Raikkonen breaks through to win USGP; title fight goes on

Image by Zak Mauger/LAT

Raikkonen breaks through to win USGP; title fight goes on

Formula 1

Raikkonen breaks through to win USGP; title fight goes on

Kimi Raikkonen claimed his first grand prix victory win in more than five years in a thrilling United States Grand Prix, thwarting Lewis Hamilton’s bid to claim the championship at Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton needed to outscore Sebastian Vettel by just eight points, and the Briton’s pole position made him an odds-on favorite to get the job done on the German, who started from fifth on the grid, but a slow getaway handed the lead and the strategic initiative to Raikkonen.

The Finn perfectly managed his one-stop race, defending against Max Verstappen and a fast-finishing Hamilton in the final laps to secure a memorable victory.

“It’s been a great weekend,” he said. “The tires were not in the best shape, but I think they were a bit similar to Max’s.

“We had enough speed and we keep it consistent. We just tried to keep the tires alive until the end.

“It was a great battle. I think that’s what we all want as drivers.”

Verstappen, who had started in 18th after a suspension failure in qualifying and a gearbox change penalty on Sunday morning, was pleasantly surprised to have played a role in the podium fight.

Verstappen fights his way up from the back. (Image by Zak Mauger/LAT)

“A bit unexpected!” he said. “A good start, a good first lap, and then very quickly we were back into P4, P5 and following the leaders.

“We made the right call to undercut Valtteri (Bottas), and then we did our own race.”

Hamilton, who raced Verstappen hard in the final laps but was unable to seize second place, said Mercedes had done the best it could with the tire wear it had experienced.

“I thought we’d be able to do better, but this is the best we could do in the end,” he conceded. “But anyway, I’m really happy still — we still got to the top three. Ferrari picked up their game this weekend. We’ve got to push hard for the next race.”

Polesitter Hamilton battles with Raikkonen at the start. (Image by Glenn Dunbar/LAT)

Title leader Hamilton, starting on the supersoft tires, lost out to the ultrasoft-shod Raikkonen at the start. The news was music to Vettel’s ears as the German challenged Daniel Ricciardo for fourth place, but things turned sour for the title contender when he attempted to pass the Red Bull Racing car.

Vettel pulled ahead of the Australian into Turn 12, but a wiggle under braking handed Ricciardo back the advantage. They went side by side into Turn 13, but Vettel, with the inside line, made contact and spun himself around and down to 15th place while Ricciardo escaped unscathed.

Further down the field Lance Stroll was making a mess of his first lap, running off the track into the sector-one esses and clobbering into the side of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in a clumsy attempt to rejoin the track, causing the Spaniard race-ending sidepod damage and earning himself a drive-through penalty.

Romain Grosjean and Charles Leclerc also tangled, with the former retiring from the race and the latter making it to lap 33 before ending his afternoon in the garage.

Vettel picked his way through the midfield and up to 10th place by Lap 6, but the victory race was thrown a curveball on Lap 10 when Ricciardo’s car switched itself off at Turn 11, forcing him retire by the side of the road and triggering a virtual safety car.

Hamilton, still trailing Raikkonen, was told to pit if Kimi didn’t, and when Ferrari left its man on track, the Briton dived into the pits to switch to a new set of soft-compound tires. He fell to just nine seconds behind the leader and dropped to third behind teammate Valtteri Bottas, who quickly let him past into second once racing resumed on Lap 12.

Vettel slipped past Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and into fifth on the restart, but he was almost 10 seconds behind fourth-placed Verstappen, where he remained for the opening stint.

Hamilton, meanwhile, bore down on Raikkonen, applying maximum pressure to relieve the Ferrari driver of the lead. The Finn defended obstinately, however, despite his aging ultrasoft rubber, until Lap 21, when he was finally recalled for a new set of soft-compound tires.

Raikkonen dropped to fifth behind Vettel, who was yet to pit — they would shortly switch places, allowing Raikkonen to maximize his fresher rubber — and both were promoted to second and third once Bottas and Verstappen made their tire changes, with Valtteri losing a place to the Dutchman in the stops.

After Vettel made his own stop on Lap 26, the race entered a stage of strategic tension, with Ferrari adamant that Hamilton would have to make a second stop, which would hand Raikkonen back the race lead.

The Scuderia was on the money, and Hamilton’s rear tires soon showed signs of blistering. By Lap 35 the damage looked severe, and what was once an almost 18-second advantage was whittled down to just eight seconds.

Mercedes pulled the trigger for a second stop, switching Hamilton to a fresh set of soft tires at the end of Lap 37, dropping him to fourth behind Bottas, Verstappen and new leader Raikkonen and only four seconds ahead of Vettel.

“We just need everything now,” Hamilton was told, and once Bottas let him past and into third, the Briton went about closing his 12-second deficit to Raikkonen.

Ferrari was predicting Hamilton would catch Raikkonen with three laps remaining, but the Briton’s first hurdle was Verstappen, who was running a long stint on the supersoft tire in second place.

It took him until Lap 51 to get within one second of Verstappen and gain DRS, but the Dutchman was likewise closely tailing Raikkonen in the lead, neutralizing the advantage.

They shadowboxed until Lap 54, when Hamilton attempted to launch a move for second place in the final sector. They sparred aggressively, with Hamilton snatching an advantage at Turn 16, but he ran wide at the following corner, falling back to third and losing the initiative.

Yet, even if he were to engage in a second parry, it wouldn’t have ended the championship fight — Vettel had been slowly closing the gap to Bottas and successfully launched a pass at Turn 12 on the penultimate lap, winning him enough points to take the title race to Mexico.

Hamilton’s championship gap now sits at 70 points. Vettel will have to outscore him by 21 points — in other words, win the race with Lewis failing to finish — to keep the fight alive beyond next weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

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