Lewis Hamilton ignites F1 title fightback with comfortable USGP victory

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Lewis Hamilton began his fightback in the race for the 2016 Formula 1 drivers’ championship by dominating proceedings in the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas on Sunday.

Hamilton arrived at the Circuit of The Americas without a grand prix victory since the end of July, a run that allowed Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to move into a 33-point lead at the top of the championship standings.

Hamilton took pole position on Saturday ahead of Rosberg, and managed to convert the result into a comfortable victory on Sunday, his fifth in the United States.

Rosberg bounced back from a poor start to finish second, ensuring that the title can still be won with three second-place finishes to round out the season.

Race starts had been a key point of focus for Hamilton after setbacks in Japan and Italy, and the extra attention paid off as he made a seamless getaway from pole. Rosberg’s start was hardly slow, but the decision to take the racing line and follow Hamilton allowed Daniel Ricciardo to dive up the inside and take second place, completing the move through the esses.

Further back, Nico Hulkenberg’s impressive Austin weekend came to an early end after contact with both Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas, leaving his Force India with damage. Bottas was also forced to pit, having sustained a puncture.

With his title rival sitting third, Hamilton got his head down in a bid to open up a gap over Ricciardo in second place. However, with the Red Bull driver starting on the fastest super-soft tire, the soft-shod Hamilton could not pull clear as he may have hoped, the gap remaining stable at just over a second through the early part of the race.

Red Bull opted to bring Ricciardo in at the end of lap eight, with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen following suit. Their stops lifted Rosberg up into second and Max Verstappen into third, the three leading drivers now running on the soft tires.

Verstappen opted to go against the grain of his predicted tire strategy, coming in just one lap later for another set of soft tires to leave Mercedes with a strategic headache. Rosberg was told to “push hard” as Mercedes went for the long-game, only for the German to tell his team: “Pushing hard isn’t the long game!”

The ‘long game’ didn’t relate to the first stint though: Rosberg came in one lap after Ricciardo and fitted the medium tire, leaving him for an extended run before his second stop. Rosberg returned to the track behind Ricciardo once again and only narrowly ahead of Raikkonen, with Hamilton coming out ahead of the trio one lap later, now on the soft tire.

As the only driver in the field on mediums, Rosberg was told that the race would “come back to him” later on; the compound did little to help him in the short term, though. While he managed to gain a little bit of time on Ricciardo in second, he now had Verstappen closing from behind after the Dutchman made light work of Raikkonen during the latest chapter of their season-long rivalry.

Hamilton’s lead over Ricciardo stood at five seconds after 20 laps with the second round of stops looming, while Rosberg still found himself sandwiched between the Red Bulls. Verstappen managed to close right up on the back of the German, with Red Bull telling him to make sure he could complete the move so that he didn’t lose time in dirty air. “I’m not here to finish fourth,” was his deadpan reply. The message did hit home, though, as Verstappen duly dropped back to conserve his tires, giving Rosberg breathing room once again.

Ricciardo came in at the end of lap 26 for a set of mediums, acting to cover off Raikkonen and, once again, place pressure on Rosberg and Mercedes in the battle for second. Verstappen came in soon after, only to lose heaps of time after a mix up between the driver and the team that meant the crew wasn’t ready to service his car. A short wait followed as Red Bull hurried out more medium tires before sending Verstappen on his way, dropping him back to seventh on-track.

Things went from bad to worse for Verstappen a couple of laps later when his car began to slow along the back straight after losing power coming out of Turn 11. He quickly radioed Red Bull to inform them of a possible engine failure, saying something was “knocking” against the engine, but was unable to get his car back to the pits and decided to abandon his car at Turn 18. With marshals pushing Verstappen’s car out of danger, a Virtual Safety Car was called.

Mercedes took advantage of the VSC to double-stack Hamilton and Rosberg in the pits, handing them time over the cars that had already come in. Hamilton emerged on the medium tire still leading, while Rosberg now found himself sitting second after leapfrogging Ricciardo; Red Bull’s ploy to out-strategize Mercedes had hit a brick wall. Ricciardo vented his frustration over the radio, saying: “That is so f****d” after realizing Rosberg was ahead after a free pit stop. Red Bull told the Australian to get his head down and focus on catching the Mercedes driver.

Ferrari looked to bring Kimi Raikkonen into the mix for a podium finish with an aggressive three-stop strategy, only for the Finn to struggle through the middle stint. A pit stop on lap 39 went awry when Ferrari failed to attach one of the tires properly, forcing Raikkonen to stop at pit exit. The Finn used the incline at Turn 1 to roll back down the hill and into the pit lane in the hope of Ferrari rescuing his car, but the team was nowhere to be found. An 11-race run of points had come to a somewhat bizarre end.

Up front, Hamilton found himself with no-one to race. Rosberg was around 10 seconds back, keeping an eye on Ricciardo, who was a further six behind, leaving the main on-track battles to play out in the midfield. Carlos Sainz Jr. had been the main beneficiary of Verstappen and Raikkonen’s retirements, moving up to fifth, but had Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso for close company. Further down the order, Romain Grosjean had risen to 10th for Haas, running as the American team’s sole remaining driver afte an early retirement for Esteban Gutierrez.

Rosberg was able to whittle Hamilton’s lead down to five in the closing stages as the Briton eased his pace, but it remained good enough to clinch his seventh victory of the season and cut the gap in the drivers’ championship down to 26 points.

After three previous wins at COTA and another in 2007 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the result marked Hamilton’s fifth USGP victory, drawing him level with Michael Schumacher for all-time wins on American soil.

Rosberg was left to settle for second, although the result would have offered some relief given his lead in the championship and given Ricciardo’s pass at the start. The disgruntled Red Bull driver crossed the line third, frustrated to have lost the chance to fight for P2 thanks – inadvertently – to where his teammate had parked his car. Vettel crossed the line a lonely fourth for Ferrari, 14 seconds off Ricciardo.

Fernando Alonso returned to the points with McLaren in fifth despite late contact with Massa, the two bumping wheels. Both were able to continue, with Alonso claiming Massa had shut the door on him. The contact resulted in a puncture for Massa, forcing him to pit on the penultimate lap and drop back to seventh. Alonso made a late pass to take P5 from Sainz, who matched his season-best result in sixth for Toro Rosso.

Sergio Perez wound up eighth despite contact with Daniil Kvyat on the first lap, ensuring Force India remained ahead of Williams in the drivers’ championship, while Jenson Button was ninth in the second McLaren after a rising from 19th on the grid.

Grosjean gave Haas some home-race joy by finishing 10th, scoring the team’s first point since the Austrian Grand Prix at the beginning of July. NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas may have held higher hopes for his F1 operation’s first appearance on home soil, but it marked progress regardless.

Kevin Magnussen made a three-stop strategy work well to battle his way up to 11th late on despite a run-in with Kvyat, who was left 12th at the checkered flag. Jolyon Palmer came home 13th in the second Renault ahead of Marcus Ericsson, who briefly neared the points for Sauber before falling back to 14th. Teammate Felipe Nasr was 15th after passing Valtteri Bottas late on. Manor drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon were the last classified finishers in 17th and 18th respectively.