Kimi plays a blinder
What a race in Austin! A 39 year old who everyone expected to retire and has just been sacked by his team qualifies within 0.009 seconds of the team’s number one driver who is paid millions more and has just made arguably his 7th error of the season in free practice, followed by another in the race. Same number 2 driver then drives a brilliant race to make his strategy work, using plenty of experience and superb race craft to hold off two of the greatest talents to have sat in a Grand Prix car in the last decade and stop the rot after a miserable run of races for his legendary team. Hollywood stuff in the USA (ok – maybe not a movie, but at least a little mid-week drama!)
It’s been a long time since Kimi Raikkonen last stood on the top step of the podium and it was nice to see him take a popular win after a sensational grand prix. Deep down, despite the devastating speed of the mid 2000s not being there, the inner talent that fast tracked him to the world stage in 2001 is still intact.
Ferrari came to Austin following a run of four terrible races which have effectively ended Sebastian’s championship challenge and it was good to see them bounce back with a win but more importantly, with a car that once again seemed to be a match for the Mercedes on genuine pace.
It does seem like in recent races the upgrades that Ferrari have introduced just haven’t worked and have also meant that they’ve gotten a bit lost when it came to setting up the car. Vettel admitted that when they went back a couple of steps, the car came alive again and certainly this weekend, the Ferrari pace was right back to where it was for most of the year until Singapore.
This further underlines the fact that Hamilton and Mercedes have done a better job this season to get themselves into a massive 70 points lead, despite battling against a car that had the potential to be ahead of them. It’s also a shame for everyone watching that Ferrari faltered as we really had a brilliant battle brewing until Monza.
But I digress, and really I should be talking about Kimi’s fantastic victory yesterday. It all started with a very strong Qualifying performance and aided by Vettel’s penalty he ended up on the front row. Under the blazing sun, all expectations were that the ultra soft tyre was going to struggle with a heavy fuel load so when Kimi managed to use the extra grip from that tyre to squeeze past Lewis we had a sense of de ja vu to last year when Vettel did the same, yet was passed by Lewis a few laps later.
I thought that Kimi drove very well in that opening stint. He broke away to a 2.5 second lead early on and then managed his pace on those ultra softs beautifully. Mercedes curiously chose to bring Lewis in on lap 11 for a very early stop under the virtual safety car, effectively committing themselves to a two stop race. Despite the fact that the stop under VSC took about half as long as a normal one, it seemed like an odd choice because basically they were trying to use an alternative strategy against a guy on an alternative strategy, but Toto defended that choice after the race by saying they felt that was what they needed to do to go for the win.
On fresh tyres Lewis caught back up to Kimi of course – 9 seconds in just 6 laps – and Ferrari radioed the Finn to give him a heads up about the charging Mercedes on fresh tyres. On another day, Kimi wouldn’t have fought Lewis too hard but he knew that today he had a car underneath him that could fight for the win. He spent 4 laps holding Lewis at bay thinking “why should I let him get further ahead. Let me keep him behind even for a bit to damage his tyres in the dirty air”. Ferrari had opted to run less downforce than Mercedes so Kimi knew that he had to be inch perfect coming out of turn 11 and turn 20 before the two long straights and he focussed on those to perfection.
Once he pitted on lap 21, Kimi rejoined 19 seconds behind Lewis and after that initial hit on new tyres, the gap stabilised at just over 17 seconds until lap 30. This is where I think Mercedes lost the opportunity to win the race even on a two stop.
At the end of lap 32 Lewis was 15.7 ahead of Kimi and 19.1 ahead of an inspired Verstappen who had come up from 18th on the grid to 3rd. If they had pitted then, Lewis would have come out on new tyres ahead of Max and only about 4 seconds behind Kimi on 11 lap old tyres.
Instead, Mercedes chose to keep Lewis out until the end of lap 37. Their belief was that having a shorter stint at the end would give Lewis a bigger tyre advantage over the opposition and he would have been able to attack them more easily. The downside of waiting for those 5 extra laps was that he started to lose a lot time as the tyres hit the cliff. We heard Lewis complaining on the radio about graining and when his team eventually called him in, he emerged from the pits 12.7 seconds behind Kimi and 9 seconds behind Max.
I always think that as a driver, you’re better off with tyre advantage, however small, in a wheel to wheel combat with a rival. This delayed stop meant that Lewis ended up using the extra grip from his new tyres to close down the gap to guys in front rather than fighting them wheel to wheel which is what he would have had if they pitted on lap 32.
I’m not saying he would have won the race if they had done that, but as Lewis himself admitted in the press conference, he didn’t fully understand why they made life so hard for themselves by giving up so much track position. Especially since passing Verstappen isn’t exactly a low risk strategy for anyone!
Max was unquestionably my driver of the day. Christian Horner said to me afterwards that it was a very mature drive from the Dutchman and I think that it’s a continuation of the more mature Max we have seen since Canada this year. He picked his way through the field, didn’t damage his front wing or anything and in that final battle with Lewis he was hard but fair.
Red Bull once again showed that they are brilliant at thinking laterally and using strategies that are outside the box. They brought Max in for an early stop on lap 22 to surprise Mercedes and undercut Bottas, which then left him with a mammoth 34 laps to do on the super soft tyre. As we’ve seen time and again since his very first race with Red Bull in Barcelona 2016, Max is very good at tyre management and not only did he managed to keep going at a decent pace until the end, he even managed to hold Lewis off for 2nd place.
Christian told us on Channel 4 that the difference between the Honda and the Renault engine around Austin was a massive 6 tenths of a second. If Honda keep making progress, it will be brilliant for Formula 1 as a sport to see Red Bull battling on track and strategically with Mercedes and Ferrari on a regular basis.
On to Mexico next weekend where, like 2017, we will likely crown Lewis as a World Champion. The champagne has been put on ice for a few days in the Mercedes motorhome but I’ll be amazed if it isn’t cracked open next Sunday.
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