He should have won in Singapore, he should have won in Abu Dhabi, but finally Lewis Hamilton claimed his fourth victory of the season in the United States of America to set up a one race showdown between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso in Brazil.
The main talking point prior to the race was Ferrari’s decision to break the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox. Crucially this elevated Fernando Alonso to the clean side of the grid in seventh place and dropping Massa down to eleventh. Was it sporting and ethical? Perhaps not. But if it’s written in the rulebooks, then it’s a cunning tactic, particularly as it ultimately paid off.
Massa wasn’t thrilled with the penalty, but accepted it for the good of the team. “When I was told I was dropping five places, I can’t say I was jumping for joy, but I accepted it to help the team and my team-mate: I don’t think many drivers would have done the same, but I am an honest person and will always do my utmost for my team”.
The start was a fairly tame affair as despite minor contact at Turn 1 and a couple of drivers running wide at Turn 2, everyone made it through the first lap without significant damage. Crucially, Fernando Alonso made the best start, climbing from seventh to fourth by the second corner. As expected, Hamilton lost a position to Mark Webber, but was comfortably ahead of fourth placed Alonso, who was being dropped at a rapid rate.
Hamilton passed Webber on Lap 4 and soon set about hunting down Vettel, with the duo setting similar lap times. Hamilton closed to within DRS range but on Lap 16, his times began to drop off rapidly. McLaren elected to pit Hamilton on Lap 20, with Vettel coming in on the following tour. The yet to pit Kimi Raikkonen got between the pair, allowing Vettel to pull another couple of seconds on his main rival.
Alonso was stabilising the gap to Webber, when the Australian suddenly slowed approaching Turn 12. It was yet another alternator failure for Renault – their eighth this season – and a problem that will concern Red Bull, especially considering the French manufacturer believed the issue had been fixed.
There was action further back in the field as fifth placed starter Michael Schumacher tumbled down the order. In the opening laps, Schumacher was around three seconds slower than race leader Vettel, which allowed Alonso to pull a comfortable buffer on the rest of the midfield. Schumacher eventually pitted early, which resulted in the German having to make a second stop. Mercedes managed the impressive feat of struggling to get their tyres up to temperature and subsequently eating them up simultaneously.
Hamilton dispatched of Raikkonen within a few laps, while the Finn was coming under increasing threat from Felipe Massa, who was flying in the other Ferrari. Alonso suffered a slow stop, giving Lotus hope of feeding Raikkonen back on track in front of the championship contender. However, Raikkonen also lost time in the pits.
Jenson Button was now a serious contender for the top four spots, having started from twelfth place on the prime tyre. He pitted on Lap 35 and dropped back in behind Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman had lost time after spinning early on in the race and was swiftly passed by Button on Lap 37.
Up front it was still a game of cat and mouse. Hamilton was faster than Vettel in Sector One, but never close enough into Turn 12 to challenge his rival, even with the assistance of DRS. The roles were reversed in Sector 3, enabling Vettel to edge further ahead by the time another lap was completed.
The move seemed inevitable as Hamilton inched closer to an overtake on Lap 40 and 41, although it was a familiar foe of Vettel who allowed the Brit to make the move.
Prior to the race, team principals had voiced their concern about the sequence of corners between Turn 2 and Turn 9, citing a lack of space for backmarkers to move over. The situation reared its head in practice, when Sergio Perez clattered into Charles Pic. On Lap 42, Vettel caught Narain Karthikeyan through the Esses, with the result being that Hamilton was now latched onto the back of Vettel’s RB8.
Vettel moved to the left on the approach to Turn 12 and then jinked a little to right. It was slightly aggressive, but Hamilton had enough straight line speed to see off the Red Bull and snatch the lead of the Grand Prix. Hamilton knew that he had to take his chance on Lap 42.
“When Seb [Vettel] was delayed by a backmarker, I knew I had to grab my chance, so I turned the engine up to maximum revs and pushed like crazy. Along the back-straight I went to the outside, but Seb closed the door, so I moved to the inside, and he came back towards me. I was very lucky. It was very close”.
Vettel appeared to angrily bemoan the use of DRS to his team via the radio, but he clarified his comments after the race.
“I wasn't too happy [to] send a nice big invitation to Lewis when I obviously had to go through Karthikeyan…”
“It [the radio message] was not targeted at Lewis, it was more targeted at the backmarker which, as I said, gave a nice big envelope with an invitation to Lewis”.
“I tried to defend, I moved to the inside but I knew that he would have so much more speed that he can pick either side, so it didn't really matter what I was doing and after that, I was obviously not too happy, because on all the laps before I tried to manage the gap to him, tried to manage the tyres until the end of the race, to be able to attack towards the last couple of laps. We had, I think, something like 20 laps, 15 laps to go at the time”.
Hamilton didn’t pull away from Vettel, but the McLaren’s pace through Sector One was sufficient enough for Hamilton to stay out of DRS range for the remainder of the race.
Behind the squabbling leading pair, Alonso was thirty seconds down but contented in third place. Massa was now up to fourth, while Button had battled with Raikkonen to taken fifth place. The two world champions fought side-by-side through Turn 12, before the Finn relented and accepted sixth place.
Grosjean might have beaten Raikkonen had he not spun, but the French driver still fought back to seventh, ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna. Maldonado overtook Senna with a couple of laps to go into Turn 1, with Senna not fighting too hard for the sake of the team.
Further back, brake issues hindered Sergio Perez on his way to eleventh, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian rose to 5th place by stopping late, but his tactic ultimately failed to pay dividends. Nico Rosberg had a dismal race as he managed only thirteenth, ahead of Kamui Kobayashi, Paul di Resta – who spun at Turn 19 and Schumacher. It was line astern at the back as Caterham beat Marussia, although Heikki Kovalainen shoved Timo Glock off the road on the final lap. Beleaguered HRT got both cars to the finish (although perhaps Vettel wished that they did not), while the only other driver to join Webber on the side lines was Jean Eric Vergne, who suffered a suspension failure.
Hamilton has been out of the title fight since his retirement in Singapore and when you look at the amount of points he’s lost through team errors, there’s no doubt he should be heading to Brazil with a chance of winning the title. He isn’t, but his two other rivals are.
19 down, 1 to go. 13 points in it. May the best man win.