United States Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Austin Race

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2016

United States Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Austin Race

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    Lewis Hamilton claimed his seventh victory of the 2016 Formula One season in Sunday's United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.

    After setting pole position on Saturday, the British driver produced a measured performance to secure a fourth win in Austin, Texas, and get his season back on track.

    Joining Hamilton on the podium were Nico Rosberg—who, with a 26-point lead over his Mercedes team-mate with three races remaining, can secure his first world championship at the upcoming Mexican GP—and Daniel Ricciardo, whose third-place finish made up for a messy day for Red Bull.

    With a look at outstanding drives by Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr., another day to forget for Ferrari and a welcome return to the top 10 for Haas and Romain Grosjean, here are the main winners and losers from Austin.

Winner: Lewis Hamilton

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    Maybe it's true, you know: Maybe Hamilton really does win and lose grands prix several days before the race itself.

    His antics at the recent Japanese GP—where the world champion behaved like a naughty boy at the back of a classroom in a formal press conference before declaring war against the media two days later—set Hamilton up for a gigantic fall that came when the five red lights went out.

    At Austin, however, Lewis was more like the Lewis we have come to know and love.

    Called to return to the same arena in which he embarrassed himself at Suzuka, Hamilton was articulate, eloquent and charming in front of the press on Thursday, seemingly more relaxed than at any stage this season.

    And, clearly inspired by the energy provided to him by the local crowd and his famous friends in the Mercedes garage, Hamilton carried that vibe across the United States GP weekend.

    As noted by F1 journalist Peter Windsor, Hamilton's feel for weight transfer in the fast, change-of-direction sequence of Sector 1 was at the heart of his pole-position time of one minute, 34.999 seconds—by far the fastest lap in the history of the Circuit of the Americas.

    His nicely paced formation lap guarded against a repeat of the start-line issues Hamilton has suffered throughout 2016, and when he emerged from the first corner in the lead with Rosberg in third, the result was almost never in doubt.

    "Almost" because—given the amount of reliability problems Hamilton has suffered this year, as he explained per Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde—there is always a lingering sense that something will go wrong with the No. 44 car these days.

    But on a two-stop tyre strategy, Hamilton was controlled at the front, securing his 50th grand prix victory in a race that was effectively won on Thursday.

Loser: Nico Rosberg

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    There is little doubt that we have seen a new-and-improved Rosberg in 2016, but the old one made a guest appearance on Saturday at the United States GP.

    The two Mercedes drivers had been close in the early stages of qualifying, separated by just 0.101 seconds in both of the first two segments as Rosberg pursued a sixth pole position in eight races.

    But at the beginning of Q3, a time for clear heads and pressure management, the world championship leader suddenly started trying to force it.

    Presumably in an attempt to match his team-mate's benchmark times in the first sector, Rosberg twice attacked hard into Turn 1—a place where Hamilton later admitted he has always struggled to master, per Sky Sports television—and twice got it wrong, missing the apex and running slightly off track on exit.

    The result? 

    Rosberg ended the session 0.216 seconds slower than Hamilton when, had he been a little more neat and tidy through the first corner, pole was his for the taking.

    The defeat altered the entire complexion of his weekend, instantly switching Mr. Take Each Race As It Comes to damage-limitation mode.

    After losing second place to the supersoft-shod Ricciardo at the start, Rosberg sounded rather flustered over the team radio—more evidence, perhaps, that it won't take much for him to panic as this season edges towards a crescendo—before the virtual safety car allowed him to regain the position with a "free" pit stop.

    Even then, though, Rosberg came dangerously close to throwing it all away at the exit of the pit lane, where he just managed to stop himself overtaking Manor's Pascal Wehrlein under VSC conditions—a cardinal sin that would have resulted in a penalty.

    At the end of an unconvincing weekend, Rosberg should be delighted to lose only seven points to his rival and will play for his first championship point at next weekend's Mexican GP, where he will secure the title if he wins and Hamilton fails to score.

