Raikkonen victory keeps Lewis Hamilton waiting for fifth F1 title

The victory was the Finn’s first since March 2013, as Mercedes driver finished third

 Race winner Kimi Raikkonen, second placed Max Verstappen and third placed Lewis Hamilton. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Race winner Kimi Raikkonen, second placed Max Verstappen and third placed Lewis Hamilton. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

 

Not quite yet. Lewis Hamilton will have to wait a few days longer for his fifth Formula One title after a wild and wonderful US Grand Prix ended with the improbable outcome of a victory for Kimi Räikkönen.

Hamilton needed to outscore Sebastian Vettel by eight points to win the title. There were a dizzying array of permutations as the lead changed hands and Vettel fought his way towards the front after a first-lap collision, with tyre management becoming all-important.

For a couple of seconds at the climax of the race Hamilton seemed set to finish second with Vettel down in fifth, which would have been enough to settle the championship before next Sunday’s race in Mexico.

Instead, Hamilton ended in third, behind Ferrari’s Räikkönen and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, and Vettel was fourth. While the Mercedes driver has extended his advantage over Vettel in the standings he was unable to deliver the knockout blow on a circuit he adores and habitually dominates.

“Congratulations to Kimi, he did a great job today, no mistakes,” Hamilton said. He suggested his team’s strategy was not quite right, leaving him with too much to do in the final stages to make up a 12sec deficit. “I thought we would have been able to do better but this was the best we were able to do in the end,” he said. “We’ll just have to keep working, keep pushing.”

Hamilton arrived in Austin in search of his 10th first-place finish of the season, with six wins in his past seven races. He was going for five successive victories at a circuit where he had won five of six races since it opened in 2012.

The main obstacle in his path proved to be a man with a rather contrasting recent record. Räikkönen was world champion in 2007, Hamilton’s rookie year, but it had been 113 races since the 39-year-old’s last win – in Australia in 2013 with Lotus. He is moving to Sauber for 2019, a switch that is unlikely to enhance his prospects of more podium finishes.

The cars lined up with “SHOWDOWN – ALL OR NOTHING” writ large on an electronic hoarding above the starting grid. Though that seemed a touch hyperbolic, the race was undeniably thrilling, with more intrigue than might have been expected given Hamilton’s regular excellence at this circuit on the outskirts of Texas’s capital.

He was so relaxed during qualifying on Saturday that he gave the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey a hug after getting out of the car.

While Hamilton set a track record in qualifying, less than a 10th of a second separated him from Vettel and Räikkönen in the session, with the Finn in third but moved up to the front row as a result of Vettel’s three-place grid penalty for driving too fast under a red flag during practice on Friday.

That sanction meant Vettel started fifth, behind Hamilton, Räikkönen, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo. But Räikkönen began on ultra-soft tyres, with the rest of the top five on super-softs, giving him better grip and a chance of overtaking Hamilton at the start as the drivers headed uphill on the straight leading into the first turn.

That theory proved right as the Finn rocketed past Hamilton to take an immediate lead. There was high drama behind, too, as Vettel collided with Ricciardo and spun on the first lap – his second successive crash with a Red Bull following contact with Max Verstappen two weeks ago at Suzuka.

As Räikkönen built up a lead of a couple of seconds, Vettel was down to 13th. Meanwhile, the two-times champion Fernando Alonso retired after a first-lap bump in his McLaren with the Williams of Lance Stroll, for which the Canadian received a drive-through penalty.

Underlining a chaotic opening that provided plenty of overtaking opportunities, Verstappen soared to seventh after five laps despite starting in 18th as the result of a five-place penalty for a new gearbox. Riccardo retired on lap 10 after a sudden loss of power forced him to pull over, while Vettel picked off the cars in front to haul himself back into contention.

Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, had repeatedly cautioned in the build-up that Ferrari were looking stronger in Austin than in recent races, and their straight-line speed was indeed impressive. The weather was also in their favour: blue skies emerged on Sunday after days of grey drizzle, boosting Ferrari’s prospects given that Mercedes appear to have the quicker car in the wet.

Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions represented a mini-renaissance for Ferrari after a dismal second half of the season during which Hamilton pulled away from Vettel and turned the title fight into a virtual procession.

Perhaps the most costly Ferrari error came at Hockenheim in July. Going into his home Grand Prix, Vettel held an eight-point lead in the standings after winning at Silverstone earlier in the month. But he crashed into a wall while leading, causing him to curse and smack the steering wheel with his hands. Hamilton went on to win and it was mostly downhill for Vettel and Ferrari after that.

Hamilton began to narrow the gap on the leader as the ultra-softs wore down. By lap 21 in the 56-lap contest, Hamilton clearly had the faster car and Räikkönen struggled to hold him off before heading into the pits.

One pre-race tactical debate centred on whether Mercedes would use team orders to help seal Hamilton’s title, with Valtteri Bottas potentially acting as spoiler to keep Vettel as far back as possible. Bottas was unable to hold off Verstappen, though, who moved into second.

Vettel set the fastest time on lap 36, but was down in fifth position, more than 29 seconds adrift of Hamilton and needing the Mercedes to pit again. Hamilton did, his rear tyres blistering, handing the advantage back to Räikkönen and leaving the Briton 12 seconds off the lead.

Bottas let Hamilton through, moving him up to third and setting up an exciting finale as he hunted down Verstappen and Räikkönen, steadily gaining on them but running out of laps, while Vettel sought to get past Bottas. A second-place finish for Hamilton would have seen him crowned champion if Vettel was fifth or lower.

Hamilton reduced the gap between him and Verstappen to under a second with three laps to go. On lap 54 Hamilton went wheel to wheel with Verstappen and it seemed the title was his - but then he ran wide and Verstappen reclaimed second place. Seconds later Vettel passed Bottas to move into fourth, and it was finally clear that Hamilton would not take the title in Austin.

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