Lewis Hamilton eased to a much-needed victory in a straightforward United States Grand Prix.
The Briton executed a rare clean launch from pole position to lead the field into the first turn, and his afternoon was made easier when Daniel Ricciardo, starting from third, inserted himself into second place ahead of Nico Rosberg.
The Mercedes driver managed the gap to the second-placed Red Bull Racing car superbly and was able to run the team’s optimum soft-soft-medium strategy to claim his fourth win in Austin.
“This has always been a good hunting ground for me,” he said. “The team did a good job to put us both [with Nico Rosberg] up here, I’m very proud of them.
“We’ve had some incredible support here this weekend, which I’m so thankful for.”
The victory was Hamilton’s career 50th, putting him just one race victory behind Alain Prost, who is second in the sport’s all-time wins tally behind Michael Schumacher.
The battle for second place between Rosberg and Ricciardo was a tense stand-off for the first two stints of the race, but it fizzled out when a virtual safety car allowed the German a cheap pit stop, neutralising what should have been an undercut by the Australian.
“That’s so f***ed,” Ricciardo said when he learnt the caution period that relegated him to third had been triggered by teammate Max Verstappen’s broken car, but he was more upbeat on the podium.
“The start went nearly to plan — the plan was to try to get both Mercedes,” he said. “We at least got Nico, which was positive.
“We were holding second quite well, but then the first safety car — Nico was able to jump me through that procedure.
“Bit of a shame. I think we could’ve had a good fight at the end.”
Nico Rosberg was satisfied with being able to regain his lost place, knowing that he can finish second at every remaining race without losing the championship lead.
However, he rejected the idea that he was playing the numbers game rather than attempting to overhaul Hamilton in the lead.
“No, I was flat out all the way to the end,” he insisted.
“Second place is okay. It’s damage limitation of course.
“I wanted to win here in America — that would have been awesome — but it wasn’t to be.”
Rosberg’s championship lead is 26 points with three rounds remaining, meaning two second-place finishes and a third will be enough for him to secure his maiden title.
Sebastian Vettel finished fourth, the Ferrari outclassed by the leading Mercedes and Red Bull Racing cars but a step ahead of the rest of the midfield.
The German struggled with “rear-wing drop-offs” due to debris inhibiting the aerodynamics of his car, but the fate of teammate Kimi Räikkönen was far worse.
The Finn was handed a questionable three-stop strategy centred on a third stint on the delicate supersoft tyre — the team again choosing to avoid the medium tyre — before a botched third pit stop eliminated him from the race.
Räikkönen appeared to be released from his pit box with a loose rear-right wheel, forcing him to stop in the pit exit and allow his car to roll back into pit lane and into retirement.
Ferrari was fined €5000 for the unsafe release.
The bungled pit stop paled in comparison to the strangeness of Max Verstappen final stop, the Dutchman entering the pits on his own volition after believing he had received the message to make a stop.
The team was unprepared to receive his car and had to scramble to change his tyres, completely undoing his race, but the car suffered a transmission problem shortly after leaving the pits regardless.
One of the few highlights of the grand prix was the late-race battle for fifth Carlos Sainz, Felipe Massa, and Fernando Alonso.
Alonso ran two long stints on the medium tyre after starting on the soft to make steady progress up the field from P12 before encountering the battling Sainz and Massa on lap 50.
It took the Spaniard two laps to get past his former teammate in the Williams — though the pass had Alonso bump wheels with Massa, who subsequently suffered a puncture — but it wasn’t until the final lap that he was able to sail past Sainz’s Toro Rosso.
“Yeehaw!” Alonso shouted maniacally after making the move stick.
Sergio Perez was the sole finisher for Force India, losing two points in the constructors championship battle with Williams in eighth behind Massa.
Jenson Button finished ninth to make it a double-points finish for McLaren, while Romain Grosjean finished P10 for one point in Haas’s first home grand prix.
2016 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||56||+19.692s||3|
|6||Carlos Sainz||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||56||+96.124s||10|
|7||Felipe Massa||Williams-Mercedes||55||+1 lap||9|
|8||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||55||+1 lap||11|
|9||Jenson Button||McLaren-Honda||55||+1 lap||19|
|10||Romain Grosjean||Haas-Ferrari||55||+1 lap||17|
|11||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||55||+1 lap||13|
|12||Kevin Magnussen*||Renault||55||+1 lap||18|
|13||Jolyon Palmer||Renault||55||+1 lap||15|
|14||Marcus Ericsson||Sauber-Ferrari||55||+1 lap||16|
|15||Felipe Nasr||Sauber-Ferrari||55||+1 lap||21|
|16||Valtteri Bottas||Williams-Mercedes||55||+1 lap||8|
|17||Pascal Wehrlein||Manor-Mercedes||55||+1 lap||20|
|18||Esteban Ocon||Manor-Mercedes||54||+2 laps||22|
|DNF||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||28||NC||4|
|DNF||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1||NC||7|
*Kevin Magnussen was handed a five-second time penalty and two two penalty points for his superlicence for passing Daniil Kvyat off the track.