The last time Formula One cars raced in the US, Lewis Hamilton beat Fernando Alonso after a tense intra-McLaren shootout. As the series made a spectacular return to Uncle Sam’s shores, Hamilton again served up a brilliant triumph after a relentless pursuit and conquest of Sebastian Vettel which, with Alonso bringing his Ferrari home third, ensures that the world championship fight between the German and the Spaniard will go down to the wire in Brazil next weekend.
“That was wicked!” Hamilton told his team, and he was right. It was one of his best.
Before the start much was made about the state of the track on the left-hand even-numbered side of the grid, particularly by Hamilton who qualified second. Ferrari were so concerned, with Alonso due to start eighth, that they deliberately broke a seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox so that he would get a five-grid place penalty that would move Alonso to seventh, on the clean side.
The ploy worked to perfection. As Hamilton was overtaken by Mark Webber as they crested the rise to Turn One in Vettel’s wake, the Spaniard shot up to snatch fourth from Michael Schumacher, thus immediately placing himself in the lowest position he needed, assuming Vettel went on to win, to keep the title battle open until next week’s season-ender.
Vettel quickly opened a lead in his trademark style, but after one attempt to pass Webber proved fruitless as Hamilton ran wide, the McLaren driver overtook the Red Bull on the third lap. He and Vettel then started trading fastest laps, as Hamilton sliced a 2.7s lead to 2.1s. By lap 10 he was homing in on the German like a heat-seeking missile, but when he was informed of how he could use his DRS rear wing to best effect he snapped back over the radio, Raikkonen style: “Don’t talk to me when I’m in the DRS zone.”
They circulated nose to tail within a second of one another until the 17th lap when the gap opened again to 1.4s, but that was the lap when fortune favoured Alonso as Webber rolled to a halt with KERS failure on his Red Bull, promoting the Ferrari third.
Hamilton steadily lost ground as his medium-compound Pirelli tyres lost their edge before his pit stop, and Kimi Raikkonen began to move into the picture. The Finn, who won in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, had lost ground on the opening lap but fought back to catch and pass Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India for fifth place.
As Hamilton and Alonso pitted on the 20th lap they dropped behind the Lotus. Vettel stopped for his tyre change a lap later, but retained a narrow lead over Raikkonen until Hamilton forced his way back into second place by the 24th lap. Felipe Massa was also on the move in the second Ferrari, but when he made his tyre stop on the 26th lap he fell behind his team-mate, saving the team the trouble of making him move over.
With the race approaching the midpoint Vettel still led, but Hamilton was on the warpath again, cutting the Red Bull’s advantage to 1.5s. Button, who had started on the harder tyre and still had to make a stop, was third ahead of Alonso, with Daniel Ricciardo up to fifth for Toro Rosso with his stop yet to come. Raikkonen, like Alonso, had a relatively slow stop with a problematic wheel, but was recovering fast and passed Massa for sixth.
Traffic cost Hamilton a second on the 28th lap, but gradually he began to lower the deficit again. As Vettel had to lap Timo Glock’s Marussia on the 31st lap, it was his turn to lose time.
A flurry of fastest laps brought Hamilton right on to Vettel’s tail by the 34th lap as they crossed the finish line only six-tenths of a second apart, but Vettel hit back with a fastest lap of his own in the 35th to eke out a tiny increment. Hamilton was advised to save some KERS for the next lap, to renew his challenge.
Far from being the walkover for Vettel that many had feared after his speed all the way through practice, the first US GP since 2007 was proving to be a humdinger, a mano-a-mano fight just like that contest back at Indianapolis five years ago between Hamilton and his then McLaren team-mate Alonso. But Vettel’s advantage in the final sector of the lap continued to prove crucial.
Thirty seconds further back, Alonso was having an easy time in third, and it became easier still on the 39th lap as Massa forced his way by Raikkonen to ride shotgun. Button, having finally stopped on the 35th lap and taken on the medium-compound tyres, was flying. Having despatched Grosjean’s Lotus on the 39th lap, he too was moving up to threaten Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s relentless pressure finally paid off in dramatic fashion on the 42nd lap when he drafted Vettel down the back straight and finally squeezed ahead. But as he pulled away Vettel complained over the radio to his pit about the manner in which he had been overtaken. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that now the situation between him and Alonso in the title fight was down to 273 points to 260, rather than 280 to 260… For a guy who himself benefited from DRS and a large dose of luck in Abu Dhabi, that was disappointing.