Valtteri Bottas took a hard-fought pole at the United States Grand Prix, with the top three drivers in three different cars separated by just 0.067 seconds.
The fine margins separating Mercedes’s Bottas from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen speaks to the all-round challenge of the Circuit of the Americas as one of the sport’s best new-era circuits. Comprising corners spaning the full range of speeds, elevation challenges and a long straight, the strengths and weaknesses of the frontrunning teams were effectively equalised.
But whereas Verstappen understandably dominated the final sector, which comprises eight of the circuit’s 20 turns, the balance between Mercedes and Ferrari at the first two splits was less predictable. Bottas was quickest in sector two despite it featuring the long back straight that should’ve been Ferrari territory, whereas Vettel controlled the first sector, which includes the demanding turns three to six.
Whatever the reason behind the German and Italian teams’ reversal of form, it worked to set up an interesting picture for what’s likely to be the title-deciding race, albeit with champion-elect Lewis Hamilton qualifying an off-colour fifth behind the underpowered Charles Leclerc, who reverted to an older engine after an oil leak in Saturday practice.
But all drivers in the top five starting the race on the medium tyre, it could be Alex Albon from sixth who’s the biggest mover of the weekend. Red Bull Racing made a deliberate decision to split its strategies via tyre choice in Q2, sending Albon out with the soft tyre for both runs while giving Verstappen the medium favoured by the rest of the frontrunners.
Clearly the Austrian team has a split-strategy gamble in mind at the finely balanced circuit.
|2019 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX GRID|
Distance: 5.513 kilometres
Lap record: 1:37.392 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2008)
Tyre stress: medium
Lateral load: high
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 43 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 413.4 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.603 seconds
Fuel use: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: hard–1.0 second–medium–1.0 second–soft
Before considering the potential strategic outcomes of the race, it’s worth considering why conditions in the race may not match those prevalent on Friday.
|Soft (C4), 5 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:39.728|
|Williams (2 laps)||1:43.414|
For one, it was more than 5°C colder on Friday than the forecast maximum for race day — indeed the days leading up to this race were bitterly cold, including with overnight frost. Further, track evolution has been very high throughout the weekend, both making long-run simulations difficult to compare and making the behaviour of the tyres more difficult to predict for the race.
It’s perhaps for these reasons combined that Red Bull Racing has deliberately split its strategies to have Albon tart on the soft tyre and Verstappen start second on the medium along with both Mercedes and both Ferrari drivers.
The soft tyre is estimated to be as much as a second faster than the medium but without a dramatically shorter life expectancy, and indeed Pirelli believes a soft-medium strategy is the fastest route from lights to flag.
But while the extra rubber laid into the track will help Albon make the most of his tyres, the higher temperatures, combined with his starting fuel load, could increase wear. He’ll need to pick up places with a good start to maximise this strategy.
But Albon may also prove a useful guinea pig for Verstappen. While Pirelli estimates that the fastest way to the flag for those starting on the medium tyre is to switch the had tyre a little before half distance, Red Bull Racing may consider trying to stretch the Dutchman’s first stint to give him a blast on softs with a lighter tank late in the race instead. The Circuit of the Americas facilitates overtaking, which means giving up track position to make it up later in the race may be a viable way forward.
|Medium (C3), 5 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:40.413|
|Racing Point||No data|
|Toro Rosso||No data|
If Albon’s soft-tyre pace or wear rate isn’t enticing, a straightforward one-stop medium-hard race is on the cars for the top five. Ferrari, true to this weekend’s form-reversing trend, set some strong times on the mediums on Friday, holding as much as a half-second advantage over Mercedes. Red Bull Racing was a further 0.4 seconds behind on average.
The large gaps surely aren’t representative but do indicate that Ferrari is able to get the most from the rubber in the colder weather, perhaps not unlike the way it demonstrated as much all the way back in preseason testing.
With little data to go on for the hard tyre — only Hamilton used it during FP2 for a quick but short stint — how the drivers manage the final stint of the race is anyone’s guess. Verstappen took the white-striped tyre almost the entire race distance and Mexico — both there and here it’s the C@, the second-hardest in Pirelli’s range — which might give Red Bull Racing confidence to pull the undercut trigger early if in a position to do so.