By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
Valtteri Bottas won the battle.
Lewis Hamilton won the war.
The aura of inevitability that surrounded Hamilton’s march toward a sixth world championship finally reached its conclusion on Sunday, and if the Englishman was not quite able to seal the deal with another victory, it took a champion's drive for him to come within five laps of doing so, before Bottas swept past to head up the team’s ninth 1-2 finish of the year.
Bottas may be depicted as the nearly man, but a fourth race victory of 2019 is the most of any season in his career, and helped him surpass his best-ever points total of 305 (set in 2017). Hamilton was beyond his reach across the season, but this result did clinch the championship runner-up position for Bottas, something he has never previously achieved.
A Finn won at the Circuit of the Americas for the second consecutive year, following on from Kimi Raikkonen’s victory here last year. Throw in Mika Hakkinen’s win at Indianapolis 2001 and – temporarily at least – the three Finnish drivers with the most wins have all achieved their most recent successes in the United States.
Despite Bottas’ achievements this weekend – including clinching pole by 0.012s, the smallest ever margin at Circuit Of The Americas – the headlines will belong to Hamilton he moved beyond Juan-Manuel Fangio’s five world titles. The only man left with more championships than Hamilton is the driver that Hamilton replaced at Mercedes for the start of the 2013 season, when seven-time champ Michael Schumacher retired.
Second place at COTA was Hamilton’s 150th career podium finish, putting him five short of Schumacher’s all-time record. Given that he is within eight of Schumacher’s 91 race victories, it’s conceivable that Hamilton could roll out of Austin 12 months from now having tied or eclipsed all of Schumacher’s once-untouchable records.
It was a fitting race for Hamilton to further enhance his position as one of Britain’s greatest-ever sporting figures, as it was the 1,000th championship event to feature a British driver. UK entrants have been ever-present since as long ago as the 1951 Spanish GP (more than any other nationality), but until Hamilton came along no Briton had ever won the title in consecutive years, and Sir Jackie Stewart was the only Brit to claim as many as three crowns. Hamilton now has twice as many….
In the immediate aftermath of clinching a historic sixth @F1 title, @LewisHamilton reflects on his remarkable journey, the support of those around him, Niki and what comes next… #ATeamComeTrue #USGP pic.twitter.com/WqDNiekFtI— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) November 4, 2019
Hamilton was second on Sunday, but it was a lucky break that stopped him losing that position to Max Verstappen on the final lap. With the Dutchman in DRS range and ready to pass they encountered a yellow flag zone for the abandoned car of Kevin Magnussen, blunting Verstappen’s challenge.
Even with that frustration, Verstappen netted what was only his second podium finish since the summer break (the other one coming when he was third in Singapore). He’s now crossed the line in the top three for the last three consecutive years, although a post-race penalty in 2017 relegated him to fourth. He was perhaps mindful of that when choosing not to challenge Hamilton on the final tour….
This weekend was Verstappen’s 100th Grand Prix start – as was also the case for Carlos Sainz and Kevin Magnussen – and while that in itself is not especially unusual, it’s easy to forget that Verstappen was only 22 years 34 days on Sunday. To put that into context, the four most successful title-winning drivers of all time – Schumacher, Hamilton, Fangio and Prost – were all yet to make their debuts at that age. Verstappen has already reached a century!
It was Mattia Binotto’s 50th birthday on Sunday, and the Austin paddock saw Ferrari stage a small party in his honour on race morning. It proved to be the high point of the day for the Scuderia, as Charles Leclerc – whom is a two-time race winner this year, lest we forget – crossed the line fourth, a whopping 52 seconds adrift of the winning Mercedes of Bottas.
The defeat was reminiscent of the opening round in Melbourne, when Ferrari were an even-more distant 57 seconds behind the same winning driver. It was the first time since July that no Ferrari driver appeared on the podium, and if Leclerc felt disappointed it was nothing compared to the afternoon endured by Sebastian Vettel, whose day unraveled practically from the moment the lights went out on his 100th career front row start, and ended when the rear suspension failed after only seven laps.
As has become the norm, Alexander Albon steadily continued to rack up the points since his Red Bull call-up, and he now has seven top-six finishes in seven starts for the team, meaning he retains the distinction of outscoring Verstappen (68-54) since becoming teammates. It was a little tricker for Albon on Sunday, with a lap one pitstop leaving him in last place. Perhaps it says a lot about modern F1’s competitive order that for a second successive week a Red Bull that suffered delays early in the race was still able to finish in the top six….
Most positively for Albon, he has now also moved into top six in the Drivers’ Championship, and given that he’s in a Red Bull he is now odds-on favourite to stay there, ahead of the demoted Pierre Gasly (now of Toro Rosso), and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
The biggest beneficiary of Vettel’s retirement was his old teammate Daniel Ricciardo, whose sixth place matched Renault’s best-ever finish at the Circuit of the Americas, and for whom Sunday was his first finish in Austin since back in 2016. Lando Norris finished seventh in his final Grand Prix as a teenager (he turns 20 on November 13), and McLaren teammate Sainz was eighth, making Austin the sixth time this season that both McLarens have scored. With a 38-point lead over Renault, fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship is there for the taking.
Had Nico Hulkenberg not been disqualified from the Japanese GP he would now have a seven-race scoring streak, and ninth place on Sunday helped Renault move 18 points clear of Racing Point in their respective championship battle.
The last point originally went to Daniil Kvyat, who was tenth for his second successive US Grand Prix start, having also crossed the line in that position in 2017….. before being promptly sacked by Toro Rosso!
"I’m improving, I’m getting quicker, so I can’t wait for next year"— Formula 1 (@F1) November 4, 2019
Race winner @ValtteriBottas congratulates world champion @LewisHamilton - and is ready for battle in 2020#USGP #F1 https://t.co/7dKx94SWe0
His job is not under imminent threat these days, but the point he scored proved to not be so secure. A contentious five-second post-race penalty for bumping wheels/bodywork while passing Sergio Perez on the last lap dropped him to 12th place, and promoted Perez back to tenth, making this the second year in a row that he moved up the order after post-race penalties, having been promoted to eighth by the disqualifications of Kevin Magnussen and Esteban Ocon last year.
On Sunday evening in downtown Austin there were many a Formula 1 driver still in the ether, but the championship standings show that they all merely exist in Lewis Hamilton’s world, under the watchful eye of Matthew McConaughey throughout.
Alright, alright, alright.