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View from the Pit Lane: USA and Mexico

Hamilton flag USA
By C4F1 technical analyst Karun Chandhok

The adventure in Austin and Mexico City was one hell of a dramatic fortnight in Formula 1 terms!

We had so much going on, both on and off the track, and ultimately we crowned the new world champion, Lewis Hamilton.

In a bumper edition of this column, I’m looking back at both those race weekends starting with the U.S. Grand Prix. 

It was fantastic for the C4F1 team to cover Austin as a live race. It’s a city that we all enjoy and this year there was 45 minutes of truly American entertainment at the beginning of the GP.

We also had EJ and Mark Webber with us for added entertainment value. EJ bringing his usual sensational one-liners and Mark with his no-nonsense, typical Aussie view on everything. It was great to have them there on a weekend where we had really good racing on track as well. 

Hamilton peerless in Austin 

Hamilton was absolutely stellar all weekend. He’s won five wins out of the six races at Circuit of the Americas and it’s a track he just owns. He is unquestionably the master. 

It was interesting to hear him say this was now his favourite track. I don’t know how many times we’ll hear him say that this season! 

Hamilton does seem to really love Austin and the whole American life and his fan base there. He really embraces it and it clearly works when it comes to him delivering performance on track. 

Nobody seemed to be in the same ballpark as the Mercedes man. He was the fastest in FP3 for only the second time this season and it was pretty obvious who the favourite was going into qualifying. Nobody could even get close as Hamilton set the fastest lap seen at the circuit to take pole. 

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari had a pretty rough Friday but they dug it out on Saturday and resurrected a place on the front row which was as good as it was going to get. 

Killer blow for Ferrari 

For me, Hamilton’s dominance that weekend came to the fore in those opening few laps because when Vettel got away into the lead I thought there was a pretty good chance he could end up winning the GP. 

We’ve seen it quite a few times this season where the Mercedes has struggled to follow in the dirty air of other people and found it harder to overtake compared to the Red Bull and Ferrari. 

So I thought there was a chance that Vettel could hold onto the lead but Hamilton’s racing brain really kicked in over the first sector of the lap in Austin and through those Esses.

The wind had changed direction 180 degrees on Sunday and that has a huge effect on these 2017 cars which are more wind sensitive.

But on a day when the cars felt quite different through those Esses, Hamilton was able to use slightly different lines, slightly different car placement behind Vettel, making sure he had enough wind coming onto his front wing so that he was close enough into the DRS zone to make the move stick into Turn 12. 

To me that was a killer blow to Vettel and Ferrari.

From Spa onwards, Monza, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan are four races which have destroyed their world championship hopes for different reasons, but Austin was the first time since Barcelona that they were overtaken and beaten on track by Hamilton in a straight fight – and that really summed up the weekend. 

Grey area on track limits

Max Verstappen’s move on Kimi Raikonen on the last lap was the biggest talking point of the weekend. 

He was on super form but another handful of engine penalties put him at the back of the grid.

It was stunning how quickly he came through the pack and got himself up at the front. At one point he was in fourth place and only 12 seconds behind Hamilton having started at the back of the grid which was pretty amazing.  

Those of you who joined C4F1’s coverage of the Mexican GP would have seen my summary of Verstappen’s penalty but here’s my take on it. 

He unquestionably left the track with all four wheels, he went over the white line and he gained a lasting advantage. The FIA rules says any driver who gains a lasting advantage should give the place back or be penalised. 

So, there’s no question about that, but where I have a problem is the way that the rules are applied in terms of track limits across the track, as it seems to have different implications at different corners, there are far too many grey areas and I know many of the drivers feel the same. 

When Vettel ran wide at Turn 9, and very wide at Turn 19, Hamilton and Mercedes were saying they could see on the GPS data that he can gained a pretty substantial advantage. Hamilton mentioned he believed that Vettel had gained around 10kph by running wide and we heard him say on the radio “Wow how did he get so close?” To me that’s a lasting advantage. 

In qualifying we also saw drivers going off track all the time and in the race when Carlos Sainz passed Sergio Perez and when we watched Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo battling they all had four wheels off track but not at the moment they made the move so it wasn't deemed to have a "lasting advantage". 

We need to find a natural penalty rather than one that's applied by the stewards - whether it’s the yellow curbs like we have in Austria or natural grass or gravel - we need to find some form of deterrent to make sure the drivers are not running off track so easily.  

To me it was a great move from Verstappen. Any driver on the planet would have made that move – he saw a gap and went for it.  I wish there was a more natural way for the track limit to have been defined so the result was decided when Vettel and Raikkonen took the chequered flag. 

When the F1 circus moved on to Mexico the whole track limits saga rumbled on through the weekend, Verstappen had said some pretty unpleasant things about the steward and the officials, so he vaguely apologised via Instagram which was a big talking point. 

Favourite grid of the year 

All that aside, I do enjoy the Mexican GP; the atmosphere of the circuit is so unique and they make a huge effort. 

This year it was particularly poignant because of the earthquake that hit the country in September. A lot of people had lost their lives and the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations took on a new meaning because of that. 

