The title will have to wait until Mexico. A top-six finish there will seal a fifth drivers’ crown for Lewis Hamilton no matter what. In a stunning finale in Texas Hamilton diced with Max Verstappen for the second place that might have made him king and Sebastian Vettel duelled with Valtteri Bottas for the fourth place that would extend the championship for seven days at least.
Hamilton failed by a fag paper and Vettel got his man. And so we head across the border to Mexico City for the coronation. It is never dull with Hamilton. All the permutations that might have taken him to the championship boiled down to ten-lap thrash to hunt down Verstappen.
Out in front Kimi Raikkonen had the race under control. With Vettel in fifth, Hamilton needed only to pass the Red Bull to match Juan Manuel Fangio with five rings on his fingers. Only. This is Verstappen we are talking about, arguably the one driver in the game with a genetic package the equal of Hamilton’s. By increments Hamilton reeled in the kid. With five laps to go Hamilton was in Verstappen’s dirty air, that unseen cloud of turbulence that beats the front end of the following car with a ton of bricks. With just two laps to go Hamilton was swinging back and forth behind the Red Bull seeking the track position would was suck him up the inside. This wasn’t so much grand prix racing as a video game, both cars on the ragged edge.
In the Mercedes garage corks were popping so conclusive did Hamilton’s switch-blade attack appear. They won’t be the last to celebrate prematurely. Verstappen last defensive thrust sent Hamilton on to the marbles and wide. Game over. He would have to settle for third. No matter, Vettel’s move on Bottas on the penultimate lap guaranteed that Hamilton would have to put the bubbly back on ice.
In truth, Hamilton knew he didn’t have to strike the bull’s eye to hit the ultimate target. With three further races to complete the championship was effectively insured. Nevertheless, he went to the grid knowing that he might indeed finish this race a champion for the fifth time. There is no feeling quite as delicious as that, and as much as Hamilton talked about focus, he could never park that thought absolutely.
Given what was at stake Hamilton made a conservative start, declining to impose himself through the first corner as Raikkonen stood his ground on the inside. After you Claude, said Hamilton. If that had the Ferrari pit wall throwing body punches at the air, Vettel had them quickly back on their stools screaming ‘no mas’.
Yes it happened again, the seventh self-inflicted wound by the Scuderia this term, Vettel overly eager to make up ground from fifth on the grid bouncing off Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull into an unwanted doughnut and rejoining the race in 13th. So insanely quick was the Ferrari, Vettel was up to sixth by the time Ricciardo’s engine conked on the ninth lap.
The opportunity to come in under the virtual safety car was eschewed by Ferrari, a decision that proved decisive for Raikkonen. Mercedes gambled, whisking in Hamilton for fresh rubber. It proved costly. Though Hamilton was back out in third quickly at the hindquarters of leader Raikkonen, he could not pass. The calculations suggested Raikkonen’s defensive dexterity cost Hamilton eight seconds, ruining his front tyres and forcing him to pit a second time on lap 38.
“Give it everything,” said Hamilton’s race engineer Pete ‘Bono’ Bonnington on the radio, more to reassure himself than Hamilton, who never gives anything less. Hamilton came out fourth, which quickly became third courtesy of his obliging team-mate, Bottas, who ushered him through to chase down Verstappen.
Hamilton might have switched on the spotify and coasted home to third. Given his all-but conclusive advantage there really was no need for him to light up his tyres. But poodling about on a Sunday afternoon is not him and off he shot, stirring the locals into a frenzy and reminding America what a proper race looks like.
Raikkonen responded to his victory with the most ‘Kimi’ question ever to Hamilton. “Did you win the championship?” he asked.
“No,” Hamilton said. Not yet, anyway.