Hamilton daring to dream after supreme show
Published 24/10/2016 | 02:30
Lewis Hamilton's great escape has a first chapter. It was a turgid, processional opening, but that is what his unlikely path to a fourth title demands. Only dominance will do.
The United States Grand Prix was ushered in with a fanfare which the race never threatened to live up to.
Hamilton led comfortably throughout, returning to form after a disastrous weekend in Japan, while his title rival, Nico Rosberg, finished second. That is still all Rosberg needs to do in the remaining three races to take a maiden title this year.
But on the basis of this superb visit to Austin, a far less dramatic one than 12 months ago, when he clinched a third title, Hamilton will put his team-mate under unrelenting pressure as this season reaches its conclusion.
This was classic Hamilton, supreme all weekend, without an equal.
It seemed fitting that the reigning champion's first victory in three months came here, a country he loves perhaps more than any other, and where he is Formula One's only star. He has now won four of the five races held at the Circuit of the Americas, and five in the United States in total.
Hamilton simply enjoyed the drive after a traumatic time since the summer break, but this could prove to be one of the most significant of his 50 career victories. The gap in the championship has been narrowed to 26 points with just three races to go. It is still out of his hands, but Rosberg cannot afford to slip up.
The German nearly finished third here, with Daniel Ricciardo splitting the Mercedes at the start. But ironically it was the demise of Ricciardo's team-mate, Max Verstappen, and the subsequent virtual safety car, that proved to be the Australian's undoing.
Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef, had a word in Hamilton's ear on the grid.
They shared a hug which disguised the world champion's nerves ahead of the ultimate test: getting his Mercedes off the line in the lead, something he has failed to do five times this year. But for once his start was true. He moved to the inside, blocking Rosberg.
Ricciardo showed the German a bit of nose and found a way through into second. Behind, the gaping wide apex of turn one encouraged a few speculative lunges. Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg collided, the only casualties of the first corner. Hulkenberg was out.
At the front, Hamilton eased away from Ricciardo. Rosberg was content to hold third, knowing that soon the Australian would be into the pits.
Tony Ross, Rosberg's engineer, told Rosberg to push hard. "That's not the long game," he replied. But he was soon in, on to the hardest tyres. Hamilton followed a lap later but on a different strategy to his team-mate.
Verstappen's second pit stop ended his hopes of a podium. He thought he had been called in, but Red Bull were not ready. Somehow the message, "box, box, box" - or lack of - did not get through. The mechanics frantically cleared the tyre warmers from Ricciardo's stop the lap before, but it cost Verstappen oodles of time. Soon his race was finished anyway with an apparent engine failure, bringing an eventful afternoon to a close.
Perversely, Verstappen's chuntering to a halt ruined his team-mate's chance of second place. With his Red Bull stranded at the side of the track, the stewards deployed the virtual safety car, allowing Hamilton and Rosberg to pit, losing less time than they would in normal racing conditions.
Ricciardo had already stopped, meaning Rosberg leapfrogged the Red Bull.
The chances of passing Rosberg, on fresh rubber too, were almost zero. Hamilton had a lead of 11 seconds and from there the race at the front was done.
Seventeen laps later, Hamilton parked his car in front of the podium in the middle space for the first time in what must have seemed like an eternity.
There is just about some life left in this championship yet.