ANALYSIS: Sealing the Deal Stateside

ANALYSIS: Sealing the Deal Stateside

A ninth win of the 2017 Grand Prix season from Lewis Hamilton and fifth place for Valtteri Bottas was enough to seal a fabulous fourth consecutive Formula One World Constructors' Championship for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It was Lewis's fifth win in the past six United States Grands Prix, as well as his fifth victory in the past six races.

Team principal Toto Wolff said: "Achieving the Constructors' title in Austin, three races early, feels really unbelievable. It is just reward for so many hardworking people. You always try to identify silver bullets that make the difference, but the fact is that we have really great dynamics in this team. We enjoy doing what we do and putting it all together."

At a circuit that Lewis revealed has emerged as his favourite on the entire F1 calendar, he turned in a fine 1:33.108 lap to claim his 72nd career pole, in the process setting a new record for front row starts in Grand Prix racing, surpassing Michael Schumacher's 116.

Behind him, arch rival Sebastian Vettel managed to overcome a problematic Friday, in which he needed a new chassis, to claim the other front row grid slot, 0.24s slower than Lewis. Less than a tenth of a second blanketed the next four drivers. Valtteri managed to annexe third, his 1:33.568 lap a hundredth of a second quicker than Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen, who set identical qualifying times down to the last thousandth of a second - 1:33.577. Ricciardo took the second row position through setting the time 14 seconds before Räikkönen. Max Verstappen was just 0.08s behind the second Ferrari but started 16th due to engine penalties.

In the first US GP since new Formula One owners Liberty Media took charge, there was a real party atmosphere with a host of celebrity figures from the sporting, entertainment and political arenas all present - many for the first time at an F1 event.

Prominent among them was Usain Bolt. The world's fastest man on two legs took the opportunity to be chauffeured around the 3.42 mile circuit by the world's fastest man on four wheels in a 510bhp Mercedes-AMG GT S. When Lewis turned off the traction control and hung out the rear end of the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 beast - with its 480lb ft of torque - all the way around the COTA track, Bolt was left almost speechless. "Jeez, I'm stressed, man..." was the comment after he had stepped out and partially regained his composure!

Part of the pre-race build up had well-known boxing MC Michael Buffer - he of 'Let's Get Ready To Rumble!' fame - introduce the drivers to an appreciative near-capacity crowd, setting the scene for the latest widely-anticipated Lewis vs. Vettel showdown.

When the lights changed it was the Ferrari that made the slightly better start, with Vettel able to go inside Lewis into the uphill Turn 1 and emerge in front, as Valtteri defended from a determined Ricciardo to make it a Mercedes 2-3 across the line at the end of the first lap.

The opening exchanges were interesting: Ferrari's problematic Asian leg of the Championship had prevented them from demonstrating the SF70's true potential but, finally, here was Vettel with a clear track in front of him. But, while there have been days in 2017 when the Ferrari had superior race pace, this wasn't one of them - despite conditions that conventional wisdom suggested may have played into Maranello's hands. These included a morning rain storm that potentially made the track more abrasive, allied to hotter track temperature likely to increase tyre degradation.

In fact, Mercedes engineers gave the lie to one of those myths: "It's an interesting thing with storms. They can make the track dirtier and, in slowing down the pace at the beginning of the race, it puts less energy into the tyres. The less sliding you have, the less wear you have. So, actually, in a race where the optimum strategy is very close between a one and two-stopper, as it was here, it can help you do a one-stop rather than force you into a two. In the old days the reason storms were a problem was that you got abrasion damage and tyre graining, but these tyres don't suffer from that."

Fears that Vettel might be able to open out a lead were allayed when Lewis came onto the radio and confirmed "the pace is good" and was just a second behind as they blasted over the line at the end of the fifth lap. Once the tyre temperatures stabilised, the team encouraged Lewis to have a go at passing the Ferrari, while suspecting that it might prove difficult and force them to plan a strategic way past. Lewis, though, with the aid of DRS, made a strong exit from Turn 11 on lap 6 and went down the inside of Vettel into T12 to relieve him of the lead.

Once through, Lewis began to ease away, his 0.88s advantage at the end of lap 6 out to 1.20s next time around, then 1.86s, 1.91s, 2.31s, 3.35s, 3.39s, 3.94s, 4.08s, 4.45s by the end of lap 15.

Team strategists, scheduling a one-stop race, had planned to get Lewis as far as lap 18 / 19 on his starting UltraSoft Pirellis in order to give him the range to complete the 56-lap race on a single set of Softs. Vettel, however, dived into the pits for the Soft compound Pirellis after just 16 laps which, the team thought, made a one-stop race for Ferrari very marginal. While losing ground to Lewis, Vettel had reported blistering his left-front tyre, something he may have been able to avoid had he not had his Friday long runs scuppered by his chassis problem and a subsequent spin.

