USA GP: Bottas Wins The Battle, Loses The War Against Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas win the title and race for Mercedes in the 2019 Formula 1 season.
  • After a phenomenal qualifying effort, Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas led from the start and drove an error-free race from lights to flag.
  • Hamilton had managed to qualify only in 5th place, behind teammate and championship rival, Valtteri Bottas, who was on pole.
  • The only way Valtteri Bottas could remain in the championship fight was by winning the United States Grand Prix on Sunday.

In the drivers’ parade of the 2019 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Lewis Hamilton said, “I’m looking to try to win this race somehow. That’s all I’m focussed on. I’m just going to go out there and give it all I can.”

While all of Formula 1 was focussed on Hamilton clinching his historic 6th World Championship, the Mercedes driver was focussed on maximising his chances of a race win. After all, he managed to qualify only in 5th place — three tenths off his teammate and championship rival, Valtteri Bottas, who was on pole.

Formula 1 was ready for Hamilton’s coronation in Austin. They had reserved a parking spot for the ‘2019 Formula 1 World Champion’ under the podium, a move that prompted fans on social media to wonder if everyone was jumping the gun. Firstly, Formula 1 can’t be faulted in preparing for the historic moment — after all, the odds were heavily skewed in favour of Hamilton. While Bottas needed to win to keep his championship hopes alive, Hamilton could have finished as low as ninth (plus score one point for the fastest lap) to clinch this year’s title. Secondly, Formula 1 did what every top sports league in the world would do — be prepared for even the slightest of chances of history being made. In fact, one can’t imagine the backlash Formula 1 would have faced had they underprepared.

Bottas’ grit

The only way Bottas could remain in the championship fight was by winning the race. After a phenomenal qualifying effort, the Finn led from the start and drove an error-free race from lights to flag. His first challenge for the race win came when Red Bull Racing decided to pit Max Verstappen (who ran second) early in an attempt to undercut Bottas.

Mercedes were quick to react, bringing Bottas in too, and managed to thwart the challenge. However, this move put Bottas in a spot. Like Verstappen, he too was committed to two-stopper in the race.

Why Same Day Qualifying & Race Won’t Work

After Verstappen-Bottas pitted, Hamilton led the race and decided to go longer on his race-starting set of medium tyres. The intention was clear, he wanted to win the race on a one-stopper, while his rivals had decided to stop twice. There was a crucial point in Hamilton’s race strategy where it seemed that the team-driver were a bit clueless on what to do. In typical Hamilton fashion, the newly crowned World Champion decided to ignore his team’s orders to pit and stayed out for at least two more laps than planned.

Hamilton ignores team strategy, again

Nico Hulkenberg, who may not be a part of the Formula 1 grid in 2020, ran the hard tyre for 27 laps. On the other hand, Hamilton’s strategy meant that he was required to run them for 32 laps. “Has anyone else made these tyres last as long?” radioed Hamilton to his race engineer Pete Bonnington.

It was only a week ago in the 2019 Mexico Grand Prix were Hamilton was able to eke out more life from his hard tyres than his rivals. However, the conditions and the hard compound tyre were different in the USA. Bonnington, who returned to his role a race earlier than planned (possibly to be present for his star driver’s coronation), informed Hamilton that the team was concerned of his tyre life. He explained that there was an option to pit again and fight for second place.

In that case, had Hamilton pitted for the second time, he would’ve found himself behind Verstappen, attacking for 2nd place. However, Hamilton and Mercedes did well to stick to their plans of a one-stopper and instead defend Verstappen’s advances, if they came. As with the race lead, Bottas charged into Hamilton’s lead on a fresh set of medium tyres (after his second stop) and managed to overtake him after a couple of attempts. In the end, Mercedes converted a 1-5 at the start to a 1-2 at the finish — the team’s ninth 1-2 finish of the season.

Red Bull go racing

Verstappen and Alexander Albon finished 3rd and 5th respectively, registering Red Bull Racing’s best finish since the summer break. Verstappen, in particular, had an incident-free race and missed pole position by less than a tenth. Starting from 3rd, the young Dutchman made a good start to jump Vettel at the exit of Turn 1, but from there, the Red Bulls were unable to challenge the pace of the Mercedes cars. Albon got tangled with Carlos Sainz Jr at the start and suffered from early race damage before fighting his way back to finish 5th, but over a minute behind Verstappen.

Max Verstappen To Mclaren-Mercedes In F1 2021?

As Red Bull Racing still evaluate a teammate for Verstappen for 2020, Albon’s performances may see him as the favourite for the seat. The Thai-British racer has had a few crashes since his promotion to Red Bull Racing, but he’s always managed to find himself in his usual finishing position (the bottom of the top-6 drivers or thereabouts) by the chequered flag.

In fact, Albon’s worst finish in the seven races after the summer break has been 6th place. Lastly, Albon managed to jump Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz Jr in the Drivers’ Championship.

Kvyat torpedos again

Daniil Kvyat, the other Red Bull Racing hopeful, was knocked out of the points for the second consecutive race thanks to a post-race penalty for a questionable move on the last lap. This time, the victim was Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who drove a fantastic race from the pit-lane to the points (10th). Perez’s penalty from Friday’s Free Practice, where he missed the FIA’s call to drive into the weigh bridge, will be one of the many legacy penalties that the sport has promised to look into to avoid Friday infractions from spoiling a driver’s chance in the race.

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo battled with the McLarens all race long to claim 6th place. At the start of the race, Ricciardo and Norris managed to find themselves past the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel with much ease.

Despite starting 2nd, Vettel found himself going reverse through the order with every passing lap. The German driver complained of massive understeer on his pit-to-car radio before eventually retiring from the race due to a suspension failure. Vettel’s failure was strange because he had no contact with other drivers (yes, that can be rare sometimes) nor did he ride any of the sausage kerbs — so was it the bumpy surface of the Circuit of the Americas that impacted his Ferrari? Either way, Ferrari were way off in their race pace, despite being only 12 thousandths off Bottas’ pole time.

Ferrari were nowhere

Charles Leclerc drove an isolated and unchallenged race to finish in 4th place — nearly a minute behind Bottas. The general belief being that Ferrari had to tune their engines differently after the FIA’s clarification on the interpretation of the regulations. Since Spa, Ferrari have been unmatched in straight-line speed and Leclerc used this advantage to hold off Hamilton in Monza. However in the 2019 United States Grand Prix, neither Ferrari could defend position, in the straights or in the corners.

Was this due to the FIA’s clarification? Or were Ferrari running lower power modes to extend engine life as the end of the season nears? Or did Ferrari use higher engine modes in the previous races only to be caught out in Austin? Leclerc’s power unit did have an oil leak in the earlier sessions, forcing him to switch to an earlier spec for the rest of the weekend. Mattia Binotto confirmed post-race that Ferrari chose to run higher downforce in Austin, a setup decision that helped them in the corners but cost them straight-line speed.

As we wait for the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, all eyes will be on Ferrari as answers will be sought on their sudden loss of pace. However, Verstappen was quick to offer his judgment on Ferrari’s situation when he told Zippo TV, the official broadcaster in the Netherlands, “You get that when you stop cheating.”

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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