For the two Mercedes drivers, the United States Grand Prix was a race that hinged on timing. Trailing the championship battle, Lewis Hamilton took a timely victory in Austin, notching the fiftieth win of his career. Equally timely was teammate Nico Rosberg’s second place finish, which minimized the damage on his still sizable title lead. The Mercedes one-two finish was consolidated by a Virtual Safety Car deployment at the most opportune time for the Silver Arrows, when both Hamilton and Rosberg effectively took a free pit stop under the circumstances.
One year ago, Hamilton clinched his third drivers’ championship in Circuit of the Americas while this year, the most he could do was inch his way a few points up towards Rosberg’s current spot at the top of the standings. In a must-win race, Hamilton delivered with a perfect start from pole position and a clean drive to the checkered flag. Unlike earlier this month in Malaysia, his Mercedes power unit saw him through the finish and didn’t burst in flames.
Hamilton was able to dictate the pace from up front, neutralizing a fast-starting Daniel Ricciardo, who was on the super-soft tire compound from the beginning, whereas the two Mercedes were both on the soft compound. From the very beginning, it was expected to be a tire strategy race. This mix-up of tire compounds among the front runners added delightful intrigue to the race, allowing viewers to try thinking along with team strategists and engineers in the pits. At least this thinking game pipped up the excitement for the geekier F1 fans like me.
Ricciardo’s grippier tires allowed him a faster start from third on the grid, easily overtaking Rosberg at Turn One. To be fair, Rosberg had a championship lead to protect and smartly kept his nose clean by offering almost no resistance—he knew that the best car on the field could reel in a Red Bull later in the race. But Ricciardo had track position early thanks to his strategy, so while Red Bull played aggressive, Rosberg would settle for a conservative first stint.
Meanwhile, the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen also started on super-softs and gained track position at the start. Through his first stint, Raikkonen kept to Rosberg’s tail before peeling into the pits at the same time as Ricciardo in an effort to shadow Red Bull’s strategy. Two laps later, Rosberg pitted to switch on to the medium-compound, committing to his “long game” strategy. So far, so good after the first round of stops.
The race-changing moment came courtesy of Max Verstappen’s engine breaking down at the race’s halfway mark. The Red Bull driver pulled off sensibly near a marshal post but the car just couldn’t be moved safely away without having to use a crane, which necessitated the crucial Virtual Safety Car deployment that played into the hands of both Mercedes drivers. Incidentally, this may have cost Verstappen’s teammate Ricciardo a potential second place finish. From second, Ricciardo pitted on Lap 26 to put on medium tires while Rosberg stayed out to inherit second place. So when the VSC was deployed, Mercedes freely double-stacked their drivers in the pits without losing position, switching both Rosberg and Hamilton onto medium tires to run until the end. Ricciardo was left hung to dry and he was not pleased.
From then on, the top three maintained their positions to the checkered flag but there was still some drama left behind them. Raikkonen came in for an odd third stop—nobody else intended to run a three-stopper. Coming out of the pits, the Finn abruptly stopped his car because a wheel had not been properly fastened. It was an utter disaster for Raikkonen, whose race was forced into retirement by his own pit crew. This is just another familiar episode of the Ferrari team looking bewildered in a faltering campaign.
The final five laps showcased Fernando Alonso’s brilliance as he danced his way to a fifth place finish, pushing past Felipe Massa and yee-hawing through Carlos Sainz in the race’s best scrap. He may not have won the official fan-voted Driver of the Day recognition but on the tenth anniversary of his second world championship win, the Spaniard was phenomenal. His McLaren teammate Jenson Button turned in a quietly effective performance by finishing ninth after starting from eighteenth. Another double-points-scoring finish allows McLaren to more easily shake off the disappointment in Japan two weeks ago.
Staying within the continent, F1 heads a little ways southwest from Texas into the thin air of Mexico City for the Mexican Grand Prix this upcoming weekend. I tell you what, it’s a long straight leading up to Turn One of the Autodromo de Hermanos Rodriguez and things could get dicey at the start. Hamilton will be on attack mode but Rosberg, just like he always does, will be playing the long game. One title-winning scenario for Rosberg in Mexico is that he wins the race and Hamilton does not score a point. It’s a scenario that is highly unlikely but definitely not impossible. All is up for grabs in Mexico City next weekend.