Red Bull and Ricciardo, meanwhile, had gone for an aggressively early lap 12 pit stop onto the SuperSoft Pirelli - signifying a two-stop race - in an attempt to undercut Valtteri, who had defended robustly, in the switchback Sector 1 especially, to keep the Red Bull behind him. But the threat from the Australian was soon extinguished when he crawled to a halt on lap 15 with an engine problem.

The dicing with Ricciardo had left Valtteri with some car damage: "He dived inside, I tried to defend and he basically didn't leave me any space, so I had to go off the track. It was all OK, just close racing, but at some point I picked up damage to the floor - we don't know yet when it happened - but after the race we could see it. Maybe it was in the contact."

The team elected to pit Valtteri first, after 18 laps, to protect his position against Räikkönen, whose Ferrari was running just 2.5s behind and within undercut range. In doing so, this made it tight for Lewis to retain his lead when he pitted on the next lap, three laps later than Vettel.

"How did he get so close!?" Lewis asked over the radio.

Team strategists admitted that they could maybe have pitted a lap earlier but were also surprised by Vettel's speed profile early in his second stint. After a fast 'out' lap on Softs, his first flying lap was faster. If his second one had been the same, it would have been much more comfortable for Lewis. But that second flying lap was actually nearly half a second quicker again. The team were expecting  Lewis to rejoin with 1.0 - 1.5 seconds in hand, but in fact his margin was just 0.6s! The reason for extending his stint was to make sure that his second set of tyres were in as good a state as possible at the end of the race, with Ferrari now likely to convert to a two-stopper.

Max Verstappen was now leading, some 3s ahead of Lewis, the young Dutchman having gone further on his longer-range SuperSoft rubber, after started 16th with his engine penalties. Lewis, however, closed him down quickly on his new Softs and re-took the race lead on lap 23, having extended his margin over Vettel to 3s again.

From that point he was always in control, executing the planned one-stop race to perfection to beat Vettel's two-stopping Ferrari by 10s, to the great satisfaction of Toto, who paid tribute to his strategists.

"They are led by James Vowles at the track and we have a good group of people back at Brackley who have all the tools and the algorithms to support him in the decision-making process," he explained. "For a strategist to have the courage to take the right calls is not always easy because you are put on the line. He has been exceptional in making the right calls all year, with very, very few that were not perfect, and that is one of the strengths of the team."

Toto also had high praise for the man behind the wheel: "I've worked with Lewis for five years and I've never seen him operate at this level: the raw pace is spectacular and understanding the tyres and the ability of a car that can be difficult sometimes, is not easy. The sustained performance on that level, I haven't seen before."

When Verstappen made his first pit stop after 24 laps to go onto a set of Soft Pirellis, that put Valtteri back in third position, 5s behind Vettel's Ferrari and 3s ahead of Räikkönen's fourth-placed sister car, with Verstappen, on his fresh tyres, now 10s behind the second Ferrari.

By lap 36, with 20 to go, Lewis led by a comfortable 6.5s. But the next four cars were covered by just 5s, with Vettel 2.1s ahead of Valtteri, who had Räikkönen within DRS range and Verstappen within 2s of Kimi. At this point, Red Bull rolled the dice and brought in Verstappen for a second stop, swicthing onto the red-walled SuperSoft Pirelli. Ferrari covered him with Vettel on the following lap, the four-time Champion pitting out just 1.5s ahead of the Red Bull.

Neither Mercedes nor Ferrari had the chance to respond to Verstappen with their second cars because they would have pitted out behind the Red Bull, so both Bottas and Räikkönen were committed to the one-stop strategy.

On lap 42, though, Räikkönen forced his way past Valtteri down the inside of Turn 12 to take second place and, within another seven laps, Valtteri had his mirrors full of Vettel and Verstappen, both on the quicker SuperSoft tyre. There was little he could do to resist and was passed by Vettel with five laps to go and Verstappen on the next lap, whereupon Valtteri, with a huge gap behind to Ocon's Force India, pitted for a set of UltraSofts for the last four laps, only failing by a thousandth of a second to pip Vettel's fastest lap of the race.

"The pace in the second stint was pretty good," Valtteri said, "I just struggled a bit when I got closer to Sebastian. I was starting to slide in the high-speed corners running in the dirty air. Then I had to defend from Kimi and it was the same thing: to avoid him getting DRS on the back straight I had to push a bit harder than I wanted in the high-speed corners. That was taking life out of the tyres and I couldn't complete the one-stop. That was the main thing that ruined my race."

The 35 Championship points amassed by Lewis and Valtteri in Austin moved Mercedes onto 575 points and gave the team an unassailable 147-point margin over Scuderia Ferrari with three races remaining. Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene visited the Mercedes enclave post-race to shake hands and offer his congratulations.

In the Drivers' championship, Lewis extended his lead to 66 points and now needs just a fifth place or better in Mexico next weekend to clinch a Vettel / Alain Prost-equalling fourth world title. Ever the pragmatist though, Toto was taking nothing for granted: "This is motor racing. Sebastian had a DNF in Singapore, scored little in Sepang and had another DNF at Suzuka, so it's not done until you have mathematically achieved it!"

Roll on Mexico...

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