The finish to today’s race was frequently uncertain and worth a deeper discussion than the timesheets might suggest.
1 Could Sebastian Vettel have won?
Oh, it was so close. After a textbook perfect launch from his grid position, Vettel stuck his foot in the door as Hamilton tried a little meekly to close it before the apex of turn one, and just like that we had a new leader heading into the second corner. Within two laps, a clearly determined Vettel had pulled a one-second gap that breathed new life into the corpse of the drivers' title fight. But, just five laps later, a charging Hamilton made a simple pass and drifted off into the distance.
There was plainly nothing the Ferrari could do to retake the position, inciting comments from the commentary team regarding the all-powerful "magic" engine mode that Mercedes seem to be able to deploy at critical moments. For many laps, the gap widened, though not excessively.
The first round of pit stops surprised and put Sebastian right back under the gearbox of the Merc, a sign the undercut was worth a significant amount of time at the Circuit of The Americas. But, alas, he was not quite close enough to snatch the lead back from Hamilton in the same place.
As the laps wore on, little developed in the race for first; The action was in the four places following that. Max Verstappen had made a run from 16th up into 5th place and was pressuring Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari with the possibility of the undercut when he made his second stop of the day. This brought both Ferraris in for fresh tyres, while Mercedes unexpectedly left Hamilton out; with a free pit-stop advantage in time, what was the hurry? But, once again, Vettel began pumping in ridiculously fast lap times.
Suddenly, the free-stop advantage disappeared, and it looked like Mercedes might lose the lead if they brought Hamilton in for his last change. Unfortunately for the title fight, and the race fan in all of us, none of that happened. Hamilton used superior skill and clear air to make his tyres last until the end and finished ten seconds up on his desperate rival.
Could Vettel have won? Yes. And he nearly did.
2 Could Kimi Raikkonen have won?
No. The Iceman had great pace and tyre management all day, and basically gave second to his teammate, but did not have what it would have taken to track down Hamilton. He never threatened to run off with the lead but did well to coolly dispatch the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and hold off the charging Verstappen. It would have taken some Singapore-like fireworks ahead of him in order for Raikkonen to have finished in first place.
However, as alluded to earlier, this was not quite the whole story. The way the cars crossed the finish line was Hamilton, Vettel, Verstappen, with the latter having completed a sensational move on Raikkonen very late in the race. While Kimi defended well, Max took a line way down the inside of turn 17 and stuck a fantastic move on the Ferrari.
Max went on to cross the line in third and even made it to the podium room, where he debriefed with Vettel about his supreme climb up the order from his starting position. That was before Raikkonen showed up to crash the party and an FIA steward explained to Max that he had a five-second penalty added to his time for leaving the track and gaining an advantage. Replays, while somewhat mixed, clearly show the number 33 Red Bull with all four wheels off the track during the move. It was a stern penalty but one the stewards were right to enforce.
This does leave one question: if Verstappen had started higher, say in 11th place, or where he qualified in sixth, would he have won the race? It's entirely possible he might have!
Do you think anyone else could have won the US Grand Prix? Let us know in the comments below!
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