Hamilton, or Rosberg: Whose race is it?
If you look at his form in Texas, and the way he’s been going here, you would have suggested prior to the final runs in Q3 that Lewis Hamilton should walk this one. And of course he needs to, if he is to maintain any chance of unseating Rosberg - who could wrap up the title here - before it’s all over.
He has been on it right from the start, even when the track was at its worst, and said the car felt much better than it had here last year. It took Rosberg a lot longer to find his way, but he got there eventually on his final run in Q3.
“Lewis’ lap was brilliant, not so much mine,” the points leader conceded. “But I put it together when it counted in the end, so I’m relatively pleased with that, to definitely make sure I’m on the front row, even though it’s not pole position of course. But still that gives me a great chance for tomorrow anyways.
“It just took a bit longer this weekend to find the way, just generally with tyre temperatures, them being on the cold side all weekend, so it’s a bit nervous out there. And just to find the way with that took a bit longer, but got there in the end, so that’s okay.”
Hamilton needs to win, but it would help his title aspirations hugely if the Red Bulls were to get ahead of Rosberg. If they don’t make the best of their supersofts and break through into an early lead, the race will likely depend on which of the Mercedes drivers makes the better start.
Are Red Bull happy starting from the second row?
Last week in Austin it was only Daniel Ricciardo who opted for the supersoft tyres in Q2, leaving Max Verstappen to run the softs. And the way things worked out, it was the Australian who had the better race, though his chance of attacking at least Nico Rosberg was stymied by the timing of the first Virtual Safety Car which came just after he had pitted for soft rubber.
Now both start on the supersofts, on the second row ahead of Ferrari. Verstappen in particular was very happy with his qualifying runs.
“I’m very pleased with the way it went,” he said. “We are in an ideal position to fight from the start. All weekend we have had a good car. We are still just a little down on top speed which makes it hard to compete with the Mercedes in qualifying, but we are still pretty close so that is a good achievement.
Ricciardo, by contrast, was very unhappy.
“I think the fight was there, but to be honest my last lap was terrible. I was fighting it already out of Turn 1 and by Turn 6 I was nearly four-tenths slower than my previous lap. We managed to recuperate some of that but looking at the gap to pole it was only four-tenths so it could have been a lot better, but it also could have been a lot worse. It’s just like that with a new surface, it’s still very slippery here and it’s hard to find that happy medium. In that last run in Q3 we definitely lost some performance, particularly in the first half of the lap, but we’re still on the second row so that’s okay and I’ll take that.”
Is either team adamant that their strategy is correct?
Naturally, the two Mercedes drivers believe their strategy of starting on the more durable soft Pirellis is superior to Red Bull’s ploy of starting on the stickier but more fragile supersofts.
“There is no real tactic,” Hamilton said. “I turned up to do the job and I’m going to try to do the same thing as I did last week. So far this weekend has gone well. I’m looking forward to the race, the long runs seem to be good, the car feels great, so I’m just looking forward to getting out on track.”
Mercedes had very good race pace in practice, and Rosberg added: “The supersoft is going to be okay to start the race on, but then it disintegrates pretty quickly, so in terms of strategy that’s definitely going to be a disadvantage and we just think our tyre is the better one, but let’s see how it goes.”
However, Verstappen firmly believes starting on the softer rubber is the answer.
“Of course there is more degradation than a soft so it’s up to me, and with the car balance, to make it last as long as we can. But definitely in the start with such a long run to the first corner, if we can have a good start, then we have a lot of opportunities from there onwards. Our chances of making progress straight away are high. And our race pace looks strong, which means we are looking forward to tomorrow.”
Team mate Ricciardo was a little less sanguine.
“Let’s see what tomorrow brings. I think we can have a good race but to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow after this qualifying is difficult.”
What has happened to Ferrari’s pace?
If you’re a cynic, you might put the difference between Mercedes and Ferrari in Q3, after the Scuderia had looked very close to the Silver Arrows all weekend, down to the latter turning up the wick on their power units when it really mattered.
But that suggestion doesn’t quite explain why Red Bull were still close, and back ahead of Ferrari.
So where did Ferrari’s pace go?
The weather and the track conditions contributed to some misleading events on Friday. Lewis Hamilton was fastest in FP1, with 1m 20.914s, but Sebastian Vettel was next with 1m 20.993s and had Kimi Raikkonen riding shotgun in third with 1m 21.072s. Things looked good for the reds.
