U.S. Grand Prix: Texas Flood Edition.
The weekend began with a flooded track, and after it was all over on Sunday, it ended with a flood of champagne for now 3-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was in control of the weekend, as essentially all he had to do was cross the line with a pulse to win the championship…maybe it wasn’t that simple, but it's seemed like that for most of the 2015 season.
Free practice on Saturday took place at an empty track as conditions were considered so treacherous that the track was closed to fans. Weather was the major story from the beginning of the weekend, and it was unclear that the race would even happen as Saturday’s qualifying session was canceled and moved to Sunday morning due to rain and wind. Then, on Sunday, they didn’t even finish qualifying, and the session ended after Q1. Mercifully, the weather finally cleared enough for a race as the cars gridded up on an incredibly wet circuit. The saturated but drying track and a few well used safety periods created one of the best races of the season. It was one of the few times this season (maybe the only) where every lap seemed to have a battle for position.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a constant reminder to Mercedes of an impending red storm approaching for 2016, started on the grid in 13th place, after taking a 10 spot grid penalty for a power unit change. In what is becoming almost his signature move (just like his predecessor Fernando Alonso) he would finish 10 places ahead of his starting position claiming third place. This wasn’t a third place as consolation prize. Vettel, at one point in the latter laps, was a threat to take the victory. Even after his last pit stop where he returned in 4th place, his pace pushed Rosberg and Hamilton to defend their positions (and coincidentally their positions on the podium). Had he qualified further up the grid, it's possible/probable that Hamilton would have had to wait until next weekend to official claim his title (yes, we are ever the optimistic Tifosi).
Nico, Nico, Nico… Started on pole only to be brushed aside in turn 1. Fought back to take the lead later in the race, and when the pressure was at its highest, lost control at the exit of turn 16, handing the race and the title to Hamilton. Rosberg would say in the post race press conference concerning the turn 16 incident,
“Yeah, I just got wheels spin. It’s never happened to me, ever. Not even in testing or racing, never, ever something like that. I can’t explain it; it’s unbelievable.”
He would also call out the turn 1 squeeze play:
“Turn One for sure was very aggressive… What am I going to say? I haven’t seen it again, so how the hell… I can’t comment yet. I need to see it, as always. For sure it was extremely aggressive, we hit each other, or I would say Lewis came into me, so obviously that’s not good. I can’t say more than that.”
Yes, Hamilton gave his teammate very little room. Whether this was deliberate, or a result of the damp track, it's hard to know. Mercedes team officials have said they will talk to the drivers about respecting each other on track, but frankly it seems a little like a late strategy to sate Rosberg at a point in the season where it doesn’t matter anymore.
When Hamilton crossed the line he joined the ranks of Senna, Stewart, Piquet, Brabham and Lauda by achieving three world championships. The drivers that have multiple championships (Don’t forget those with more than three Vettel-4, Prost-4, Fangio-5, Schumacher-7) share a common trait. They didn’t make room or open invitations for overtaking to their competitors or teammates. Many of these world champions had amazing teammates. Rosberg is great driver, but winning a championship is about more than being a malcontent when things don’t go your way. The mind of a champion offers no apologies and relentlessly attacks all foes all the time. They don’t dwell on an incident and wait for the team to issue policies and procedures. Only after the dust settles are apologies offered.
In defense of Rosberg, he has suffered under the same type of mixed messaging that plagued Mark Webber at Red Bull during the Vettel championship run. That is, the team says you’re equal but the reality couldn’t be any more different. In the media spotlight the common refrain is, “we let our drivers race,” but on the track a "racing incident" is explained with a shrug of the shoulders and reflexive, “that’s racing.”
The Texas flood was good news for F1 fans. We saw that F1 is still capable of high drama and maximum attack on track. Five world champions started the race, and after it was over they shared a combined 11 world championships with Vettel and Hamilton claiming the last 6 in a row. Yes, let that sink in, two drivers on the podium in Texas have claimed the last 6 championships. Ferrari showed their muscle and even Infinity Red Bull was a factor for a time. McLaren even scored a top 10 finish with Button’s incredible 6th place! For a few hours after the rain the Circuit of the America’s showed us that F1 is still the pinnacle of motorsports.