Kimi Räikkönen makes Lewis Hamilton wait for F1 title with US GP win

• Ferrari driver seals his first victory in 113 races in thriller
• Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is second with Hamilton third

The permutations were so varied and the fate of the title so uncertain until the last seconds that even the victor of the United States Grand Prix appeared baffled by it all.

“Did you win the championship?” Kimi Räikkönen asked Lewis Hamilton as they waited to step on to the podium. “No,” came the reply.

Not yet, anyway. For the second year in a row Hamilton did not seal the drivers’ championship at one of his favourite venues. Needing to outscore Sebastian Vettel by eight points, Hamilton’s Mercedes finished third on Sunday and Vettel recovered from a dire start to end up fourth. While it was a vexing and unexpected outcome for Hamilton, who had won five of the six previous GPs here and was seeking his fifth successive victory this season, he did at least extend his advantage over Vettel by three points to 70, with three events and a maximum of 75 points remaining. There is precious little in Vettel’s recent form to suggest he is capable of winning all three.

Still, this was more recession than procession as Hamilton lamented his team’s tyre strategy and gave credit to the speed of his opponents. Even with this weekend representing a mini-renaissance for Ferrari, it would hardly be a surprise if, as happened last year, Hamilton’s fifth title was rubber-stamped in Mexico next Sunday.

Kimi Räikkönen holds up the winning trophy as Lewis Hamilton applauds. It was the Finnish driver’s first race win since 2013.
Kimi Räikkönen holds up the winning trophy as Lewis Hamilton applauds. It was the Finnish driver’s first race win since 2013. Photograph: Larry W. Smith/EPA

Playing the role of chief party pooper was Räikkönen: an improbable candidate to win the race even though he started second on the grid behind Hamilton and Ferrari were clearly faster in Texas than they have been in recent weeks.

Hamilton arrived in Austin in search of his 10th first-place finish of the season, with six wins in his past seven races.

Räikkönen’s recent pedigree is less impressive. He was world champion in 2007, Hamilton’s rookie year, but it had been 113 races since his last win – in Australia in 2013 with Lotus. He is moving to Sauber for 2019, a switch unlikely to enhance his prospects of more podium finishes. At 39 the Finn is the oldest winner of a grand prix since Nigel Mansell, when 41, in Australia in 1994.

• Lewis Hamilton has a 70-point lead over Sebastian Vettel and there are a maximum of 75 points available from the final three races, so Hamilton needs just five points to secure the F1 title (Hamilton wins if the pair finish level on points as the British driver has won more races).

• Vettel must win all three races to claim the title, so if he fails to win at the next grand prix in Mexico, Hamilton will win the championship – even if he does not finish the race.

• If Vettel does win in Mexico, Hamilton can still win if he finishes seventh or higher.

Hamilton was so relaxed as he set a track record during qualifying on Saturday that he gave the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey a hug after getting out of the car. As crucial as the times, though, were the tyres.

Räikkönen began on ultra-soft tyres, with the rest of the top five on super-softs, giving him better grip that helped him overtake Hamilton at the start as the drivers surged uphill on the straight leading into the first turn.

Vettel was having less fun. The German qualified second-fastest but began in fifth position as the result of a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently during a red flag period in Friday practice.

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That punishment robbed spectators of a direct Vettel-Hamilton duel and looked to have smoothed the path to victory for the 33-year-old, who knew that a first-place finish with Vettel third or lower would be enough to draw level with Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles. Ending in second with Vettel fifth or worse was another potential route to triumph.

Either outcome looked eminently possible as Vettel collided with Daniel 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, and yet another example of the blunders that have pockmarked the second half of Ferrari’s campaign. As Räikkönen built up a lead of a couple of seconds, Vettel was outside the top 10.

Underlining a chaotic opening that provided plenty of overtaking opportunities, Verstappen soared to seventh after five laps despite starting in 18th. Ricciardo retired when a sudden loss of power forced him to pull over, reportedly prompting him to put his fist through a wall in anger.

Sebastian Vettel spun off the track on the first lap after an incident with Daniel Ricciardo.
Sebastian Vettel spun off the track on the first lap after an incident with Daniel Ricciardo. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Vettel picked off the cars ahead to haul himself back into contention under blue skies that made a welcome change from days of grey drizzle, while Hamilton began to narrow the gap on the leader as the ultra-softs wore down. Coming up to the midway point in the 56-lap contest, Hamilton clearly had the speed edge and Räikkönen struggled to hold him off before heading into the pits.

Vettel set the fastest time on lap 36 but was down in fifth position, over 29 seconds behind Hamilton and needing the Mercedes to pit again after its early stop on lap 11 during a virtual safety car period. Hamilton did exactly that, his rear tyres blistering. It handed the lead back to Räikkönen and left the Briton 12 seconds adrift.

Valtteri Bottas let his teammate through, moving Hamilton 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.

Hamilton reduced the gap with Verstappen to under a second with three laps to go. On lap 54 Hamilton accelerated to go wheel to wheel with Verstappen and for a moment it seemed the title was his – but then he ran wide and the impressive Verstappen reclaimed second place. Seconds later Vettel passed Bottas to move into fourth and it was clear that Hamilton’s coronation would have to wait after a thrilling and at times perplexing afternoon.


Tom Dart at the Circuit of the Americas, Austin

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