FP2 saw Vettel fastest with 1m 19.790s to Hamilton’s 1m 19.794s, with Raikkonen fourth on 1m 20.259s. Again, things looked good.
With decent track temperatures in FP3 everyone began to find their feet and suddenly Ferrari’s faster runner, Vettel, was only sixth. But he had also been stymied by traffic, which had cost him a decent amount of time on his best lap. Ferrari still looked to be in play.
Hamilton jumped to the top again in Q1, but Raikkonen was second and Vettel fourth. Still things looked good. Matters were skewed slightly in Q2 as both Mercedes and Ferrari opted for soft Pirellis while Red Bull went for the supersofts, but the scarlet cars were still clearly there.
But by the end of Q3, Hamilton was on pole from Rosberg, Verstappen was third, Ricciardo fourth and, whisper it, Hulkenberg had stolen fifth for Force India.
Vettel’s first run had been a disaster: eighth fastest. Raikkonen was sixth and failed to improve; Vettel went quite a bit quicker, but was still way off Mercedes’ pace, by six-tenths of a second - and three-tenths off Red Bull’s.
“I am very disappointed, because the car is quick,” a glum Vettel said. “Our Q2 had been a walk in the park with the soft tyres. I had a much better feeling, but then with the supersofts we were nowhere. Yesterday we were gaining quite a lot on the supersoft compound and today we didn't gain anything.
“We tried a couple of things, but in qualifying you can't turn the world upside down: so now we need to have a look and see why. Everybody improved on the supersofts, more or less half a second - everybody except us. The car is quick, there is nothing wrong with it, and we start where the car doesn't belong. It doesn't make our race easier to start further back, but I think we still have a chance.”
What has Hulkenberg found that local boy Perez couldn’t?
Last year Nico Hulkenberg upstaged team mate Sergio Perez on his home ground, and this year though they were pretty evenly matched through a lot of the practice, the German ended up seven places further up the grid. He had his Force India VJM09 well hooked up, and took a dramatic fifth place ahead of the Ferraris. His first lap was so good that he described it as possibly his best qualifying lap of the season, and his assertion that there had been nothing more he could extract from it was born out when he didn’t improve on his second run.
Checo didn’t quite get his car in the same window of performance, and missed Q3 by 0.118s.
“It’s a shame to miss out on Q3, but I’m optimistic we can recover some positions in the race with a strong strategy,” he said. “In Q2 we went out on the soft tyres to see if we could progress to Q3, but for my second run we switched to the supersofts. Unfortunately, I made a small mistake on my final lap, which ended my chance of qualifying inside the top ten. I just locked up the front tyres going into Turn 1 and ran wide. I apologise for the mistake, but I hope I can give all my fans some happiness in the race tomorrow. Our race pace looks competitive, so I think we can come away with a good result tomorrow.”
And what does the race hold for the other home hero?
All year Esteban Gutierrez has been impressively close to his much-vaunted Haas team mate Romain Grosjean, igniting high hopes for a strong performance running in front of his home crowd for the first time.
But it ended with the Mexican only 17th on the grid, the Swiss-Frenchman 21st. Both drivers struggled to find grip, and when Gutierrez spun in the Esses in the final minute of Q1 it ruined his chances and his team mate’s, as Grosjean had to back off to avoid him.
Gutierrez admitted the weekend has been challenging thus far.
“Heading into qualifying we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I really gave it my best. I was driving over the limit trying to put everything together for the team and for the fans - they have been incredible. I had to try to be aggressive as I knew the lap at the beginning of the run may not have been enough. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t, but at least I know I gave it the maximum. When I got out of the car, I wasn’t very happy, but walking along the pit lane everybody was cheering, and it was an amazing feeling just to see their support. They’ve made a huge difference to our motivation.”
The fans may be providing support, but Gutierrez will need the car on his side if he is to make an impression on Sunday - and, according to Grosjean, the signs are not great.
“The top speed has been fine, but there’s no grip and no balance,” he said. “You can manage poor grip and drive around it if you’ve got a balanced car, but combined, there’s just nothing you can do. One corner will be oversteer, the next understeer. It’s weird the way it’s behaved here.”