The United States Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Jake Michaels from ESPN.
What was arguably Valtteri Bottas’s strongest weekend of the season was also the race that saw him lose the championship to Lewis Hamilton, with victory not enough to prevent the points gap from blowing out to 67 points with two rounds remaining.
But the win so almost didn’t materialise for the polesitting Finn, with Mercedes splitting its strategies such that it took 52 of 56 laps for the race to resolve in Bottas’s favour.
Mercedes’s one-two finish was illustrative of an easier race than the team expected after a tight qualifying session that suggested the German marque, Ferrari and Rd Bull Racing were all closely matched, with each claiming a sector apiece on Saturday. However, conditions in the race and a chaotic opening few laps served to help the constructors champion notch up yet another victory in a glittering 2019 season.
Hamilton arrived in the United States with an enviable record at the Circuit of the Americas, having won five of the seven races held at the track. It stood him in near unbackable stead to finally claim the title given eighth place would be enough to seal the deal.
But the Austin that greeted Formula One upon its arrival from Mexico differed dramatically to expectation, with chilly temperatures and frosts characterising Thursday and Friday.
The prevailing weather meant data gathered during Friday practice wouldn’t be entirely representative of race conditions on Sunday, when it would be warmer. Further complicating the picture was rapid track improvement as a result of the weather, with the circuit speeding up dramatically from Friday morning through to the end of qualifying.
Excepting the championship, the dominating off-track discussion was about a technical directive issued by the FIA in response to a query from Red Bull Racing regarding electrical manipulation of the fuel flow meter, the first substantive manifestation of the frontrunners’ scepticism about Ferrari’s power unit advantage.
When Bottas nabbed pole from Sebastian Vettel by 0.012 seconds with a purple sector two, the split that comprises the long back straight that should have been Ferrari territory, doubters had all the confirmation they needed that RBR had been correct to enquire. But Ferrari’s generally lacklustre performance persisted through to the race, muddying any conclusions.
The race-winning move
Bottas’s race was not won just by defeating Hamilton; Verstappen was also a real threat, albeit a muted one after first-lap damage to his front wing and floor.
The Finn got off pole cleanly, but Vettel’s poor start and first lap allowed Verstappen into second and, soon, Hamilton into third. Alex Albon’s first-lap tangle with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz ensured the Thai would play no meaningful role in the podium fight, while Ferrari’s lack of pace at this point in the race and Vettel’s suspension failure before the 10-lap mark guaranteed a three-driver fight for victory.
It became clear early Red Bull Racing lacked ultimate pace relative to Mercedes on the medium tyre. Verstappen was brought in for an aggressive early stop on lap 13, switching from the medium to the hard tyre and virtually guaranteeing a two-stop race. Bottas covered him from the lead to prevent an undercut.
Hamilton, however, stayed out in clean air to run a one-stop strategy and try to win the race or at least jump Verstappen for second. Bottas’s race was now no longer about covering Hamilton; he would have to win the race back.
Bottas’s middle stint on the medium was strong, and by lap 24 he’d passed Hamilton as the Briton’s ageing mediums fell off the cliff. He came in for his sole stop at the end of that tour, giving himself 32 laps to make the hard tyre last. He had to be warned to temper his pace after flying out of the pits to ensure he’d make it to the end on what was a marginal strategy.
Bottas stopped on lap 35 and rejoined 10 seconds in arrears — Verstappen stopped one lap earlier an emerged a further five second adrift — but was encumbered by traffic. It took him until lap 50 to close to within one second of the leader, attempting unsuccessfully to pass on lap 51 and getting the job done on lap 52.
Even with the traffic his timing had been exactly correct, with Hamilton’s lap times notably slowing from lap 50 onwards. It would’ve cost him second place to Verstappen had yellow flags for Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, stuck in the gravel trap at the end of the long back straight, not neutralised the circuit’s best overtaking opportunity.
Verstappen’s pace in the second stint in particular suggested that without damage he would’ve had race-winning pace. Bottas covering him rather than sticking to the one-stop pre-race plan ensured victory as much as his pass on Hamilton did.
Where’d Ferrari’s pace go?
The Ferrari didn’t figure in this race was the day’s mystery having run Mercedes so close for pole. Some point to the team’s lack of attention-grabbing straight-line speed as evidence the FIA’s technical directive had hit the spot with Ferrari’s power unit, a theory the team strenuously denies. Without discounting the idea entirely, there are other reasons behind the Scuderia’s general lack of performance.
For one, Leclerc was running an old power unit after an oil leak forced an engine swap between FP3 and qualifying. Team principal Mattia Binotto says Leclerc could have contended for pole with the up-to-date engine.
Further, though Mercedes beat Ferrari in the second sector, Ferrari was quicker than Mercedes in the first sector, where aero performance is key. This is as much of a turnaround as the team’s apparent lack of power, suggesting the reason is as much about aero as it is about horsepower.
Thirdly, the team’s lack of performance early in the race clearly appeared down to getting the medium tyres to work from a standing start in the still cool conditions. Indeed Leclerc’s performance was more competitive the longer the race went on, particularly in the middle stint on the hard tyre, but by then the damage had been done.
Vettel’s underperformance early in the race was clearly balance related, the German complaining of “crazy” understeer, before his rear-right suspension collapsed.
This doesn’t necessarily discount the idea Ferrari may have been bending the rules, but it does explain most of the team’s lack of performance this weekend. The SF90’s speed at the next two rounds will provide a clearer answer.
A race right on the one-stop boundary
The five-second margin between Bottas and Hamilton illustrated just how close the one and two-stop strategies were, as did the battle for best of the rest between Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Ricciardo jumped Norris early in the race to hold fifth place, and the team perfectly judged Norris’s undercut attempt, leaving Ricciardo out an extra lap on his starting set of softs to rejoin the race on lap 22 fractionally ahead of the McLaren.
It proved pivotal, giving Ricciardo what would prove a crucial extra lap of tyre life.
Norris held station behind the Renault until he rolled the dice with a late switch to a two-stop race on lap 42, dropping him to 10th, but with new mediums he cut through the midfield to cross the line just 0.4 seconds behind Ricciardo, whose tyres were by that stage ailing badly.
Had Ricciardo made his stop one lap earlier, he would have been caught short, whereas Norris arguably could’ve given himself a greater chance had McLaren committed earlier to his second stop.
Perez goes from pit lane to points
Few drivers are as renowned for their soft touch with the tyres as Sergio Perez, who nailed his one-stop strategy to finish in the points after starting from pit lane with a penalty for missing a call to the weighbridge during practice.
The Mexican and his team beautifully judged the life of the tyres, starting on the medium and switching on lap 24 just as Perez’s pace was beginning to suffer, and from there he capitalised on most of the rest of his midfield rivals making a second stop to rise up the order.
His hard tyres were suffering towards the end of the race, forcing a stern defence against Daniil Kvyat. He was passed by Kvyat on the final lap for 10th, but he got the place back after the stewards demoted the Russian five seconds for causing a collision in the process.
The winner’s strategy
Valtteri Bottas: medium (used) to lap 14, hard (new) to lap 35, medium (new) to lap 56.