
In the meantime, Hamilton’s fifth win in succession, his 10th of the season and 32nd career victory, makes him the most successful British driver ever. After the US Grand Prix, he appears to have one hand on his second world championship trophy. Rosberg did all he could but, on the evidence of this race, the German appeared to have no answers when the serious questions were asked on Sunday afternoon in Texas.