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HAMILTON TAKES 3RD TITLE IN SOGGY, SENSATIONAL AUSTIN

Originally published in the December issue of DRIVENWORLD and January issue of SEMPRE FERRARI

Jim Hunter

November 15, 2015

As I staked claim to my camera position just inside The Circuit of The Americas pit lane, I could not help but notice weariness in the drivers’ eyes. Indeed, it had been a long weekend.   The rain came as predicted, and came it did. Although the extended heavy downpours energized my efforts, it was clear that the more sensible were ready to get this one over with.

The deluge that washed out Friday and Saturday afternoon sessions carried into Sunday morning and intensified still, such to bring cancellation to the 3rd and final session of re-scheduled Qualifying. It was only now, scantly an hour before the lights would go out, that the rain slowed to an occasional, relatively imperceptible spit.

And as those who endured might have hoped for the unpredictability of a wet race, the visibly drying track probably felt sadly ironic.   Little might have many considered that as nothing sweeps as clean as an F1 car at speed, so too nothing extracts invisible moisture from deeply soaked asphalt.

So, as the lights went out and the grid rushed up the hill into the first corner, that deeply soaked asphalt, that rain, would still have a say in the absolutely sensational 45th running of the United States Grand Prix.

. . . at least the weather was nice for load-in and setup . . .

The F1 circus arrived in Austin for the 16th round of the 2015 Championship from Russia, where Mercedes claimed their second consecutive Constructor’s Title. Largely a formality, the clincher came on Kimi Räikkönen’s questionable penalty for his failed last lap attempt to overtake Williams driver Valtteri Bottas for the third step of the Sochi podium. The points demotion eliminated Ferrari from contention with four rounds remaining, although hardly a disappointment given that no one expected Maranello to even figure in the title to begin with.

Austin would potentially provide the crowning stage for Lewis Hamilton’s third World Driving Title.   Merely another mathematical formality, there was at least some intrigue in the fact that this could be the first USGP to crown a world champion Niki Lauda wrapped up his Ferrari career at Watkins Glen in 1977.

Thursday’s foreboding sky . . .

2015 has been many things, but it has certainly been an encouraging year for those who bleed Ferrari red. Asked before the race his thoughts on how he and Ferrari would run against Hamilton next year, Seb replied, “Well I hope that its not a bit closer, I hope that we are ahead, so that’s the target. I’m pretty sure that he (Lewis) wouldn’t be very happy with it, but that’s the name of the game and we’re pushing very hard.”

Seb: pushing very hard

Vettel will obviously benefit with more input into the 2016 car. “No secret, a lot more . . . you don’t join the team until you join the team . . . so yeah there was obviously a lot of decisions already taken, but I think the season we’ve had so far has been phenomenal.”

Räikkönen:  Unflappable

Räikkönen faced harsh criticism for Sochi, but in his characteristic unflappable manner that has endeared so many fans worldwide, he dismissed the matter in Austin. “It’s an unfortunate thing but it’s a part of racing. You get penalized sometimes, sometimes not. We are here to race; it’s pointless to cry afterwards. I’m sure that people like it more like that than just following each other.”

Austin’s USGP would also host the first American F1 driver since Californian Scott Speed. Alexander Rossi, another California native, had previously logged Friday test duties for Caterham in 2013’s USGP, but was back now as a race driver.

Considering how his presence might grow F1’s audience in America, Rossi remarked, “Its been a very positive reception . . . people are starting to pay attention but it’s a long process and not something that’s going to change overnight. We saw what Lance was able to do in cycling and when he started to dominate the sport everyone wanted to pay attention and we’ve seen the same thing with soccer. It just takes someone promoting the sport from within to their home nation, and if they’re successful . . .”

Rossi in wet Friday practice

Hamilton and Rossi’s stories, however, looked to be eclipsed by the weather and to no one’s surprise, Friday morning’s FP1 commenced in wet conditions. The session ran complete, but with little activity. With more weather coming, only a few sets of allocated tires, and the meat of the weekend still to play for, the resulting lack of cars on track re-iterated a central problem with today’s over-bearing regulations.

FP2: the extent of the action . . .

F1 needs more cars on track, but less there would be as heavier rain moved in for FP2. Tried as they might to keep the session live, it was eventually called once conditions prevented the medical helicopter from taking off.

Hulkenberg: one of the first to dive in

 

Captain Perez sails FP3’s high seas . . .