There was a real sense of importance attached to the pre-race build-up this year because of these circumstances. 

It was amazing to see the crowd get so behind it and I think it was my favourite grid of the year as the atmosphere was buzzing with a lot of national pride attached to the race which is important.  

The GP itself is a bit of an odd one because of Mexico City’s high altitude which is 2200m above sea level.

That means that it really was a tricky race for brakes and engines, in particular the Renault engine, and for overtaking as the slipstream effect is less beneficial at that altitude. The tyres were just not working hard enough – the drivers were complaining they couldn’t switch on the ultra soft tyres. But none of them were working properly which was a cause of frustration across the board. 

Verstappen in crushing form 

Let’s start with the winner. Verstappen was just brilliant all weekend from his very first lap. I had a chance to go trackside in FP1 and right from the installation lap the likes of Verstappen, Fernando Alonso and Vettel just looked on it. There’s no “ooh let’s get warmed up and settle into this” they were just devastatingly fast out of the box.

Verstappen carried that form on and in qualifying he did a mega final sector in Q2 to get a tantalising sight of his first pole position, but he couldn’t replicate it in Q3 otherwise he would have got pole. 

On Sunday, Verstappen did what he had to do – he got a slipstream, got the lead into Turn 1 and he was gone. That was probably the most dominant victory we’ve seen this season. 

I genuinely believe – whether Hamilton and Vettel had a problem or not – that Verstappen would have won the race as he took the lead and had amazing pace. He beat Valtteri Bottas by 20 seconds and Raikkonen by nearly a minute so it was a pretty crushing win. 

He’s just going to get better and better and better which is pretty scary for everyone else and you can see why Red Bull have signed him up for another three years. I really hope that they can offer Verstappen, along with Renault, a package to compete for the World Championship next year because he’ll be right there. 

After the race Verstappen was on our flight home and what was most impressive for me was when you talk to him there’s no over the top emotion at winning or shock or surprise.

His attitude is a very matter-of-fact “Of course I won, that’s what I’m paid to do isn’t it?” Even when he talked about passing Vettel his tone was very much “I knew I had to pass him at Turn One to win the race so I did and I won”.  It was almost like why is that a question?!  

I don’t believe for one second that it’s arrogance because I think he’s got his feet firmly on the ground. It’s that incredible inner self-confidence that we saw with Michael Schumacher, with Aryton Senna and with Vettel. There’s just this incredible amount of inner belief and self-confidence and it’s very admirable indeed. 

Vettel’s crucial misjudgement 

Starting from third, Hamilton was pretty racy going into Turn One. I thought he was very opportunistic and smart.

Again that racing brain kicking in where he saw Vettel and Verstappen getting into a bit of bother on the outside of Turn 2, he chose a great path to drive around the outside of Vettel at Turn 3. It didn’t quite work out for him because as soon as Vettel tagged him he got a puncture. 

Now that little issue has created a lot of question marks, including from Hamilton himself who we heard asking his team on the radio ‘do you think he did it on purpose?’ 

My view is that Vettel obviously got passed by Verstappen and he was a little bit distracted by that, especially when he tagged the rear of the Red Bull and damaged his front wing. 

When Hamilton got around him, I think he just misjudged the gap between him and the Mercedes. 

There’s been a lot of people talking online about how he steered into Hamilton. I don’t think he did on purpose – if you watch the onboard with the audio, he punched the throttle, the back of the car stepped out of line and to catch it he counter-steered, he ran out of space and just went into Hamilton. 

I do think it was Vettel’s fault in the sense that he just misjudged the space between him and Hamilton. The stewards chose not to penalise him as they judged it as just one of those first-corner incidents where you have lots of drivers coming into a small space.

It was a little bit of a shame but it gave us a different sort of race to talk about as it had the two world championship protagonists running around at the back and having to fight their way up, which made an interesting story on their own. 

The best man won

Ultimately I think the best man has won the 2017 world championship.

Hamilton was brilliantly impressive when it came to the qualifying laps in Q2 and Q3 this season. 

There were a lot of weekends – especially in the second half of the season – where he has absolutely destroyed Bottas when it came to qualifying performances. That just shows what a difference the driver make because Mercedes are famous for providing drivers with equal cars but he’s absolutely delivered those qualifying laps which has gained him track position and allowed him to be so dominant since the summer break. 

Hamilton was error-free this season especially compared to Vettel, who made a mistake in Baku and I still think in Singapore he could have given Verstappen and Raikkonen a wider berth off the start. Those were two key moments. 

Combine that with impressive reliability with Mercedes in contrast to Ferrari’s issues in Malaysia and Japan all that together gave the most deserving man the championship. 

Hamilton has now got a fourth title which has been something he so desperately wanted to equal Vettel and it was thoroughly deserved. 

Next stop Brazil

Verstappen has scored more points (80) than anyone else in the last four races and he’s been on the podium in three of the last four races –  plus Austin where it was taken away from him.

The 20-year-old is in a great run of form and I’m really interested to see what he and Daniel Ricciardo can do in Interlagos as the car should be very competitive there.

With a bit of mixed weather you never know what can happen, so roll on Interlagos!