Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen threw his age, contract limitations and current form aside to win a riveting U.S. Grand Prix, in the process spoiling Lewis Hamilton’s opportunity to clinch the World’s Drivers Championship title at the Circuit of the Americas.
Kimi Raikkonen profited from Mercedes’ decision to pit Hamilton twice ending a barren spell of 113 races without a win. It was Raikkonen’s first victory since the start of 2013 driving for Lotus and his first win for Ferrari since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton simply needed to outscore title rival Sebastian Vettel by eight points to secure the title, but the mix of Mercedes and Ferrari counter race strategies and scintillating performances by Raikkonen and Max Verstappen ahead of the Brit proved insurmountable, leaving him third at the finish.
The run-up to the race focused on Vettel’s remaining mathematical chances in the championship hunt. However, within a few corners of the start, Vettel spun out on the opening lap trying to pass Daniel Ricciardo, dropping the German back in 15th place. He spent every second of the races’ remaining laps battling back to fourth place in the hopes that Hamilton’s bid would fall short.
Regardless of the championship title fight scenarios, the U.S. Grand Prix still produced one of the most exciting races of this season. Despite three drivers battling three different race strategies in three different chassis, the top three were split by just 2.3-seconds at the flag.
Following Vettel was Valtteri Bottas who was unable to hold back the charging German. Two laps from the finish Bottas gave up fourth place to the German when he ran wide into Turn 12 – it was just enough to keep Vettel’s title hopes alive going into Mexico in one week. Sixth and seventh places went to Renault teammates, Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz. Esteban Ocon grabbed eighth place in the hopes that it would push Williams to accept his 2019 Contract bid. Keven Magnussen took ninth with Ocon’s Force India teammate Sergio Perez taking the last championship point.
However, shortly after the race, the stewards announced both Ocon and Magnussen had breached FIA regulations. The stewards studied telemetry data and declared that Ocon’s car had exceeded the fuel mass flow limit of 100kg/hr on the opening lap of the race.
They also discovered Magnussen used more than the maximum 105kg of fuel allowed during the race. Both were excluded. That moved Sergio Perez into eighth place, followed by Brendon Hartley, rising from eleventh place to ninth, and Marcus Ericsson moving into tenth.
Wet weather tyres were all that could used in both Friday’s practice sessions at Austin as persistent rain drenched the area. One unexpected result from FP1 was a three-place grid penalty for Sebastian Vettel failing to slow down enough under red-flag conditions in after Charles Leclerc spun in Turn 9. Saturday’s P3 was thankfully dry with Sebastian Vettel leading team-mate Kimi Raikkonen as Ferrari made the most of the dry running – Sebastian Vettel led Raikkonen by only 0.046s – and title rival Lewis Hamilton by just 0.073s.
Qualifying reverted to its regular lineup after Q3 with two exceptions. Kimi Raikkonen occupied the front row with pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, and Max Verstappen would be starting 18th due to his breaking a right rear upright and drive shaft after whacking one of a series of newly enhanced kerbs on the exit of Turn 15. Vettel would start fifth.
Due to Friday’s rains, every team would start the Grand Prix without informed knowledge of how far a fresh set of soft tyres could go, not to mention how far they could go to make it to the end of the race. That would prove a pivotable factor of the race.
Raikkonen, starting on ultrasoft tyres won the drag race to the top of the first corner from Hamilton. It proved to be an omen since this was the first race where Raikkonen had gained a position on an opening lap since the final race of 2016. Just behind, Vettel gained no positions off the line but immediately went after Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. He nearly took the position in Turn 12 but ran wide allowing Ricciardo to counter-attack. In his response, Vettel lost the rear of his car and spun. From then on he was fighting to not only come back through the fields, ala Suzuki, but was now in grave danger of losing the championship to Hamilton. Ricciardo, for his trouble, pulled off track with dead electrics on Lap 11, triggering a VSC.
Under the instruction of “do the opposite to Raikkonen”, Hamilton pitted under the VSC on Lap 11 for a new set of supersoft tyres, being the only man to take advantage of the safety car period, and only dropping him to third, behind Bottas Vettel elected to stay out. Within the space of seven laps, Hamilton was back on the tail of Raikkonen and on fresher tyres, seemingly suggesting he had lost nothing from the pit stop and was now on newer rubber. Raikkonen held off the Brit for three critical laps and then pitted on Lap 21.
However, there were consequences.
First, Hamilton had pushed hard to get back on the rear of the Ferrari which had taken a lot of life out of his tyres. With his rear tyres blistering, Hamilton pitted a second time on Lap 37. Second, Mercedes hadn’t counted on Max Verstappen. The Dutchman – starting on the hardest available tyre – had moved from 18th to fourth in the opening 22 laps on a set of soft tyres. On his second stop, he took on a set of super-softs. When Hamilton came in on Lap 37, Verstappen was more than happy to move up to second place, where he would stay until the end, thanks to an incredible 34-lap tyre-conservation stint.
Hamilton rejoined 8.8-seconds off the lead, and critically 6.7-seconds from Verstappen. With Vettel in fifth place, Hamilton had only to pass Verstappen to shut out Vettel for the championship.
As Verstappen closed on Raikkonen, Hamilton closed on the Dutchman – the top three closed up to be separated by just 2.5 seconds with five laps to go.
On lap 54 of 56, Verstappen went too deep into Turn 12 and opened the door to Hamilton. The pair were side-by-side-by-side for most of the third sector, but Verstappen held his track position at Turn 17 which put Hamilton slightly wide for the turn and very wide at Turn 18. Verstappen held on, retaining second place to the flag, just 1.281-seconds behind Raikkonen.
Vettel heaped more hurt on Hamilton when he passed Bottas into Turn 12, taking fourth place and keeping the championship fight alive into Mexico in seven days.