AUSTIN, Texas – From his first pole position at Circuit of The Americas, and in his adopted second home, Lewis Hamilton has perhaps his best – and last – chance to ignite his bid for a third consecutive FIA Formula 1 World Championship.
A win today in Austin would close the gap to his Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate, Nico Rosberg, by at least seven points (from 33 to 26) even if Rosberg were to finish second.
A win too, if it occurs, could also be the needed shot in the arm to save his season on the whole after myriad mechanical woes and mistakes have resigned him to this position in the first place.
It’s funny to consider a year when Hamilton has won six races as a disappointment, but to this point, it is. He’s won 49 career races, with 21 of them (11 in 2014, 10 in 2015) coming in the last two years before this one. And that’s what makes six this year seem fewer by comparison.
All six of them came in an eight-race stretch from Monaco on Memorial Day weekend, through Germany to end the first half of the season prior to the summer break.
Even the six-pack of wins hasn’t all been straightforward. Monaco was perhaps a lucky first triumph of the season after Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull team threw away a near certain victory by not being ready with tires for a pit stop. Then, in Austria, Hamilton clashed with Rosberg and came out ahead only just from their bout.
But on the whole, it’s been frustration rather than glory that has defined the season.
Starts have been a perpetual struggle, most recently and notably last time out in Suzuka, when Hamilton fell to eighth from second on the grid by the first corner. He also lost his edge on the start in Monza, too, from pole. Hamilton has addressed this concern in noting he’d been to the factories in Brackley and Brixworth, and have sought to address the procedure.
Then there have been the mechanical woes. Power unit issues in qualifying have left him starting from the rear of the field, needing a comeback in a couple races (China, Baku and Spa come to mind). Then there was the near-catastrophic in-race failure in Malaysia that cost him an extra 15 points to Rosberg. So Hamilton’s lost out at several opportunities this year through no fault of his own.
But Hamilton comes to Austin knowing this is his turf, given his past history racing in the country and his own affinity for visiting here as frequently as he does on off weekends away from the paddock.
Start first with his strike rate. In five past U.S. Grands Prix, he’s won four of them, and gives him an 80 percent hit rate with a single win at Indianapolis in 2007 – when he was then a 22-year-old rookie with McLaren – to his three at COTA. For good measure, he added last year’s World Championship title at Austin.
He has five wins at both Canada and Hungary, but in both instances, those two races have been on the calendar longer. The U.S. is one of three countries – his home country of Britain and China being the others – where Hamilton has four wins.
Then add how he won here the last three times. You might remember if you’ve seen the movie American Psycho, that before Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman character unleashes fury on an unsuspecting victim, that he extolls the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News, as then their hit “Hip to Be Square” plays in the background.
Bateman offers the pre-murderous soliloquy: “I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip to Be Square’, a song so catchy, most people don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.”
And then Bateman proceeds to drop the hammer. That’s what’s Hamilton’s done at Austin in racing terminology here: he’s made the race “Lewis and the Blues” for anyone that isn’t him.
He left Rosberg (2014 and 2015) and Sebastian Vettel (2012) utterly vanquished with great passing maneuvers to win. Rosberg was so deflated last year, it was all he could do afterwards to throw a cap back at Hamilton.
Then there’s the magnitude of his pole lap on Saturday, which at 1:34.999 was simply magical.
And somewhat surprisingly, not even as good as it could have been.
Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton that after his first sector, he was thrilled, but he couldn’t afford to let up.
“It definitely (felt that good); particularly the first sector. It was like butter,” Hamilton explained. “It wasn’t spectacular after that though! It was hold on to what I already gained. At Turn 11, I started decreasing my advantage. But at Turn 16, it went up, extraordinarily. I saw the time shift up.
“You can often see the time on TV when you cross the line, and it’s horrible after being first and you’re second. To see my name go back up there was a great feeling.”
Hamilton also hailed the crowd at his back, who has largely come to love him in the U.S. – even despite the odd hater or two.
“I feel amazing. It’s my first pole here,” he said in the post-qualifying press conference.
“It’s been many years of trying and a lot of people who’ve helped me get that. For us, I want to say a big thanks to the crowd. I could hear them cheering. The energy on the slow down lap was much appreciated.
“We’ve worked hard the last couple weeks. It’s a great feeling to be back up here. I’ll do the best I can tomorrow.
“I have had some incredible support from friends, family and the crowd. Been practicing the starts all weekend. Now we have to execute.”
Finally, there are the mental mind games at play.
Hamilton, who has three World Championships already and essentially nothing to lose, still could psychologically beat Rosberg to go along with beating him on track.
Rosberg, who continues to downplay the “championship” word at every opportunity, still has to prove he won’t crack as potential champion-in-waiting.
And their approach to the start and Turn 1 tomorrow is fascinating.
“Nevertheless, qualifying isn’t all-important. From P2, we still have a good chance tomorrow,” Rosberg said.
“I’ve shown in the past you don’t need to be first off the line or into the first corner to win this race,” Hamilton countered.
After his tough weekend in Suzuka, Hamilton looks like back to the title-winning Hamilton form-wise this weekend.
He’s riding high in the media with his Ellen appearance, Call of Duty call-up and his banter with reporters the last few days, appearing in a much more spirited mood in the weekend’s press conferences. On-track, he picked the perfect weekend to be back on form.
Hamilton may be the underdog in the points tables heading into today’s race. But couldn’t be in a better grid position or a better venue to turn the tables on Rosberg, if he can win today.