It threatened to be a lonely-looking grid in Austin, following the sad news of two Formula 1 teams going into administration ahead of the United States Grand Prix, and even worse news of Jules Bianchi still fighting for his life in hospital in Japan. But even during the 17. race of the year, the 2014 season kept on giving, keeping the spectators at the edge of their seats more often than not – and once it was done, it still kept the title battle alive and kicking.
As the 17 cars revved their engines at the Circuit of The Americas before the lights went off, mathematically there were still three possible champions fighting for a win – but once the 56. lap was done, it became clear the title fight would come down to two players, both driving a Mercedes car – and this would be a fight to the wire.
The Silver Arrows’ domination in US GP practice sessions and qualifying was unsurprising – however, the sudden reemergence of Nico Rosberg as the pole sitter, after a spell of overshadowing superiority by his team-mate Lewis Hamilton was less expected. It looked like the German got his mojo back, and stood a realistic chance of cutting short his deficit to the top of the leaderboard – and the start of the race seemed to have confirmed it, as Rosberg eased into the lead, with little danger from Hamilton, trailing behind.
The German kept his cool during the safety car period, which quickly followed the race start; Adrian Sutil, who scored his best qualifying of the season, placing Sauber in the top 10 for the first time this year, did not get a chance to keep the form up on Sunday, as he was the first causality to leave the circuit that afternoon. A collision caused by Sergio Perez wiped the German out on turn 15. The Mexican didn’t get away from the accident unscathed either – having hit the back of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari before spinning into Sutil left bits of his Force India in tethers (scattered all over the scene of the collision) which could only translate into Game Over when he made it back to the pits.
After three safety car laps, which many drivers used to implement their first tyre change, the race resumed by Rosberg toying with the slow speeds he dictated to the rest of the field before launching forward to build a gap over Hamilton. But although both Mercedes drivers were on the same tyre strategies and drove effectively the same machine, the race leader gradually started losing his edge over his closest rival after switching to medium compounds, and eventually conceded the position to the Brit.
“It was a tough day for me and it feels horrible to finish second after starting from pole,” Rosberg said after the race.
“The conditions were very different compared to yesterday and it took me too long to find my rhythm at the beginning. In Formula 1 it is all about adapting quickly, but it just took me too long. Only 10 laps after Lewis passed me, I got it right and was able to push much more.”
The 5. win in a row and 10. this season has granted Hamilton the title of the most successful British driver to date, and placed him alongside Fernando Alonso in victories’ tallies of all time greatest – but with still 75 points up for grabs thanks to the widely criticised double-point finale in Abu Dhabi, it still didn’t cement his second career title.
“It is just something that you can’t be thinking about,” Hamilton told AUTOSPORT when asked about how he would feel losing to his team-mate in the last race.
“It is a fact that it is a possibility, but it is not something I am ready to accept so I will be pushing as hard as I can to try to win the next races.
“I want to win the next races; I want to get as many points as I can.”
In a similar interview Rosberg was more blunt:
“It is what it is. I don’t really care, as long as I have one point more at the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi.
“I don’t care why or how. It is the same for everybody.”
The other man who, ahead of the US GP, still stood a chance of scooping the top prize – albeit highly unrealistic one – was Daniel Ricciardo; and although the dream will have to be postponed until next year at least, in Austin the Red Bull driver proved he was the best of the rest this season.
Despite a semi-satisfactory qualifying which saw him start the race from 5. and a much poorer launch off the line on the Sunday, which instantly demoted him four places, the Aussie came back with bells ringing after the safety car period, overtaking the likes of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and two Williams in his now signature fearless style, to land himself a podium finish.
This means, of course, that once more he outperformed his four-time world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who had a much worse weekend than predicted. Having decided early to start the race from the pit lane, due to an imminent penalty for performing a full power unit change above the regulatory limit, the German committed his final practice and qualifying to race simulations; yet, his car underperformed on the day due to poor downforce and low grip in the early stages of the event, suffering additionally from an early puncture from the Sauber/Force India debris on lap 1. Considering the circumstances, the 7. place finish was still to be applauded – despite being a far cry from his start-to-finish lead just one year earlier.
Out of the rest of the curtailed pack, Williams could be classed as the big losers of the event. Throughout the season the team has shown impressive speed and a competitive edge, measuring up most closely to the unbeatable Mercedes; but again – as it has also been seen throughout the year – the team lost that edge at some point during the race, missing the podium by a notch once more.
Ferrari had little to celebrate also, finishing in all too common mid-10 to mid-grid positions, with 6. for Alonso and 13. for Raikkonen. It was a similar story for McLaren, who had shown promise in qualifying, with both cars making in into Q3 (followed by Jenson Button being pushed back to 12. for a precautionary gearbox change), but only one scoring points with Kevin Magnussen’s 8. place finish.
Force India did not see either of its cars complete the grand prix, as Nico Hulkenberg was forced to abandon his car on lap 16 after reporting smelling oil in the cockpit, which was a sign of an engine failure; the German was the last to join Perez and Sutil in the Austin DNF (did not finish) books.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lotus was set for its best race this season, standing a chance of a double top-10 finish with up to 7 points up for grabs. However, Romain Grosjean’s efforts were hindered by an overzealous Jean-Eric Vergne, fighting for his F1 future with his current team Toro Rosso – or whoever he manages to impress. The Frenchman made no pardons in his pursuit of a point-scoring finish – so much so that his aggressive overtaking attempts forced his compatriot off the track with six laps to go, as agreed by the stewards who demoted JEV from 9. to 10. later that evening. Grosjean still ended up outside the top 10 – but, to general surprise, his fear-spreading team-mate Pastor Maldonado managed to score his first four points for the team – and that without causing an accident.
As the F1 calendar approaches its final dates, the circus moves swiftly to Brazil, where, again, a shorter grid will try its one last attempt to take the spotlight off Mercedes with one last meaningful win; because after that all eyes will be peeled on the two Silver Arrows. The countdown to revealing the 2014 champion begins now.