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Team And Personal Triumph: Mercedes Doubles Up In Austin.

Mercedes have already nailed down the constructors championship in the 2019 Formula1 season, and it’s now a simple equation for one of the two Mercedes drivers. Finish from P9 or above and be crowned the 2019 drivers’ champion. Lewis Hamilton will claim that he focuses on winning the race and not the championship, but he knows too well why: to be the champion you must win the race.

Pole position is held by Valtteri Bottas and it’s fair to say that this was a run not seen by anyone except, perhaps, Bottas himself. The usually taciturn Finn was exuberant after the qualifying sessions, with a broad smile and some noises not normally heard from him.

The race starts was frantic, yet clean, with Hamilton starting from 5th and quickly into 4th. Bottas lead the pack away and behind him Alexander Albon and Carlos Sainz come close to impact. Albon rides the ripple strips and pits soon after. Daniel Ricciardo charges and would push both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc before passing Vettel, who told his garage his car was “understeering like crazy”.

Lap 4 and the wily Kimi Raikkinen is up to P11. That’s a great result so far considering he was virtually last on the grid for the start. Lando Norris is still watching his mirrors for “The Honey Badger” as Vettel’s car sorts itself out and begins to target the Australian. It’s lap 7. Albon’s on his way back but has his knuckles rapped for exceeding the track limits. Seconds later the talk about bumps potentially causing chassis damage comes true and it’s Vettel with a broken right rear. He’s calm on the radio and amazingly brings the stricken Ferrari to a stop, safely.

There’s superb recovery work and the race isn’t interrupted. Down in the mid pack is a fantastic track scrap between Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen, with the Russian finally getting away from Magnussen. Up front, and it’s Bottas sailing serenely away from the field and is 2.3 seconds ahead of Vertappen on lap 11. Three laps later and Red Bull pit Verstappen. Hard rubber goes on and he’s out in 4th. Mercedes respond, Bottas is and out and ahead of Verstappen but by a squeak. It’s Hamilton, Leclerc, Bottas, Verstappen. It takes nothing but a lap before that order changes and Leclerc’s run for the flag is done. It just isn’t on pace compared to Mercedes and Red Bull. But it’s better than Renault as he’s comfortably ahead of Ricciardo.

Lap 20, Norris comes in from P6, and Gasly follows him in. Hard tires seem to be the preferred compound, and that has worked out for Norris nicely who comes out ahead of his team mate. But Gasly loses a place to Sainz there, so the undercut did well for McLaren. Bottas is closing on Hamilton. Could there be a Mercedes win that isn’t Hamilton? Leclerc pits and a rear doesn’t go on cleanly. Surprisingly Ricciardo comes in relatively early and gets a change of rubber to re-enter in 7th. Lap 23 and Hamilton has his call to pit. He doesn’t. The result? Bottas takes the lead. A second result? Hamilton pits on lap 25…He immediately gets fired up, dragging 2.5 seconds off the leaders, and is very quickly told by the garage that they want to do only a one stop, not two for extra rubber wear…Hulkenberg now pits on lap 28.

It’s quiet at the rear of field. Robert Kubica has troubled no one all season and continues to do so before he retires on lap 31 with suspected hydraulic issues. Lance Stroll pits for the second time and it’s revealed there’s damage to his vehicle. Verstappen is slowing and his tires are starting to blister. Verstappen’s driven hard yet again and it’s showing. There is also traffic coming into play and Verstappen negotiates Magnussen for clean air. It’s good work for the Dutchman, and Red Bull get canny, calling him in for another swap. This is designed to give him a tilt for the win. But Mercedes respond, Bottas is back in and his fresh rubber will get him results. It’s game on for Mercedes as Bottas comes out ten seconds behind Hamilton.

Lap 38 and things are getting tense. Hamilton is coming up on the tail-enders, including Stroll, Giovinazzi and Magnussen, slowing his pace, and meanwhile, Albon dives down the inside of Ricciardo into Turn 12 to take fifth. Quite the recovery drive going in here from the Red Bull driver. That freight train of traffic has hurt Hamilton as Verstappen takes a full second of lap time from him.

Lap 41 and there’s still track-space squabbling between Kvyat and Hulkenberg. They’re not touching but they’re not advancing either. Albon has overdriven his Pirellis and has to go for new rubber. It’s hard work he must do again. Lando Norris has been showing class and lap 44 sees the young McLaren driver also pit for a second swap. Albon has come back with a vengeance and is picking off driver after driver.

Ten laps left and it’s just 2.5 seconds between Hamilton and Bottas. The Finn has his game face on and is keen to make a move. Albon sees Ricciardo, with the Australian on old rubber, and passes him with ease. five laps and Hamilton’s rubber is giving up, forcing the Briton into defensive mode. Botats changes and Hamilton shrugs the shoulders, forcing Bottas wide. It’s all to no avail as Bottas takes advantage of better rubber and the DRS zone to pass. This has Hamilton now having to balance his rubber and Max Verstappen behind him.

It’s not Formula 1 without closing laps drama and Magnussen duly steps up, beaching his car and bringing out local yellows. The knock on effect has Pierre Gasly radioing something has broken and he retires. Kvyat and Perez skirmish with Kvyat getting another post-race penalty. It’s Bottas for the win, Hamilton for 2nd and his sixth world championship. “I can’t believe it,” he says tearfully over the radio. Bottas:”It’s a nice win, feels good. It was the only thing I could focus on this week, obviously it wasn’t enough and Lewis has the title… Big congrats to him. He deserves it, he had a strong season.”

Hamilton again: “My Dad told me when I was six or seven years old never to give up, it’s the family motto. I don’t know about Championships, but as an athlete I feel fresh as can be right now. I’m ready for the next race, we’ll keep pushing.” He has six championships. Is this a declaration of war for a seventh?
Behind the pair is Verstappen in 3rd. he’s happy with this but says: “It was a good race, it was fun. We had good pace today. The yellow flag on the back straight – otherwise I think we could have been second today.”

Leclerc waves the Ferrari flag for 4th, and Albon has been the driver of the day, fighting back to 5th ahead of Ricciardo. 7th and 8th is the resurgent McLarens of Norris and Sainz. Hulkenberg and Perez round off the points scorers, with Raikkonen unlucky to be shut out for 11th. A five second penalty for the tap between Kvyat and Perez is why the Russian sees his second penalty in a row, and he’s 12th. Stroll, Antonio Giovinnazi, and Grosjean finish the field.

There’s time off before the teams head south for the Brazil F1 GP over the weekend of November 15 to 17, with the final round of Abu Dhabi to follow a fortnight after that.

 

 

 

 

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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