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Six key questions ahead of the race in Austin

23 Oct 2016

Who has been clever on strategy at the Circuit of The Americas? Can Ferrari rediscover their pace on race day? What can Jenson Button do from the back? We consider the key talking points ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix…

Can Hamilton make it four wins here?

Pole position was exactly the boost that Lewis Hamilton needed after his reversal of fortunes since his engine failure in Malaysia, and gives him the chance to enact the first stage of his title challenge by beating Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.

The latter admitted that he just wasn’t quick enough through Turn 1, where he lost out the most to his fellow Silver Arrow driver. “It was nothing specific,” he said. “Sector one… I preferred sector two and three today and that’s it. Lewis was just quicker in sector one, pretty simple, but it was a good lap that I did nevertheless in the end there, so I was pleased with it. Of course I was annoyed when Lewis came over the line and I could see on the TV that he beat me to it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Hamilton said he was delighted with what, amazingly, was his first pole on the track where he has won three times.

“It really starts from Turn 1,” he said. “That first sector was my best of the weekend. In all honesty, the poles that I’ve lost in the past years have all been in the first corner, mostly, so to finally come here and have a Turn 1 in the first sector, the fastest, just shows progression, which I’m really happy about.”

Now the big question concerns Mercedes’ infamous clutch problem. He comes here confident that he and his engineers have come up with the right solutions to prevent disasters such as befell him in Monza and Japan.

“It’s been an ongoing thing all year long,” he admitted of the problem and subsequent development work. “There’s been a lot of changes, a lot of work, perhaps more than in other areas. I was at the factory last week and we were working very hard to cover up all areas so we hope that we have a slightly better formula this weekend. If not then there will be a better formula next weekend, but it is something that... I definitely feel that we’re in a better position, so fingers crossed for Sunday.”

Why were Mercedes clever in Q2?

The supersoft Pirelli tyres showed clear signs of distress within a handful of hot laps on Friday and Saturday morning, which means that they aren’t expected to last too long at the start of the race when cars are at their heaviest carrying the most fuel. Pirelli recommend a maximum of 15 laps and in practice Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel managed 18, but in the hot conditions expected for the race, and with that full fuel load, they might not last that long.

Mercedes had the pace to risk trying the softs early in Q2. Whichever tyres drivers use for their best time in that session, they must then use for the start of the race (assuming they progressed to Q3).

The risk paid off. With the potential to go 21 to 23 laps before the first stop, that could prove crucial, provided Hamilton and Rosberg are able to resist Daniel Ricciardo’s challenge on the faster supersofts in the opening laps.
 

Was anyone else?

Yes. Red Bull have split their strategy, with Ricciardo qualifying on the supersoft Pirellis and Max Verstappen on softs. And they firmly believe that they can take the fight to Mercedes here. If they do, it could have a crucial and largely unforeseen effect on the title fight between Hamilton and Rosberg.

The RB12 is one of the best chassis in the business, and the fact that it can keep the pressure on the Mercedes, with what is thought to be around a 75 horsepower deficit, suggest that its aerodynamics could be slightly better than the F1 W07’s.

On Friday and Saturday morning Red Bull looked very strong on race pace, with Ricciardo fastest on both the supersoft and soft tyres and showing significant consistency. Hamilton wasn’t far off, but Rosberg and Verstappen fell some way short.

"We made some changes between the two sessions, and we look pretty good for now, hopefully we stay like that and should have a good race if that's the case,” Ricciardo said.

After qualifying a strong third, half a second down on Hamilton but within three-tenths of Rosberg, the Australian was bullish about his prospects. And when he’s like that he is at his most dangerous. But he needs a great start, and to dislodge the two silver cars ahead of him on their slower soft-compound tyres, if he’s to have any hope of winning.

“We’ll see what happens but hopefully the supersoft gives me a little bit of friendly grip off the line and we can challenge the first lap. The supersofts probably won’t have as much range as the softs so you want to try and get at least a handful of laps out of them, but ideally it puts me in a better position off the start and hopefully I can dictate my own pace as opposed to fighting in traffic.”

Verstappen can afford to be more circumspect, though that is not really in his racer’s nature. And he may be in a position to strike if his team mate disrupts the Mercedes off the line.

“Being both on the second row is not a bad result at all,” said the Dutchman. “I have three cars in front of me so there will need to be some passing during the race and hopefully starting on the soft compound will help.