Winner: Fernando Alonso

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    Ahead of the final series of flyaway races, Alonso listed four venues where he felt McLaren-Honda would be competitive—seriously competitive—at the end of 2016.

    The team failed to meet his target in Singapore, where—even though Alonso finished as the best of the rest—McLaren were unable to join the free-for-all between Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

    They came nowhere near it in Japan, where—at Honda's home race at Honda's circuit with a number of Honda executives in attendance—they produced one of their worst performances of the season, as Alonso and team-mate Jenson Button finished 16th and 18th, respectively.

    And it seemed they would fail to come close in the United States, where both cars again failed to reach the third segment of qualifying

    But on this occasion, Alonso did the rest, dragging the MP4-31 to a position McLaren could have only dreamed of on Saturday evening.

    A typically strong start elevated the Spaniard to ninth in the early laps, but it was only when he pitted under the virtual safety car on Lap 30 that his race really came alive.

    In the closing laps, the No. 14 car joined the battle between Sainz and Felipe Massa, with F1's wily old fox soon making a nuisance of himself.

    Unable to fight the Williams on the long straights, Alonso resorted to forcing his way through on the inside of the slow left-hander of Turn 15, only for Massa to risk both their races by turning into the corner regardless and banging wheels—the move of a driver ready for retirement.

    Having made his way past his former team-mate, Alonso quickly caught Sainz and again made a mockery of Massa by stealing the position in a single, DRS-assisted pass beyond the capabilities of the Brazilian, who spent several laps stuck behind the underpowered Toro Rosso.

    Despite being handicapped by a Honda-powered McLaren in 2016, Alonso is now three points ahead of Massa and just two behind Nico Hulkenberg—both with Mercedes-powered cars at their disposal—with three races remaining.

Loser: Red Bull

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    Great. Exciting. Inventive. Petulant. Thrilling. Breathtaking. Mature. Immature. Calm. Arrogant. Fearless. Dangerous. Brave. Naive. Wild. Adventurous.

    Many words have been used to describe Max Verstappen since he arrived in F1 less than two years ago, all of which illustrate just how big an impact he has made in his short time in the pinnacle of motorsport.

    Until now, though, you would never have associated the word "clumsy" with the boy wonder, who is already among the smartest, most alert drivers on the grid.

    The 19-year-old's problems started in the early stages of the race, when—after being instructed to preserve his tyres by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase over pit-to-car radio—he reminded the pit wall he was "not here to finish fourth."

    In truth, fourth would have felt like a credible result to him on Lap 26, when he entered the pits to nobody waiting for him after Verstappen misinterpreted a radio message to increase his pace as a cue for an imminent tyre change.

    That misunderstanding, however, hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things as the No. 33 car soon developed a terminal gearbox issue, with the teenager coasting along the back straight before coming to a halt.

    As he later explained per Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley, Verstappen was merely following the instructions of his team as he searched for an ideal parking spot, with Red Bull's stage-management of his demise ultimately costing their other driver.

    Having run a comfortable second in the early stages, Ricciardo was forced to settle for third when the virtual safety car appeared to remove Verstappen's car from the scene.

    That gifted Rosberg a "free" pit stop and prevented Red Bull and Ricciardo from giving Mercedes a more serious fright.

Winner: Carlos Sainz Jr.

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    With a Ferrari power unit nearing its second birthday, Toro Rosso shouldn't be capable of results like these at this late stage of the season.

    After scoring points in nine of the first 11 races of 2016, the Red Bull B team had been restricted to just one top-10 finish in the six races since July's German GP as they finally began to feel the pain of running 2015-specification engines.

    Yet in the same way his mentor made up for McLaren-Honda's flaws, Sainz disguised Toro Rosso's shortcomings at the Circuit of the Americas.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Elizalde and Jonathan Noble, Sainz felt the lap that allowed him to reach the third segment of qualifying—which was good enough for sixth place in Q2, 0.305 seconds faster than team-mate Daniil Kvyat—was probably the finest of his racing career. 

