By Ben Edwards
It would be utterly appropriate for Lewis Hamilton to wrap up his sixth world championship this weekend in Austin, given his impressive racing record in the United States.
He only ever raced once at Indianapolis, in the days when Formula 1 ran on a circuit that used part of the famous oval, but he put his McLaren on pole position, went wheel to wheel with team-mate Fernando Alonso and emerged victorious by a narrow margin.
That was in 2007, but it was followed by a five-year hiatus until the next US GP at the newly built Circuit of the Americas. Fast and flowing, yet with technical sections that are easy to get wrong, it seemed to suit Hamilton straight away.
Victory in the inaugural race in 2012 followed a hard-fought battle with Sebastian Vettel, who was well on his way to his third world championship. Driving for Red Bull, Vettel took pole and led the early stages, only to be tripped up by a backmarker at two-thirds distance.
Hamilton was perfectly poised to pounce, having hounded his great rival after passing Mark Webber on Lap 4. The German didn’t give up, and lost by less than a second at the end of 56 intense laps, but it was Hamilton who celebrated the win.
Since then he has won the race on four more occasions, including in 2015 when he wrapped up the title after an unpredictable see-saw exchange with Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Home from Home
There will definitely be an air of confidence about Hamilton as he heads back to Texas this time. He loves being in America, spends much of his free time in various parts of the country and arrives off the back of a hard-earned, unexpected win in Mexico.
Hamilton is one of the few F1 drivers to have real celebrity status in the country. A regular guest on some of the biggest TV chat shows, he has connections within the music industry and Hollywood, and appears completely at home when F1 lands in Austin. Somehow it all just seems to make him even harder to beat.
But while the title seems almost guaranteed, as he only needs to finish eighth or better no matter what his only rival Valtteri Bottas achieves, Ferrari still present a major threat in terms of the race victory.
Last year, Kimi Räikkönen took his only win with the team since returning to Maranello in 2014, after beating Hamilton who started on pole position. Having lost the lead at the start, Hamilton was caught up in a rare team strategy miscalculation which forced him into a two-stop race, while the other front-runners stopped just once.
On the Edge
It was the complete opposite of what happened in Mexico last weekend, where Mercedes took the one-stop gamble and it paid off perfectly, even if the margins were tight. If Charles Leclerc had enjoyed a rapid pit stop late in the race and then new tyres had delivered a fraction more pace, it could have been a very different result.
That’s what I’m enjoying about this latter part of the season: we really are into an unpredictable zone, where Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull all have the potential to win and where tiny differences can have a huge effect.
For example, if it gets breezy, as it did in Japan, then Red Bull are struggling. If there’s dampness on the circuit and downforce is king, then Ferrari are at a disadvantage. But if kerbs need to be ridden, the red cars glide more smoothly than anything else.
Each factor shifts the balance of competitiveness, and I have to say that if it stays like this for next year with fundamentally unchanged regulations, we could be on for a humdinger of a season.
But for now the celebrations for another Hamilton world title are likely to be epic in Austin, which is such a great place for the F1 paddock to visit at this late stage of the year. From superb live music in high street bars to varied and intriguing restaurants and eccentric local shops, there’s something for everyone.
It’s a city of real character, proud of its somewhat maverick nature and I remember back in 2012 reading a line in a local paper directed at its inhabitants which said: “The world is watching. Have a little patience and show visitors why Austin is both weird and welcoming.”
They’ve delivered on that every year since. It is established as one of the most popular venues for those working and living with the long hours and intense pressure that comes with a sport that travels the world. And to top it off, the race promoter organises live music concerts after track action on both Saturday and Sunday.
Post-race, 1980s hit band Kool and The Gang are playing the big stage. Get down on it and celebrate good times? Lewis Hamilton could well be joining in on the chorus.
Join the C4F1 team for qualifying highlights on Saturday 2nd November at 00:40am with highlights of the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday at 11pm.
By Ben Edwards