Raikkonen denies Hamilton early championship in American thriller

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates on the podium at the 2018 United States Grand Prix.

It had been a long time between drinks for 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, and the Finn made sure he savoured the champagne after seizing victory in Austin at the weekend.

When Raikkonen took the chequered flag at the Circuit of the Americas he broke a 113-race win drought, the longest in Formula One history. He last mounted the top step of the podium at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, more than five years — or 2044 days — ago.

Raikkonen has remained an almost inexplicable crowd favourite despite his length absence from the winners circle, and the unexpected result, earnt by fending off Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in a nailbiting conclusion, sent the United States crowd — and most of the paddock — into raptures.

But even this sudden outpouring of support from his steadfast legion of fans did little to melt the so-called Iceman’s cool exterior.

“Who knows, maybe they are happier even [than me],” he deadpanned. “No, honestly, it’s been a good weekend.

“It was a great day to prove some people wrong by having a god race, but it doesn’t really change anything for me. It’s just a number. Life goes on.”

The fact Raikkonen was able to win the race at all is as noteworthy as the deed itself.

After fielding the fastest car for much of the season, Ferrari ceded the initiative to Mercedes over the last month, just as Sebastian Vettel most needed a strong technical package to eat into Hamilton’s growing championship lead.

Round after round Ferrari was struggling in areas it had previously excelled in — until a complete rollback of months of updates in Austin appeared to cure the problems ailing the car.

Ferrari was suddenly back in the fight for pole position, and Vettel was able to run Hamilton close in qualifying — but another first-lap crash dropped the German down the field.

Enter Raikkonen, who aced his launch to pass Hamilton for the lead of the race in the first turn.

Mercedes had no answer to Ferrari’s pace once Kimi was in the lead, and when Hamilton started experiencing unusually severe tyre wear in the Finn’s wake, he was forced into a series of suboptimal strategy calls that conspired to drop him to third place at the chequered flag.

“There were a lot of things we could have done better today,” Hamilton conceded. “There were certain things that weren’t optimum for us which made it look even worse than it was.”

Hamilton inability to convert pole to victory worked in Vettel favour once the German mounted a spirited comeback to fourth place, keeping his already remote championship hopes alive, albeit hanging by the most tenuous of threads.

But the result was bittersweet. That Vettel was able to pass Valtteri Bottas late in the race proved Ferrari was indeed a credible challenger to Mercedes again, but so much ground had been lost in Vettel’s title campaign that it was too little, too late.

“It took too long [to recover],” Vettel lamented. “You can see it’s good news but you can also see it’s bad news — if we have to go back to a car that has been competitive three or four months ago, surely it can’t be good news.”

The championship race goes directly to the Mexican Grand Prix on 28 October, but with a whopping 70-point championship lead, Hamilton will need to finish only seventh regardless of Vettel’s result to finally secure the title.

“We are still in a great position,” Hamilton said. “The sole goal is to win … and naturally, if you do that, you could win the championship.”

Even after the title went off script in Austin, surely Hamilton’s fifth crown is only a matter of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.