RACE DEBRIEF

    The Circuit of The Americas is Lewis Hamilton’s backyard, the world champion having triumphed four times in the last five years here. This year, he only needs an eighth place finish to secure a historic world title and looked in good shape to achieve the feat after topping the Friday practice times. But does his impressive pace tell the real story? Let’s have a look at the data.

    ONE LAP PACE

    Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, referred to by most as COTA, is one of the most dramatic-looking circuits on the calendar. Climb to the top of the steep Turn 1 and you’ll be greeted with a sensational vista and box-seat view of a first sector that features high-speed quick changes of direction, similar to that of Silverstone’s Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel complex.

    Over the years, bumps have become a feature of the circuit, with the uneven surface causing the drivers a few headaches across Friday’s two practice sessions.

    Throw in a low grip surface, in unusually cold conditions, plus the fact plenty of drivers exceeded track limits at the fast Turn 19 – and had their time deleted as a result – and it sets things up nicely for the weekend.

    READ MORE: Hamilton wary of Red Bull and Ferrari threat in the US

    Best single lap

    1 Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton) 1m33.232s
    2 Ferrari (Charles Leclerc) 1m33.533s +0.301s
    3 Red Bull (Max Verstappen) 1m33.547s +0.315s
    4 Toro Rosso (Pierre Gasly) 1m34.509s +1.277s
    5 McLaren (Carlos Sainz) 1m34.667s +1.435s
    6 Racing Point (Lance Stroll) 1m34.744s +1.512s
    7 Alfa Romeo (Antonio Giovinazzi) 1m34.839s +1.607s
    8 Renault (Daniel Ricciardo) 1m34.924s +1.692s
    9 Haas (Kevin Magnussen) 1m35.442s +2.210s
    10 Williams (George Russell) 1m36.749s +3.517s

    When looking at the overall times, it was Hamilton who shone the brightest, the five-time world champion clocking a time that was 0.3s better than anyone else could manage and 0.8s clear of Mercedes team mate and sole title challenger Valtteri Bottas. The W10 was supreme in the low and medium speed corners, but lost out to Ferrari, unsurprisingly given their power unit advantage, in the high speed turns. Their deficit to the red cars on the straights was 0.4s – not as big as it has been at some tracks this year.

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    But in reality, Hamilton’s advantage was smaller as the Mercedes driver benefitted from a tow of the Williams of Robert Kubica. It’s why Red Bull and Max Verstappen were feeling pretty chipper on Friday, despite the 0.3s deficit. “The gap is probably a bit smaller than it looks,” said the Dutchman. “The pace of the car on the short runs seems pretty good.” Red Bull have traditionally been very good on their tyres so if they can do just that in Austin on a track that is very tough on the rubber, there’s a very good chance they will be right in the mix.

    READ MORE: Red Bull can 'suddenly' turn the tide in Austin – Verstappen

    Ferrari are definitely in the fight, too, the red cars a fraction quicker than the Red Bulls and thus very much in touch with the silver cars pace, less the benefit Hamilton gained from the tow, in the fight for pole. All in all, then, the data suggests it’s thrillingly close in the fight for pole between the three big teams – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. But what of the others?

    With the carrot of a first-ever fifth place in the constructors’ championship dangling tantalisingly close, the Honda-powered Toro Rosso team have really upped their game off late – and in Austin, they have emerged as best of the rest for the second successive race weekend. As ever, the midfield looks incredibly tight with 0.4s separating Toro Rosso, McLaren, Racing Point, Alfa Romeo and Renault.

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    RACE PACE

    For much of the season, Mercedes have delivered the strongest race pace figures on a Friday – and generally speaking carried that into the race. The reverse was the case last time in Mexico, mind, the Silver Arrows third in the pecking order behind an evenly-matched Ferrari and Red Bull before turning it around to win.

    But in Austin, normal service was resumed, with Mercedes doing a series of long runs on all three compound tyres and emerging on top of the pile. Technical chief James Allison said the team were “quite encouraged” by the pace of the car. He added: “Lewis in particular had a strong afternoon on low and high fuel and on a range of compounds.”

    READ MORE: Trackside performance analysis – Threading the needle through COTA’s magnificent esses

    Ferrari also sampled the full complement of compounds, but they ended up around 0.3s/lap slower than Mercedes, but 0.2s/lap clear of Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel, who was outpaced by team mate Charles Leclerc, admitted Ferrari have “some work to do” in race trim. But he said he was “quite confident” the team can improve the car overnight.

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    There’s a bit of a chasm between the leading trio and the rest, but the chasing pack is well-matched. Racing Point ended up top of that pile, but they were handed a blow when Sergio Perez was handed a pit lane start for failing to stop to have his car weighed in second practice.

    Just 0.2s/lap separated the pink cars with McLaren, Renault, Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo, meaning it’ll be an intense battle for the final points-paying positions come Sunday.

    READ MORE: Sainz anticipating ‘very challenging weekend’ for McLaren in Austin

    The Haas race pace makes for grim reading, the American squad 1.1s/lap away from the main midfield pack and level with Williams, but they were hampered by Romain Grosjean’s crash early in FP1 – when he was running the new front wing while Kevin Magnussen used the session as a test to gather aerodynamic data. They are quietly hopeful they’ll be more competitive as the weekend goes on.

    Charles Leclerc: A positive day in Texas

    VERDICT

    For the second successive weekend, the weather has been a major talking point in the F1 paddock, thanks to the cold spell that has struck Austin. Mercifully, conditions are set to improve as the weekend goes on, with ambient temperatures of around 18C on Saturday, rising to 20C on Sunday.

    With varying conditions across each day, coupled with the bumps that have made it tricky for all the drivers, the race could throw up some interesting results and strategies, meaning we could get the kind of epic we were treated to last year, when Kimi Raikkonen held off Verstappen to take a shock win.

    FP2 HIGHLIGHTS: 2019 United States Grand Prix

    Qualifying should be pretty close, too, with Ferrari and Red Bull chomping at Mercedes’ heels in the low-fuel metrics. Your grid-slot isn’t the be all and end all at COTA as the track characteristics mean you can certainly overtake, but it’ll put you in a strong position concerning strategy – something which has played a huge factor in the outcome of the last few races.

    READ MORE: Ferrari need to be ‘braver’ after Mercedes’ Mexico triumph

    For Hamilton, he’ll likely rest easy on Friday night, the Briton knowing that eighth place or higher will be enough to secure a sixth world crown. He’ll only be focused on victory, though, and his form around here in the last five years, coupled with his performance so far this weekend suggests he is almost certain to have another crown to add to his bustling collection in less than 48 hours…