    Like Alonso, Sainz benefited from the virtual safety car by switching to soft-compound tyres on Lap 30, which left him under pressure from Massa and then Alonso—both of whom were on the more durable mediums—towards the finish.

    Despite the advantage of a current-date Mercedes engine, a low-downforce Williams and DRS, Massa was unable to make a serious impression on Sainz, who remained utterly composed—no lockups, no ragged sideways moments—while being pursued by two of the most experienced drivers on the grid.

    When the move was finally made by the McLaren on the penultimate lap, Sainz seemed to be a little overawed by—or a little too respectful towards—the driver he worships and would probably have defended the position more robustly had he been racing against anyone but Alonso the Great.

    Yet although he did lose a place at that late stage, his sixth-place finish—several positions higher than Toro Rosso's pre-race simulations targeted, as he told the team's official website—equalled his best F1 result at the end of his most complete weekend to date.

Loser: Ferrari

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    Congratulations, Ferrari, for turning Sebastian Vettel into Fernando Alonso.

    It took years upon years of underachievement for Alonso to resort to making sarcastic comments about the Prancing Horse over the pit-to-car radio, the kind of outbursts he has often made at McLaren-Honda since early 2015.

    It's taken less than two seasons for Vettel's frustration to hit the same heights.

    After almost losing control of his SF16-H car in the Esses section, Vettel was informed he was suffering "some rear-wing dropouts"—disturbances in downforce caused by debris and discarded rubber being stuck on the rear wing—by race engineer Riccardo Adami over the radio.

    "Some? Some is good," Vettel laughed, convinced the dropouts were rather more substantial. "Keep joking."

    At a time Vettel's relationship with the team is under much scrutiny, this interaction summed up yet another difficult weekend for Ferrari, who were simply left behind by Mercedes and Red Bull.

    Vettel's lap for sixth on the grid, for instance, was a huge 0.849 seconds slower than the third-placed time set by Ricciardo, with the ill-timed virtual safety car—which appeared shortly after his second pit stop on Lap 29—ending his slim hopes of a podium finish.

    The four-time world champion ultimately finished fourth, 43 seconds adrift of race winner Hamilton, while Kimi Raikkonen suffered his first retirement since May after a pit-stop error saw him pull away with his rear-right wheel not fitted correctly.

    As they move ever closer to a second winless season in three, if Ferrari didn't laugh along with Vettel, they'd cry buckets.

Winner: Romain Grosjean

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    "It all comes down to how well we do," Gene Haas told ESPN F1's Bob Pockrass of his expectations for his eponymous team's first appearance on home soil. "The worst thing would be to embarrass ourselves as an American team."

    Having suffered plenty of embarrassments—from repeat brake issues and unhappy drivers to wheels falling off—in recent months, Haas would have entered their first United States GP with a greater feeling of trepidation than excitement.

    And for much of the weekend, it felt like their home race would prove to be an unmitigated disaster.

    After all, Friday practice was marred by several bits and pieces falling off the VF-16 cars, with their lead driver failing to even progress from the first segment of qualifying on Saturday.

    When Esteban Gutierrez retired with a front-left brake problem after 16 of the scheduled 56 laps—sitting motionless in the pit lane, directly in front of the main grandstand—Haas would have been tempted to pack away and simply move on to Mexico, leaving behind the pressures of their home event.

    Yet Grosjean, a podium finisher at the Circuit of the Americas for Lotus in 2013, managed to save the day.

    After starting 17th, the Frenchman had hauled his way up to 12th by the time of his second and final pit stop for medium tyres on Lap 27.

    The retirements of Verstappen and Raikkonen allowed Grosjean to climb to 10th, score his first point since July's Austrian GP and rescue his team owner from humiliation at home.

                

    Timing and tyre data, as well as team-radio quotes, sourced from the official F1 website, the FOM television feed and Pirelli's official race report.

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