“Mercedes have shown in qualifying that they are pretty strong and will be hard to beat. Our focus needs to be on what comes from behind us. Daniel and I starting on different strategies means we have options to attack or defend so I hope it is an exciting race.”

Ferrari: Still so near yet so far?

The signs of revival that Ferrari believed they saw in Suzuka went missing in Austin, as both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel struggled to get the SF16-H working properly as they qualified fifth and sixth, well off Mercedes’ and Red Bull’s pace.

Vettel said he wasn’t at all happy with the speed they showed in qualifying. "The circuit is similar in many regards to two weeks ago in Japan but we seem to struggle more for overall pace here. We don't exactly know.

"On Friday, we saw we weren't yet on the pace. We improved for today, the feeling in the car wasn't that bad and throughout qualifying, both of us were reasonably happy with the balance. But we're just not quick enough.”

He conceded that he probably pushed a little bit too hard. "We know it backfires on these tyres but that's not an excuse, I should have done a better job. We had a good run the last couple of races, coming here and seeing we're not as competitive as we thought is not good news."

Raikkonen was just plain unhappy.

"It's a disappointment where we finished today but handling wise, there was not a lot to complain about," he said. "It's just pure lap time we are missing, we have to go faster."

Long-run analysis from Friday had suggested Ferrari were second only to Mercedes on race pace. Their fans can only hope that becomes reality this afternoon.

What can Button do from the back?

After qualifying only 19th, having run into traffic on his last-gasp lap, Jenson Button criticised McLaren for the way his Q1 session went.

"We were eighth yesterday and ninth this morning, so the pace was good," he said, and team mate Fernando Alonso demonstrated that by missing Q3 by only two-tenths of a second. "But we just messed up with the timing again - it's not the first time.

"I had to overtake four cars in the last sector and the last one [Jolyon Palmer] saw me really late and stayed on the racing line, so I had to outbrake him into the final corner.”

Palmer himself as extremely irate with his Renault team, for not informing him quickly enough of approaching traffic.

"It's disappointing and it's just certain things that we shouldn't have been making mistakes with,” Button continued. "We mistimed the lap and got it wrong and it's annoying because we did it two races ago in Malaysia as well. It means I'm doing my timed lap when other people are doing their out lap, so we've got to stop doing that because it's costing us a lot.

"You could say 'Well how do you know when the pack is going out?' but the other cars seem to be able to do that. I thought we had good pace here and we've thrown it away - it's our fault for getting the strategy wrong in terms of timing."

The result of the errors? Button has a very long afternoon ahead of him in Austin.

What’s the tyre story?

Lewis Hamilton’s pole position lap of 1m 34.999s comprehensively trashed Sebastian Vettel’s 1m 35.657s best from 2012, which had stood since then as the fastest ever around the Circuit of The Americas.

Strategically, options for the race are quite open. Either the medium or the soft is mandatory - which effectively means teams do not have to use the hardest compound but could mix and match softs and supersofts - and two or three stops are feasible.

“We had perfect conditions for qualifying, in which we saw the race tactics begin already,” Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery noted. “With both Mercedes starting on the soft tyre, plus Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, there’s a fundamental strategic variation that is likely to hold the key to the race tomorrow. We’ve seen in the past that strategy can help boost starting positions, so we can expect an eventful race tomorrow.”

The most laps by compound thus far are:
Medium - Palmer, 26 laps
Soft - Nasr and Vettel, 23 laps
Supersoft - Raikkonen and Bottas, 18 laps

The best laps by compound thus far are:
Medium - Hamilton, 1m 38.394s
Soft - Rosberg, 1m 36.351s
Supersoft - Hamilton, 1m 34.999s

Pirelli have recommended 30 laps as the maximum to run the mediums, 21 for the softs and 15 for the supersofts, opening up the following possible strategies:

Quickest - a two-stopper: one 14-lap stint on new supersofts, plus two 21-lap stints on new softs

Second-quickest - a three-stopper: one 10-lap stint on used supersofts, plus three 15-16-lap stints on softs

Slowest - a two-stopper: two stints of 16 and 20 laps on used softs, and a 20-lap stint on mediums

Also possible - two-stopper: one 10-lap stint on used supersofts, one 20-lap stint on softs and a 26-lap stint on mediums