Saturday morning’s FP3 did run under slightly lighter rainfall, but before empty stands as CoTA delayed opening the gates until Noon.  Spectators patiently braved the conditions, only to then be denied any on-track action as Quali was called after four half –hour delays and rescheduled to Sunday morning.   To Bernie’s credit, he opened the pit lane to those fans who had seen nothing but rain. The drivers graciously signed autographs and posed for photographs, managing to partially brighten what had otherwise been a very dark and frustrating day.

Sunday’s more promising forecast proved optimistic as Qualifying came early under more dark skies and heavy rainfall. Once again, the conditions grew bad enough to abbreviate the session and Q2 set the grid.   As strong winds soon moved in and pushed the rain away, it was clear the Grand Prix would be a guessing game.

Hamilton pushes Rosberg into turn 1

Pole sitter Rosberg had a poor start, which allowed his championship rival teammate Hamilton to draw alongside on the climb up to Turn 1. Whether Lewis miscalculated the available grip or acted intentionally, he shoved Nico over the outside curbing and onto the slick, painted run-off.   Hamilton shot down the hill into the lead, while Rosberg floundered to rejoin in fourth. Close behind, Massa lost the back end of his Williams, spinning his former teammate Alonso and leaving the Spaniard pointing the wrong way with a left rear puncture. Pity for Fernando as he’d made another stellar start.

Alonso’s misfortune benefitted Ferrari. Both drivers made notable starts after having been relegated down the grid with engine change penalties.   Within half a lap they were mid-field and already in the points.

Ferrari: Early advance through the field

Everyone started on intermediates, thinking the switch to slicks would come far sooner than it did. Bottas, taking a page from Kimi’s Silverstone playbook, was one of the first to bite but that decision proved dreadful.

Those who persevered ran close through the top ten and provided for some exciting racing. The jousting for position was frequent, serious, and seriously entertaining.

Verstappen: Determined drive would give Kimi fits . . .

The plot thickened, however, as the intermediates began to tatter on a track that just would not dry out. Although it looked dry, the cars were drawing moisture from below the surface, especially on the long, high speed run to Turn 12. The leaders were tasked with preserving their tires while maintaining competitive pace, and this was no easy task. Further, a significant number of minor incidents and attrition resulted in safety car periods that helped keep the field tight throughout the race.

Räikkönen and Kvyat both found themselves in the barriers. Kimi managed to extract his SF15-T’s snag on an advertising billboard in off-road rally fashion, but the damage was bad enough to force his retirement. Kvyat’s rather hard contact with the inside Armco exiting Turn 19 resulted in a lengthy, marshal-assisted extraction. This gifted Hamilton a chance to pit from the lead for fresh rubber.

Hamilton, who had not pitted on the prior VSC and was now struggling on well-worn tires, could not have been luckier. Rosberg, who had pitted, was flying having just overtaken Vettel for second. With a dozen plus laps remaining, the race was looking to fall to Nico. However, the safety car not only allowed Hamilton to change tires, but also placed him right behind and well within touch of Rosberg with less than ten laps remaining.

Thus the Title stage was set, and consistent with the manner this tense intra-team fight has played out before, Nico made a critical error on exit to Turn 15, handing the lead, and Championship, to his teammate. Lewis swept past Rosberg’s wayward Mercedes around the tower turns 16-18.  It was a fantastic Grand Prix; perhaps the best CoTA has delivered yet.

Third time’s the charm . . .

Hamilton came home with his 2nd consecutive and 4th USGP win in 5 starts (the first, Indy 2007). His victory assured Lewis his 2nd consecutive and 3rd World Driving Title. The controversial star of modern F1 was visibly moved, his faithful supporters ecstatic. Rosberg, who initially congratulated his opponent, grew less charitable through the post race media routine–no doubt he had had enough.

Nico in parc fermé: beside himself

Vettel secured the third and final step of the podium with another display of heads-up race craft. The fresh engine didn’t hurt, either, and more than paid dividends for the investment it required on the grid.

And although both 2015 titles were now decided in Mercedes favor, the mood at Ferrari was not of defeat but instead upbeat with anticipation. 2016 should be a very exciting season for those who dream red.

It is cruelly ironic that CoTA soon decried the wet weekend to be a financial disaster, only to face heavier, more damaging rains a week later. Since his ouster, Tavo Hellmund’s noble endeavor has descended into chaos, and the fate of the USGP now appears subject to storms of the political variety in the halls of Texas legislature.

Should this exciting race prove to be the last USGP held in Austin, the real losers would not be the scheming moneymen, but US F1 fans.   Hopefully common sense will prevail and The Circuit of The Americas will somehow remain a fixture on the F1 calendar, and if it does . . . you owe it to yourself to get there.

Boots maybe for walkin’ but hopefully not away from CoTA

You can view the entire library of images from Austin HERE

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