It was a lot closer than expected, but Max Verstappen eventually prevailed in what was a thrilling United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.
Halfway through the second race of the 2022 Formula 1 season in America, most would have been forgiven for looking elsewhere for their Sunday night entertainment, but they would have missed a nail-biter as two safety cars and one mammoth pit stop threatened to rewrite the script in Texas.
In the end, Verstappen wouldn’t be denied as Red Bull fittingly clinched the Constructors’ Championship on the weekend the F1 world bid a fond farewell to Dietrich Mateschitz.
Here’s how the US GP was won and lost.
Mad Max keeps his cool
It’s getting quite difficult to find new ways to describe Verstappen‘s performances. On Saturday, he was beaten by the Ferraris but nothing was going to stand in his way come race day, not even his own team’s pit stop gaffe.
Less than halfway up the hill to Turn 1, the Dutchman had already assumed first from Carlos Sainz, before the Spaniard’s race was cut woefully short following contact with George Russell.
As a result, Lewis Hamilton inherited this week’s supporting role as lead challenger, but not even his most dedicated fans would have given him much hope. That was, until the typically faultless Red Bull crew gave their star driver a reason to remind us why he was once dubbed ‘Mad Max’.
“Beautiful, f****** beautiful,” Verstappen fumed over the radio following his 11.1 second stop at the end of Lap 35 that dropped him behind Hamilton and Charles Leclerc with 20 laps to go.
However, such is the pace of the RB18, especially when the world champion is at the wheel, he blasted past his two rivals and took the chequered flag by nearly five seconds.
Could Hamilton have won?
If Mercedes had a crystal ball and knew Red Bull would make such a mess in the pits, is there a way Hamilton could have won? Honestly, I don’t think so.
The only thing Mercedes could have done differently is left him out a little longer before his final stop and perhaps put on the mediums instead of the hards, assuming he had a new set of the yellow-marked compound available.
Even then, it would have been a stretch such is Verstappen‘s form. The botched pit stop needed to be five seconds longer, which shows the gulf that currently exists between last year’s title protagonists.
However, that’s not to say the former world champions should be disheartened. There were legitimate spells in the race where Hamilton was keeping pace, albeit the straight-line speed deficit was stark.
And the passion still clearly burns brightly in the 37-year-old, who was all over team radio alerting the Race Director of potential track limit infringements as he saw his slim hopes of keeping his win-in-every-season-in-F1 streak alive fade.
Alas, it wasn’t to be as he trailed home some five seconds in arrears, admitting his chances of a victory this season are all but extinguished.
“We really need to be realistic. The Red Bull car has been the fastest car by far all year and it is still the fastest car,” he said.
“It was great to have started third and been in position to fight but on true pace they’ve been ahead of us all weekend. They were on Sunday and they will be the next three races.
“So, unless something drastic happens to any more of them, then it’s highly unlikely that we will have the true pace to be able to compete with them.”
Russell’s poor run continues
Russell was in a bullish mood ahead of Sunday’s race, declaring he wanted more than to simply beat his teammate. In the end, he beat himself, as a moment of impatience on Lap 1 put him on the back foot and forced pole-sitter Sainz to retire.
It’s the latest in a series of amateurish moves that have plagued his performances since the summer break. He has looked well off the pace of the teammate he insists he isn’t racing of late.
In the end, the 24-year-old crossed the line fifth, a place down from where he started after losing out to Leclerc and Sergio Perez courtesy of the five-second time penalty he picked up for spearing Sainz at Turn 1.
He apologised, despite protesting his innocence in the immediate aftermath, but Sainz was fairly scathing in his assessment.
World champions show their class
The world champions on the grid this year absolutely rose to the top in Texas. As much as the top two deserve praise, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso deserve equal acclaim.
But for a 16.8 second pit stop, Vettel could have been battling Lando Norris for sixth, but after emerging in 13th, the four-time world champion tore through those in front, culminating in one of the greatest overtakes in recent memory.
Down the straight and through the twisty final sector, the German positioned his green machine in places it had no right being as he hunted for a way past Kevin Magnussen, eventually making it stick into the penultimate corner of the final lap.
“He’s driving like a man possessed,” was Martin Brundle’s assessment in commentary. For his efforts, he rightly earned the award for Driver of the Day. It’s a shame he’s set to retire as Aston Martin look to have made some positive strides.
In the Alpine, Alonso had an equally eventful day. He lined up 14th but made typically smooth progress through the field before he was involved in the kind of crash that ends careers at the first Safety Car restart.
Attempting to pass Lance Stroll, the Canadian made a risky late move, giving the Spaniard no time to abort. It was a similar incident to the one that vaulted Mark Webber into the air in Valencia in 2010.
Were the cars as light now as they were then, the outcome would likely have been similar.
Remarkably, Alonso was able to continue and crossed the line seventh, before being cruelly assessed a 30-second time penalty for driving with a broken wing mirror. Honestly, this sport does not help itself sometimes…
That leads nicely into the in-race decisions that were take by stewards who appear hellbent on contradicting themselves on a race-by-race basis. What is a precedent one day is ripped up the next.
Pierre Gasly was given a five-second penalty during the first Safety Car period for falling more than 10 car lengths behind the driver ahead, That was his one and only such infringement.
In Singapore, for three separate such incidents, Perez earned a warning, then a reprimand, then a five-second penalty. It’s laughable. Although it appeared to fly fairly well under the radar, it highlighted the current state of affairs.
Had Gasly won the race by 4.9 seconds, would he have been given the same penalty retrospectively? It’s anyone’s guess.
It’s race week again as Formula 1 heads to Central America for the 2022 Mexico Grand Prix.