Lewis Hamilton will have to wait another race to join the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio as a five-time Formula One world champion after Kimi Raikkonen scored a popular first victory since Australia 2013 and a first in a Ferrari since Belgium in 2009.
In a frantic and dramatic finish, the Finn held out to win from Max Verstappen and Hamilton, less than two seconds separating the podium finishers as Sebastian Vettel could only manage fourth.
For much of the race, it looked as if Hamilton would easily wrap up the title at a venue that he has practically made his own over previous years, especially after title rival Vettel’s hopes effectively ended on the opening lap.
The German, having already been slapped with a grid penalty for speeding under red flags on Saturday, needed a flawless display from fifth on the grid. But, yet again, his race unravelled early as he was pitched into a spin in attempting to overtake Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull into Turn 12.
A virtual Safety Car situation, caused by Ricciardo pulling off the circuit in an unsafe area, seemed to panic Mercedes into an early change for fresh soft tyres in the hope of lasting the race. But when Hamilton’s rear tyres started to grain badly toward the end of the race, he had to stop again and could not find a way past Raikkonen and the superb Verstappen. It also appeared that Mercedes waited a little too long as Hamilton ran into traffic, and the option to bolt on softs rather than super-softs could also be queried.
Regardless, Vettel’s recovery to fourth means that Hamilton still holds an extremely healthy 70-point advantage heading to Mexico City next weekend where he will surely wrap up the title. But for now, the plaudits belong to Raikkonen, who ended his long wait for a victory that could well be his last in F1.
“Thank you. Finally! Thank you, guys,” said a triumphant Raikkonen over the radio after holding out for a popular win. In victory, he becomes the winningest Finnish driver in F1, surpassing Mika Hakkinen.
“Obviously it’s been a great weekend,” added Raikkonen in parc ferme. “I needed a good start and I had to push hard and in the end the tyres were not in the best shape, but it was similar for Max and Lewis had more tyres left but we had enough and kept it consistent and kept the tyres alive until the end. A long time, but here we are again.”
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) October 21, 2018
A great start laid the foundations for victory, Raikkonen out-dragging Hamilton up the hill and into the first corner on the grippier, ultra-soft tyres. Further back, there was no shortage of action. Contact between Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso meant a drive-through penalty for the Williams driver, a tough break after a good qualifying performance.
More drama was shortly to follow. A miserable season for the popular Ricciardo was compounded as his Red Bull ground to a halt on lap 12 (his seventh retirement of the season), bringing about a virtual safety car appearance. It was then that Mercedes decided to roll the dice, pitting Hamilton for a fresh set of soft tyres and presumably enough to take him to the end of the race.
Despite his early misfortune, Vettel was not giving up without a fight, making serious inroads and battling up to fifth from the back of the field. And when Raikkonen used all his defensive nous to back Hamilton into the chasing pack before his crucial stop on lap 22, a fifth title in Austin for Hamilton was far from guaranteed.
Vettel made his one and only stop on lap 27, re-joining back in fifth but with tyres to take him to the end. And with Hamilton’s rear tyres blistering, it became apparent that he was going to have to make one more stop and so it transpired, the Englishman bolting on a new set of softs and re-joining in fourth with 18 laps to go.
It was now all about ‘Hammer Time’ for the champion in waiting, Hamilton dialing in fastest lap after fastest lap as teammate Bottas obligingly moved over.
That led to a frantic finish with less than two seconds separating the top three. With two laps to go, it all happened. Hamilton almost got past Verstappen but ran wide into Turn 17 as behind, Vettel made his move stick in taking the sister Mercedes.
“Firstly, a big congratulations to Kimi, he did a great job today,” said a magnanimous Hamilton after the race. “He made no mistakes, had a great start and managed it all the way. Also, Verstappen did a great job as well. He was on a slightly better tyre than us at the end so naturally a bit of a struggle. I thought we would be able to do a bit better, but this is the best that we were able to do at the end. It was great that we got to do some racing at least but we just have to keep working, keep pushing to the next race.”
Congrats to Kimi, he did a great job today out there. A huge thanks to the fans for always making this such a special place to race. We keep working and will push forward to the next one in Mexico #USGP #F1 @MercedesAMGF1 pic.twitter.com/otpMJS0DhS
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) October 21, 2018
Although the plaudits went to Raikkonen, it was Max Verstappen who was unquestionably the driver of the day. Starting from 18th on the grid after a gearbox change, the flying Dutchman carved his way through the field in typical fashion.
“A bit unexpected starting 18th,” said Verstappen afterward. “A good start, a good first lap and very quickly we were back into P5, P4 and we could just follow the leaders and we had really good pace and then we made the right call to undercut Valtteri and then we could do our own race and at the end we could put a bit of pressure on but unfortunately in the last three to four laps we ran out of tyres on the super-soft compared to the soft around me but still very happy.”
Outside the main protagonists, it was another hugely encouraging outing for the Racing Point Force India team. Esteban Ocon was initially classified eighth after another fine drive but was unfortunately later disqualified from the race for exceeding the fuel flow mass of 100kg/hr during the opening lap of the race.
It meant, however, that with Kevin Magnussen also disqualified for a fuel infringement Sergio Perez was promoted to eighth, bagging important points.
Pushing the whole race, getting good points, and getting disqualified in the end for a stupid reason is probably the worst feeling ever. Our mistake…
Anyway not giving up for sure!! #USGP #EO31 pic.twitter.com/u8vVd2D9sb
— Esteban Ocon (@OconEsteban) October 21, 2018
Despite the disappointment of not winning a seventh US Grand Prix in eight years, Hamilton certainly still has plenty to smile about. He leads by 70 points with only 75 left available. Even if Vettel wins in Mexico, the Englishman only needs to finish seventh to secure the title.
And win Vettel must. For if he doesn’t, Hamilton will be the champion even if he fails to score a single point.
“I’m happy for Kimi,” said a philosophical Vettel. “For me, he deserved to win more than anyone on the grid. So happy for him, not happy for myself but I think the good news is that we had a good car this weekend in dry conditions so let’s see where we end up next week.”
Top image: 2018 United States Grand Prix, Sunday. ©Wolfgang Wilhelm.